A Scotland without Nationalism

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 19th 2017

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a Scotland without nationalism? That is the clarion call put forward regularly by opponents of the SNP and independence.

Nationalism is a worldwide phenomenon – although many popular discussions, including those in Scotland, take place without offering any definition. Yet, the late James Kellas spent his academic life studying nationalism, described it as:

Nationalism is both an ideology and a form of behaviour … In all cases, nationalism seeks to defend and promote the interests of the nation … Nationalist behaviour is based on the feeling of belonging to a community which is the nation. Those who do not belong to the nation are seen as different, foreigners or aliens, with loyalties to their own nations.

Tony Blair claimed he didn’t like nationalism, whether Scottish or anyone else’s. In 2015, after Scottish Labour was wiped out, Blair surveyed the wreckage and said that nationalism was the ‘oldest politics in the world’ and the SNP a ‘reactionary political force’. Scottish nationalism was nothing to be proud of:

It’s the politics of the first caveman council, when the caveman came out from a council where there were difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said, ‘They’re the problem, over there, that’s the problem.’

This period produced a lot of copy about Scotland in the Westminster village as the SNP upsurge created waves and anxiety. In a piece in the right-wing magazine Standpoint entitled ‘Has Scotland lost its Mind?’ Iain Martin said of nationalism north of the border that ‘nationalists … are zealots gripped by a dangerous conviction that right is exclusively on their side and that the tide of history is carrying them remorselessly to independence.’

Chris Deerin has written numerous pieces criticising nationalism in the most apocryphal terms Scottish. In one such piece in May 2015 he stated that: ‘Scottish nationalism continues to be what it always has been: ugly, divisive and insular’ and went on:

As with all nationalisms based on a perceived grievance and the desire for something that doesn’t currently exist, darkness is always and everywhere close by: violence, abuse, hatred, intimidation, tribalism, racism.

Last week, in Prospect online, Stephen Daisley laid out his clarion call: ‘Scotland’s non-nationalists are a majority without a movement, an ideal without a name.’ He concluded his piece with the following call to arms:

There is power in a union. But there is also love and laughter, duty and belonging, shared history and common hopes. Unionists have to tap into this sense of Britishness if they are to defeat nationalism for a full, proper generation.

No doubt many readers will look at the above sentiments and identify with them. It is important to treat such words and thinking with respect, and try and understand them. There is clearly much anger, bewilderment and uncontrolled rage behind much of the above. But that doesn’t mean they should be misunderstood in a similar manner to how they brazenly misrepresent Scotland.

There is a common thread of equating nationalism in Scotland exclusively with Scottish nationalism. British nationalism is just not seen in these terms, is given a free pass, and allowed to act as it sees fit. That is changing in some places due to Brexit, the rise and fall of UKIP, and the emerging English dimension coupled with the narrow and non-British wide base of this Tory Government: one Scottish MP and 14.9% of the vote at the last UK election.

British nationalism escapes being called a nationalism for a number of reasons. For some, it is the minority nations and nationalisms which produce nationalism: not the official state – what Sky News Adam Boulton tactlessly called ‘England’s fringe nations’ last week. It escapes such writers that there is such a thing the world over as ‘official nationalism’ and that is the ideology of the state.

Daisley concludes his piece quoted above with the call for ‘Unionists … to defeat nationalism’. He seems blissfully unaware that unionism is itself fundamentally and irrevocably a form of nationalism – British state nationalism. And so to defeat nationalism it would have to declare war on itself.

There is an endless cul-de-sac of a non-debate in the above. No doubt it keeps many of the above writing the same piece time and again, particularly for London right-wing papers which eat this sort of thing up. But it doesn’t really add one iota to the sum of human happiness and wisdom. Surely we as a nation can try and aim a bit higher and do better?

There is a strong conceit running through part of Scottish nationalism. And there is a similar smugness and delusion in elements of Scottish unionism. Rather than conduct a war of attrition about whose nationalism is superior and inferior, wouldn’t it be better to recast the debate? Otherwise the above interventions reduce us to a politics of the schoolyard, and nothing more than one side claiming ‘our nationalism is fine, lovely and civic’ and the other saying in effect ‘our nationalism isn’t a nationalism’.

There are so many problems we need to get past to have that debate. First, it isn’t an accident that a high number of the ‘Scotland is mad’ pieces come from the Daily Mail. The paper has an agenda which is anti-Scottish nationalist, but not completely anti-nationalist. The Daily Mail isn’t preaching peace, love and brotherhood, but an intolerant, nasty, punitive British (and often English) nationalism. Therefore, if we are being honest, nationalism isn’t the problem for the Daily Mail, merely nationalisms it doesn’t like.

Second, there is a deep well of bitterness bubbling up in some pro-union commentators and opinion. It springs from the resurrection of the independence question post-Brexit and it needs to be faced down by unionist opinion, as ultimately it is leading it to disaster. Kenny Farquharson hit the nail on the head last week in The Times, warning that Theresa May refusing a second referendum wouldn’t end well:

You do not have to support independence to believe in Scotland’s right to independence. This is a distinction some unionists are apparently unable or unwilling to make. The irony is that this unionism contains the seeds of the union’s demise.

A Scotland without nationalism isn’t an ignoble aim. But it is probably a utopian one, and unrealistic without independence: in that with independence it would become the ‘official nationalism’ of the state and transcended by other ideologies. Yet, what we as a nation could aspire to now is a country and public debate which isn’t defined nearly entirely by competing claims of two nationalisms: one Scottish and ‘out’ and one British and not ‘out’.

Transcending a nationalism of two camps will not happen by one side (British nationalism) asking the other (Scottish nationalism) to disarm, in what effectively would be an act of unilateral political disarmament. Instead, we have to recognise the pitfalls and shortcomings in a debate defined by two senses of certainty, fundamentals and nationalism.

A little bit of wider context would be helpful in why we got here. We live in an age where the Gods have failed. Post-war Scotland was shaped by the dreams of socialism and social democracy, but they let us down spectacularly. Then along came Thatcherism, Blairism and neoliberalism, and while the latter still gets political and business elites swooning at its feet, it is a morally bankrupt empty vessel only driven as a self-interest justification for those groups.

The point being that as these ideologies have crashed and burned a reasonable, moderate, decent Scottish nationalism has proven more and more attractive and the answer. It poses ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ (that was a Jack McConnell phrase) and has a civic nature which allows the people who live and make their lives here to define themselves as Scottish.

But it is still a nationalism and a debate of two nationalisms bashing each other on the head until one is left standing victorious isn’t going to be very helpful. That is the tragedy some Scot and Brit nats invite us to participate in.

If we want a different future we have to wrestle some middle ground which says it is the values of a future Scotland we want to talk about, reflect on and champion. That would require having a debate which was much more open, risky and contingent, which posed that either being independent or in the union was about real things, not absolutes. It would expose the existential nature of the nationalism of a large part of the SNP, but also Ruth Davidson’s Tories and Kezia Dugdale’s Labour.

Some of us, myself included, are up for challenging Scottish nationalism (as well as unionism) on this. Maybe Iain Martin, Chris Deerin and Stephen Daisley, in their numerous column inches about Scotland and the evils of nationalism, could take a moment to challenge the inequities of British nationalism over the course of the forthcoming election campaign and beyond? A Scotland without nationalism as its defining politics? Yes please. But it will require understanding the two nationalisms in play and the nature of Britain to get there.

Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..