Unionism’s experience in NI should give Alex Salmond pause for thought on Derry’s Walls tomorrow…

When travelling outside Scotland,  Alex Salmond usually doesn’t miss an opportunity  to  characterise his Scottish National Party as ‘peaceful, civic, and inclusive’.  He did it in Bilbao in January when he was receiving the Sabino Arana award from  the authorities in the Basque Country.

He is likely to bathe it in the same virtuous light this Friday when he comes to  Derry  to address the city’s Chamber of Commerce 

He will be in a place where anti-British nationalism is based on  a tangible sense of injustice due to the discrimination which many in the city had first-hand experience of during the 50 years of single-party Unionist rule from 1921 to 1972.  

In the 1990s, after a quarter-of-a-century of violence, candid Unionists like David Ervine and  David Trimble were prepared to concede that  Unionist leaders had been foolish and arrogant in the way that they treated the  Nationalist minority  particularly in such a sensitive area.

Britain’s first experiment in regional devolution was a seedy, inefficient and patronage-ridden affair.  It would be refreshing if Salmond used his Derry visit to reflect on the dangers of becoming so fixated with territorial concerns  that the welfare of  the people was lost sight of.

Mr Salmond’s hosts are likely to be too gracious to remind him that there are warnings  in the 20th century Ulster  story which self-absorbed Scotland Nationalists may already have ignored to their own cost.

Scotland’s flag has been expropriated by the nationalists in recent years. It is now ubiquitous  on public buildings and in private homes. than in Scotland.  It revives memories  of 40 years ago for me, of passing through a flag-obsessed Northern Ireland on the way to my grandmother’s farm in the Irish Republic.

  The southern Irish state was depicted by the Unionists as a dangerous force plotting Ulster’s ruin.  Scottish Nationalists are not as implacable in their opposition to England. 

But London, Westminster and the Tories are seen as shorthand for English power and arrogance. With much sleight of hand the SNP regularly tries to  ascribe policy failures in areas where it has absolute control of revenue, instead  to English machinations. 

For much of the last nine years, the SNP has been absorbed with non-stop campaigning, PR stunts and establishing mastery of the media rather than with the prosaic task of governing Scotland.  

The SNP has been forced to admit in recent weeks that the health system and particularly education are in a very poor state. The Unionists had, in their turn, been  very poor stewards of their local. 

In 2015 Nicola Sturgeon’s government has responded to the crisis in the energy industry based on North Sea oil with the lethargy  that one might have associated with Lord Brookeborough’s part-time administration. 

But the national question is a lifebelt for a floundering Scottish government just as the  threat to permanence and security of the Border was for blundering Unionists.  Both experiments in devolution run from  Belfast after 1921 and Edinburgh now are marked by a strong emphasis on patronage.

Today, SNP defenders deny just as vehemently as Unionists did  in the past, that jobs, contracts, and grants are awarded on the basis of political loyalty. But the evidence is strong and helps to explain the near-silence of much of the business community during the 2014 Referendum on independence.

The SNP, like the old Unionist Party is a broad, trans-class movement. But the variety of adherents does not result in a rich and varied inner life. There are no  party summer schools, no think-tanks and  closely-fought internal debates are rare.

As proof of its modern civic nature, the SNP could point to the proportion of women, ethnic minority  members and gays and lesbians who have progressed to its highest reaches. But the Labour Party has seen a similar transformation in its composition without it necessarily becoming a more harmonious  political force

Until 2007, there had been nearly 300 years  of common endeavour and mixing at every level between  Scots and other  citizens in the UK.  But a change of mood hastened by de-industrialisation,  cultural changes encouraging risk and experimentation, and the rise of social media  allowed  political nationalism to appear compelling and modern rather than irrational and obsolete.

This thunderous change in outlook was not least due to the charismatic and driven figure of Alex Salmond  who bonded with Ian Paisley during late night sittings in the House of Commons in the 1990s  and would emerge as a firebrand when the Scottish Question exploded into the forefront of British politics in 2014.

  Derry was the last European city to build a defensive wall  and it might be  a salutary experience if  Salmond walked along it and reflected on the lessons of Northern Ireland’s turbulent history for Scotland.

A devolution experiment involving two communities who were encouraged to actively fear the other, proved calamitous not just in economic terms.   In Scotland uncertainty about  the future political direction of the country is delaying  investment decisions and has led to capital flight.

  In 2014 Salmond renounced the moderate social union model for Scotland to embrace an atavistic image placing it apart from the rest of the UK (except  for the currency). Some commentators argue that  the resulting fractures have led to deepening  polarisation.

They claim that a process of Ulsterisation is occurring in which two rival blocs Unionists and Nationalist glare at one another and national energies are  channelled into territorial politics.

In Ulster, a complicated form of power-sharing has  produced fitful cooperation between previously entrenched foes.  Martin McGuinness, the deputy first  minister, is Derry’s most influential citizen and he  has played a central role in making cross-community institutions work up to a point. 

Scotland’s own institutions  of devolution are heavily based on consensus. But SNP majority rule from 2011 to 2016 saw precious little of that.

On his visit to Northern Ireland, seeing tangible images of past conflict like Derry’s Walls, but also signs of present-day  cooperation and trust  ,is it too much to hope  that Alex Salmond might have an Ian Paisley style conversion to reconciliation –  in his case with exponents of the Union in order to build a better Scotland that might indeed then one day be ready for independence?

Tom Gallagher lives in Scotland and is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. His latest book Scotland Now: A Warning to the World (Scotview Publications, ISBN  978-0-9934654-0-60 was published earlier this year.