Up close, Scottish nationalism looks a lot like other nationalisms

Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all based on a concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’.

Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all based on a concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’

Scottish nationalism, we are always told, is civic, tolerant and open, different to other nationalisms. So welcoming in fact that many signed up to independence will argue that it isn’t really nationalism at all.

From Billy Bragg’s distance it all looks very cuddly. Up close though, finding safety in numbers through a process of division, it looks a lot less pleasant.

Taking just a few examples: demonstrators gather outside the BBC and unfurl banners denouncing people as ‘anti–Scottish’, claiming that only the ‘corrupt media’ stops people supporting Independence.

A writer, Alan Bissett, prominent enough to be invited to perform to the conference of the governing nationalist party, describes current constitutional arrangements as ‘Subjugation; cultural, political and economic’. The acme of liberal independence supporting commentators, Gerry Hassan, expresses satisfaction that the Scots ‘are becoming a people’ and ‘developing voice in its deepest sense’.

It’s easy to recognise tropes here familiar from other, less favourably looked on nationalisms. Principally that only by asserting ourselves as a nation can we throw off alien influences and truly be ourselves. Perhaps then, Scotish nationalism isn’t all that exceptional after all.

Responding to JK Rowling’s endorsement of a No vote, a writer from the ‘National Collective’ declares Scotland is ‘a State of Mind’. Independence is all about ‘the story we choose to believe in’.

How very open, how very welcoming; anyone can be Scottish, provided they share our state of mind.

Except this, naturally, involves embracing independence. The status of those of us unwilling to do this isn’t quite spelled out. Neither is the corollary; if anyone can be Scottish by sharing ‘our’ state of mind. Also, what if, like myself, you don’t? If the ‘story you choose to believe in’ is a multi- or even non-national one, are you somehow less Scottish?

This is as much about exclusion as it is inclusion. And it is this process, more than independence that is developing momentum. Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the gurus of the Radical Independence Campaign, used to describe non Indyfan lefties as ‘fellow travellers‘ for whom they should ‘keep a seat at the table’. He now issues dire warnings that ‘We are not afraid of you, we are going to win and history will remember you for how you behaved’.

Of course, all of the above matter much less than the SNP and the Scottish government. Recently, Nicola Sturgeon drew a distinction between ‘essentialist’ and ‘utilitarian’ nationalists. This isn’t anything to do with fundamental outlook, just a tactical difference about the timing of state formation. The deputy first minister went on to explain, in a phrase redolent of Michael Gove on steroids, that she wanted a new Scottish constitution to ’embody the values of the nation’.

What those values might be were (thankfully) left undefined. Add to this the vaguely sinister sounding intentions of education secretary Mike Russell that the views of scientists on research bodies ‘might be aligned’ with those of the Scottish government.

A more serious indicator of what might be in store was given when Ed Balls and George Osborne, invoking the national interest of the rest of the UK, said they didn’t support a currency union with an independent Scotland. They were immediately decried by the First Minister and his supporters as ‘bullies’ ganging up on Scotland.

In the howls of anguish that followed, it was taken as read that assertions by the UK couldn’t be valid in themselves, they were merely attacks on Scotland. The ‘Scottish’ interest wasn’t just deemed to be the most important or priority viewpoint, but the only legitimately held opinion.

The economics or even politics of the situation (eg If Balls or Osborne were interested in having a supranational banking arrangement deciding governmental borrowing limits, they would have joined the Euro) were abandoned in favour of the financially illiterate spasm of ‘It’s our pound too’.

Stripped to its essence, it was a case of the leader of a nationalist party building support for a policy by saying foreigners were attacking the country. If that looks like it has worked then don’t think it will stop on September 19. Nationalist ends won’t be willed in the referendum without embedding nationalist means to sustain them afterwards.

Clearly the SNP aren’t some sort of Jobbik style proto fascists. But suggesting that ‘Technocratic Administrative Boundary Adjustment’ or ‘Blood and Soil’ are the only two possible settings on the nationalist dial isn’t right either.

Nationalism has many potential outcomes, but they are all predicated on defining and separating, with concern for ‘our people’ not ‘the people’. Real progressive politics does the opposite. People at home or in the places that will shortly be abroad if there is a yes vote in September would do well to remember that.

Stephen Low is a Labour Party member and part of the Red Paper Collective

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268 Responses to “Up close, Scottish nationalism looks a lot like other nationalisms”

  1. glynbeddau

    Wasn’t, it Gordon Brownwh wanted British Jobs for zBRitish people? Whats the diference Betwen the British Nationlism of Unionist Parties like Labour?

  2. jtcawley01

    My yes vote is based firmly upon my progressive socialist beliefs, beliefs the party which was my natural home has abandoned. Scotland needs economic transformation. This is not on offer as things stand in the current political context. I look south and I see a coalition which has, without mandate, inflicted immeasurable damage upon the social fabric of the UK. The worst is yet to come in terms of cuts. Scottish Labour MPs trooped through the yes lobby to vote for the benefit cap. A Labour government introduced us to Atos and James Purnell was a devotee of working for benefits long before IDS. Am I a nationalist? No! I simply cannot countenance a future in which Scotland faces managed decline, unemployment, the victimisation of the poor and the continuation of neoliberal economic Darwinism. Will yes win? Probably not. Are Labour finished as the natural choice for working people in Scotland? Yes, deservedly so. I am not some wide eyed romantic, but I utterly reject the notion that a Scotland of foodbanks, the bedroom tax, rapacious bankers , absentee landlords and a Labour Party which favours deregulation for the rich and ruthless regulation of the lives of the workers and the poor is the vision of the future I must subscribe to. My intention to vote yes is a rejection of the union, not naive adherence to the simplicities of nationalism.

  3. Guest

    So you’re determined to have a hostile neighbouring country. Hmm.

  4. melat0nin

    Where does utilitarian pragmatism come into this? Is it better naively to wish for a better future for “the” people within a system that steadfastly ranges its (profound) powers against it, or to take a proactive and potentially significant step towards improving the fortunes of “some of those” people in the short and medium term? I would hazard the latter is the moral position, always provided that we work to make that opportunity everything it can be — and thereby we deal a material blow to the Establishment’s received wisdom and take a step towards improving the lot of all “the” people.

  5. Hettie

    And what pray is the distinction between “our” people and “the” people?? Next you’ll be reminding us of the British Road to Socialism You ma or may not have noticed that British democracy is but a sham. And you may have also noticed that we effectively live in a two party state with New Labour and the Cons but two sides of the same coin.

    Well, I for one no longer want to be tied to Westminster with it’s House of Lords; no written constitution; it’s sovereignty residing with the Queen and mired in corruption. I do not want to live in a “region” ruled by a government I have consistently NOT voted for and will never vote for given the condition of the market led dominant parties at Westminster.

    In fact I want a different kind of politics where the people are sovereign and consulted about their constitution and on how they are governed. True accountability from our elected representatives. NO House of Lords that bastion to privilege. The future I want for my grandchildren and future generations Westminster would nae cannot not deliver.

    FOOD BANKS IN THE 21st century The NHS being privatised in England New Labour are complicit in this as well. The bloated military industrial complex eg Trident and that white elephant of an aircraft carrier with no planes. Don’t know what you want for “the” people where you live however, for “the” people who live and work in Scotland I want a different deal.

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