“What's the difference between the SNP and the BNP? One letter and four hundred miles “ or so they used to say in the far Left. When I was young I used to annoy my late mother – a prominent nationalist in the1970s – by saying that the SNP was “racism with a human face”. I was completely wrong of course – it is nothing of the kind.
The modern SNP is a civic nationalist party, which enthusiastically accepts non-Scots as members and was the first Scottish party to have a Muslim MSP. Anyone who happens to live in Scotland can claim Scottish nationality under the SNP constitution, and it has an open door policy on immigration. Really, you can't get much less racist than that.
Nevertheless some people still try to taint the SNP by association. In the Nineties, the former Labour Scottish Secretary, George Robertson, invoked the “dark side of nationalism” and claimed that the SNP would turn the UK into a Balkanised state riven by ethnic cleansing. And now Tom Gallagher, Professor of Peace and Ethnic Conflict at Bradford University, has accused Alex Salmond of trying to revive the “blood and soil” nationalism of the 1930s.
In an interview for yesterday's Sunday Herald, Professor Gallagher declared that the SNP leader was bent on “junking civic nationalism for an emotion-laden ethnic variety”. He went on: “The SNP sometimes finds it difficult to resist the emotional forms of mass manipulation associated with Europe in uglier times”. In other words: watch out in case Alex Salmond morphs into Radovan Karadzic without the top knot.
What Gallagher finds objectionable is the SNP's celebration of victories against the English, like Bannockburn, and its celebration of Scottishness in the “Homecoming”. Presumably, Scots should erase their history and culture and discourage ethnic Scots from coming here lest they turn it into a tartan ghetto. This is rather like Bonnie Greer, the deputy chair of the British Museum, on Question Time last week, saying that there's no such thing as the British people because they all migrated here from Africa.
One of the unfortunate by-products of the media hysteria about the British National Party is that any discussion of nationhood is regarded now as crypto-fascist. The National Museum of Scotland, with its celebration of the Declaration of Arbroath - “So long as but a hundred of us are left alive...” - would presumably have to be closed if Ms Greer got her hands on it. And it goes without saying that Professor Gallagher would ban films like “Braveheart” and “Rob Roy”, and most of the Waverley Novels.
But nations are a reality and the people who choose to live in them – however mongrel their origins – are entitled to celebrate their national identity and their history. I personally find the Homecoming emphasis on golf and whisky rather depressing, because Scotland is so much more than that. But to condemn national symbols like the kilt and bagpipes, or say people shouldn't commemorate Bannockburn is as ludicrous as saying that the Tartan Army shouldn't support the Scottish football team. You might say they're indulging in collective masochism, but that's a matter of individual choice.
However, one question arises following the BNP scare: just why is the SNP is so different from Griffin's crowd, and from most nationalist parties in Europe? You may notice that the SNP doesn't have a great deal to do with a lot of the nationalist parties in Eastern and Central Europe these days. This is because a lot of them are rather right wing, and some of them, like Michal Kaminski of the Polish Law and Justice Party are extremely right wing. David Cameron may be comfortable sitting with Latvia's For Freedom and Fatherland party in the European Parliament, but you won't find the SNP inviting FFF's Roberts Zile to the next Bannockburn shindig
Now, the usual response to this question is to say that Scottish nationalism isn't concerned with race because there is no race 'problem' in Scotland. The non-white community in Scotland is only around 3% of the population. In England the percentage is more than twice that, and in multicultural London is nearer 25%. But this is a very unsatisfactory. Are we saying that, if there were a flood of Afro-caribbeans entered Scotland, that the SNP would turn into the BNP overnight? Of course it wouldn't More likely the BNP would start organising in Scotland. Actually they already are. The BNP won 2% of the Scottish vote in the European elections in June – 29,000 votes. There is no natural immunity from racialism in Scotland.
But we are fortunate in having nationalist party which is immune to racialism. There were some crypto-racists in the SNP's past – Hugh MacDiarmid, one of Scotland's greatest poets, was virulently anti-English. You used to see “English Go Home” signs daubed on motorway fly-overs next to the SNP symbol. There was even an explicitly “blood and soil” wing of the SNP called “Seed of the Gael” which was stamped out in the 1970s. No speaker could stand today at an SNP conference and deliver an anti-English speech. I have never heard Alex Salmond or any of the SNP leadership express anti-English feeling in public or even in private - which, come to think of it, is pretty amazing for the leaders of a nationalist party.
There used to be talk of the “Englishing” of Scotland. But this never turned into cottage burning or intimidation of English people taking Scots jobs. Indeed, Highlanders may have been rather too willing to accept living in caravans while incomers bought up the housing stock and the local businesses. If Barack Obama had been a community activist in the north of Scotland he'd probably have been organising squats and boycotts of holiday homes.
We must stop allowing the BNP to dictate the terms of the debate on national identity. Racism and ethnic chauvinism in all its forms is repellent and inexcusable, and MacDiarmid's memory is sullied by his flirtation with it. But this is not the same as love of country or celebration of community identity. The SNP is not racist, and never will be, because it does not have, at its root, any concept of national or ethnic superiority. As for Land of Hope and Glory at the last night of the Proms - well, that's a different kettle of fish.