When asked which political figure he most identified with in a recent interview, Alex Salmond chose Nelson Mandela. This apparently un-ironic choice is revealing as to the Mr Salmond's conception of his role in contemporary history. Nelson Mandela led his people out of the darkness and terror of brutal apartheid to a modern, democratic nation state, redeeming a country that seemed unredeemable. Alex Salmond brought his own people to brink of political independence from the United Kingdom.
Perhaps a different figure that would fit in better with Salmond's conception of himself is Moses - leading his people through strife to the Promised Land. A modern covenanter with the Scots as his chosen people.
Any notion of redemption must start, however, with an idea of what you are redeeming to. What is the goal? The aim? The grand plan? Where do we want to end up?
In the modern 'market-place' of ideas and beliefs hundreds of different value systems compete for disciples and attention, each purporting to more completely satisfy the human hunger for meaning and identity than the next. The most prominent, at least in our lives, are the political-theologies that ask for our votes, support and trust. The nation state is, for many people, the ultimate framework of belief and reality. We write myths about our states, tell stories of their creation and their fall, create for them pantheons of heroes and villains, we even fight for them and die for them.
And this is where the SNP come in.
If you want to know why the SNP are so successful, the secret behind their +50% polling and their obliteration of Scottish Labour you need to look no further than their political-theology. What the SNP have managed to do is create a coherent, inclusive and, above all else, 'meaningful' system of thoughts and practices successfully blurring the lines between the party and the nation state. The SNP is elided with the saltire, they espouse the 'true values of Scotland', and claim to stand for and represent the interests of Scotland and all the people in it.
Disagree with it you might but no one can doubt its effectiveness and value for the thousands of people in the party and the hundreds of thousands more who voted for the SNP this May. The SNP is in fact not just a political party, but a popular movement with belief and faith at its core.
Much of this political theology rests, indeed, is it ultimately dependent on Scottish independence, the SNP's own political paradise.
The SNP's paradisal vision for the future is a blank canvas, completely untarnished by history. The SNP know that the memories of Iraq and Thatcher stain the Labour and Conservative parties as the Crusades still tarnish Christianity. Its emptiness is tantalizingly seductive, you can 'cast off' all the negative accretions of hundreds of years of history; wars, slavery, exploitation, empire etc. and create your very own brand new state free from history!
It is the ideal political paradise for our primarily individualistic age and the ultimate in self-confirming narratives. It was this broad and inclusive perspective that allowed simultaneously for some 'yes' activists to dream of Scotland as a Dubai of the north, revelling in oil revenues that could pay for whatever the nation needed and others to conceive of Scotland become a powerhouse of renewable energy.
The party are essentially political gnostics who regard the present political reality as fundamental broken and imperfect. Hence unionist qualms about the new found enthusiasm the SNP have discovered for participating in Westminster politics - how can a party that want to break up the state play a fruitful role in governing it?
Since it is largely imaginary, set in the world to come and rejects all of the status quo, this paradise of independence is an incredibly useful concept. Nasty, violent aspects of political life can be happily attributed to our current, damaged political state. Cuts, wars, instability and scandals belong to our current 'broken' reality from which independence will set us free.
When the SNP talk of their 'belief' that Scotland will one day be independent they are not being complacent. Rather than blithely assuming that the political wind is in their favour and that all they need to do is to let the energy unleashed by the referendum passively carry them forward, the SNP mean something quite different. Indeed, they are talking more as believers than politicians. Like Christians who believe in the coming 'Kingdom of God' who do not sit back and await its arrival but work day and night to bring it about, Scottish Nationalists continue to evangelise, convert and add more and more Scots to their flock. The SNP's belief in the certainty of independence, rather than leading to them relax to let history do its work, sustains and inspires their efforts now.
Scottish independence is not primarily a political policy, prone to change and subject to the whims of public opinion. It is a deeply held and intensely experienced belief and the paradise of independence, the vision of a happy, fair, equal Scotland is one of the most potent and effective visions of human destiny in the UK today. It is inclusive, aspirational and elusively hard to define. It will not go away and will only be defeated by the development of a more powerful counter narrative. It may be too late for Scottish Labour, but it is certainly not too late to save the union.
No one should be surprised by the SNP's continuing and increasing popularity. What did people imagine was going to happen after September 19th? That all the emotion, passion and excitement of a new found political-theology was just going to vanish? Rather, a huge number of 'yes' voters simply transferred their allegiance from the campaign to the party which initiated it.
The SNP is, to a large extent, sustained by their powerful concept of a political-theological paradise. If unionists across the United Kingdom really want to defeat Scottish nationalism a truly inspiring and profound alternative to the paradise of independence is desperately needed.Suggest a correction