Mark Smith: Woke-Nat? Not really. The SNP faces a more age-old problem

The Grumpy Old Men of Scottish nationalism have been talking about what’s going wrong with Scottish nationalism and, surprise surprise, they do not agree.

Kenny MacAskill says the SNP has become too authoritarian and is undermining women’s rights. Jim Sillars says the party is moving too fast and should wait until independence is at 60%. And Mike Russell says the problem is nationalists are too hectoring towards people who do not support them. The independence movement, it’s got to be said, is dis-united.

But who’s right? Mr MacAskill, newly elected Alba’s deputy leader, is obviously giving vent to the frustration felt by many nationalists – particularly those of an older, male, heterosexual persuasion – that the SNP is obsessed with hate crime and trans rights; that it has become “woke”. Mr Sillars, on the other hand, is talking the logical sense of a warhorse who’s been through many battles – the SNP has little chance of winning a referendum any time soon but, to assuage the pushier wing, the leadership must appear to be constantly willing to head out over the bags into No Man’s Land.

As for Mr Russell, I have never knowingly agreed with the man, but the director of the SNP’s Independence Unit appeared to be dishing out a bit of common sense this week. Hectoring rhetoric by nationalists, he said, can be off-putting (uh-huh) but he then said that to convince the doubters, the party needs to “inform not insult.” Note the assumption at work there: Scots who aren’t Yes just need to be “informed”, a premise that has all the casual over-confidence of that irritating meme that was around for a while a few years ago: “You Yes Yet?” Perhaps Mr Russell should remember that being hectoring is a problem, but so is being arrogant.

Anyway, the real issue here may be that none of the Three Grumpy Men have quite put their finger on the actual problem. If the SNP really is “woke”, as Mr MacAskill suggests, why has it still not introduced a reform on trans rights – self-identification – which has been established in other countries for ages? Could it be that, rather than being woke, the SNP’s real issue is it’s not woke enough and is, in fact, pretty conservative? Mr Russell alluded to the cause of this in his speech: the party needs to retain its existing supporters and attract new ones. Hence woke and conservative at the same time. Hence simultaneously in the trenches and over-the-top into No Man’s Land.

Mr Russell also said something else in his speech which points to an even deeper, and more profound dilemma. Until Scotland gains independence, he said, Scotland will not be able to fulfil the potential of the people who live here. “That becomes more important with every passing day,” he went on, “and I become more impatient for it every passing day too. Age does that to people – as those who don’t know will at some stage discover.”

I’m pleased to say we’re back on familiar territory here, with Mr Russell confidently saying things I profoundly disagree with. People often get grumpier and more impatient as they get older (or so my friends and family tell me). But the problem the SNP really faces isn’t wokeism, or hectoring supporters, it’s the demographics of age that are totally unavoidable in Scotland. In the past, there’s been talk among over-excited nationalists of a Corbyn-style youthquake in Scotland and the inevitably of old people dying off and young people being more likely to vote Yes. The theory goes that Yes will triumph because No is going to end up six feet under.

But there are a couple of trends that point in a different direction, the most obvious being the actual make-up of Scotland and its direction of travel. Scotland’s population isn’t just old, it’s getting older and it’s getting older faster than the other countries in the UK. Indeed, the number of over-60s is projected to increase by 50% in the next ten years as the number of under-16s falls. In other words, the oldies ain’t dying off, they’re thriving.

This has a number of consequences. First, there are going to be more old people at the next referendum. Second, old people are more likely than young people to vote. And third, old people generally become more conservative as they age leading to a population that is skewed in favour of the more conservative option, or the status quo. To put it another way: the demographics point to Scotland becoming more No than Yes as our hair turns grey and our skin wrinkles. Of course, there may be a chance that young people wooed by Yes in their youth stay Yes as they age, but that’s not what the evidence suggests: you get old, you get more cautious, you get more likely to say No Thanks.

But there’s yet another trend that’s worth considering which may cast further doubt on any potential youthquake, and it’s the economic realities. Scotland’s ageing population not only means more older people, it means more people depending on the state, in hospitals and care homes and so forth, and – as the Tories’ decision on national insurance proves – that is likely to mean more taxation on the young to pay for it. Combined with the lack of housing, it means a young population that is economically fairly insecure – certainly, they won’t have the wealth that their grandparents had which leaves an important question: will economic insecurity make Yes more or less likely? What do you think?

Obviously, I’m projecting into the future a bit here, which is always tricky, but you can also see the roots of these trends in the result in 2014. Older voters were overwhelmingly in support of the union – in the over-70s, it was as high as 67% – but the curious fact is that the youngest voters, those aged 16 to 24, also voted No. If a youthquake is coming, it isn’t even registering on the Richter scale.

Perhaps it’s because young people have no money. Perhaps it’s because teenagers can be surprisingly conservative. Or perhaps it’s because of another trend that is only likely to get stronger. Young people talk about independence – of course they do – but they are much more likely to talk about the environment and climate change. And if that’s what they care about most, what are they likely to conclude? Are they likely to think that the answer is to break up the union and work more independently? Or are they likely to think that, in an increasingly inter-dependent world, the best answer is to work together?

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992