Nationalism – Scottish or British – is never enough. It always says: ‘We are the Good Guys’

We need to interrogate Scottish nationalism, too.

Gerry Hassan
10 March 2017


Nationalism is one of the defining features of Scotland and modern Scotland. Last week UK prime minister Theresa May came north to the Scottish Tory conference in Glasgow, asking the Scots to think again, lambasting the SNP and their ‘constitutional obsessions’ and ‘tunnel vision nationalism’.

Apart from the ridiculousness of the first point, considering the UK government’s obsession with Brexit, the second was in the tradition known the world over of majority nationalisms (British) lecturing minority nationalisms (Scottish) about the evils of nationalism. British nationalism, being the ideology of the state, doesn’t see itself or define itself as a nationalism – a story true the world over of state nationalisms: think America, Canada, Israel, literally anywhere.

The above should not be contentious. But it is to many. Some unionists blow a gasket at the thought that their ‘ism’ is a nationalism – British state nationalism, but such sentiments go with the territory. The blowback from London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s intervention on the similarities between Scottish nationalism and racism illustrated this.

It brought forth charge and countercharge, and as happens a lot in contemporary Scotland the loudest voices were talking in their bunkers, reinforcing their prejudices, and not engaging with opposing views beyond caricature. In this the British nationalism of the ‘Daily Mail’ and Scottish nationalism of parts of the blogosphere have much in common.

The main defence of Scottish nationalism by its supporters is that it is benign, progressive, moderate, outgoing, and above all, civic, and not ethnic in its character. Now this is broadly true about modern Scottish nationalism and the nationalism of the SNP, the two not being completely synonymous (while it is also true that not all supporters of independence are nationalists). But what the above list chooses to ignore is the obvious: that Scottish nationalism is a nationalism and what flows from that. Namely, that all nationalisms the world over and throughout history have limits, omissions, blindspots and profoundly, a good sense of conceit about themselves.

In the post-Khan debate, ‘Wee Ginger Dug’ (aka Paul Kavanagh) wrote in ‘The National’:

Mainstream Scottish nationalism doesn’t make the claim that the Scottish ethnicity is morally superior or better than anyone else. It doesn’t even concern itself with defining Scottishness in ethnic terms. Scottish nationalism is a civic nationalism which defines Scottishness in terms of the future, not the past. Ethnic nationalism is about the past.

‘The National’ liked this so much it quoted the above in a tweet. Many pro-independence supporters will read and approve of it. They will feel attraction, attachment and a sense of the familiar – that this is who we are as a people, nation and nationalism. And therein lies part of the problem.

The narrative of Scotland’s civic nationalism has become an official story: the preferred explanation of the SNP, independence supporters and progressives which supposedly tells who we are, why we are different, and which invokes a sense of exceptionalism (which again all nationalisms the world over do).

The story of our civic nationalism is one so familiar now it seldom gets investigated. While it captures something historic about Scotland and its nationalism, the actual language of its ‘civic’ characteristics only began to emerge in the early 1990s as the self-government movement found its voice again after the impasse of 1979.

The distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism – in this terminology was given priority and early usage by Michael Ignatieff in his 1993 ‘Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalisms’. He wrote that ‘Civic nationalism, maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity’ and that it was rightly called ‘civic’ because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens …’ Previous to this academics of nationalism such as James Kellas spoke of ‘social nationalism’ and Yeal Tamir of ‘liberal nationalism’.

Nationalisms all over the world choose to create an imagined people, a political and historical community, and to emphasise the ties and bonds between past, present and future. This usually involves telling the story of ‘a good people’ and ‘a good society’ and within that some distinction between a ‘them’ and ‘us’, insiders and outsiders, which inform who is in the nation and who isn’t.

This isn’t some arcane debate. It matters in terms of pluralism, racism and identities. Several writers wrote post-Khan about the prevalence (or not) of racism, the legacy of slavery and Empire, and the degree to which Scotland has come to terms with its past, not just academically, but in popular and political attitudes.

Claire Heuchan, a Stirling University PhD student (and relevant here, a black woman) wrote a challenging ‘Guardian’ piece for which she received disgraceful abuse, which took exception with the notion of ‘fairer Scotland’ and ‘Scottish exceptionalism’. She wrote:

Scottish exceptionalism – the idea of Scotland as a land of tolerance – is a fairytale. It is what allows Scotland to hold England accountable for all the wrongs of imperial expansion while denying this country’s own colonial legacy.

The CommonSpace writer Robert Somynne replied (also relevant here, a black man, and receiving of abuse), acknowledging that Heuchan was ‘correct that a nationalist feature is to define against as much as for an ideal or people.’ He went on to say: ‘I disagree profoundly with the article that she wrote’ without really specifying why, beyond a generalist observation that it posed ‘a critique of Scottish nationalism as simply being an oppositional defining force [that] misses the context of that defining.’ Frankly, that’s a bit evasive.

Heuchan’s argument should not be dismissed just because some find it uncomfortable. However, it is also true that Scottish nationalism should not just be pulled up on its evasions with the colonial legacy. All Scotland’s political traditions have some explaining to do, and have problematic foundation stories which matter to this day.

Where is, then, argument about Scottish Labour and imperialism? About how the party became a party of Empire, war and the British state, and turned away from its internationalist and anti-imperialist traditions? Or what about the Scottish Tories and Empire? This is rather germane to the present, with many Brexit debates invoking the re-emergence of the Anglosphere – which draws upon a predominantly white person’s set of histories and sense of communities. Maybe we could start to ask mainstream Scotland, whether Labour, Tory, Lib Dems, for their mea culpas.

Numerous ‘us’ and ‘thems’ need airing. The writer Henry Bell said last week that anti-Englishness wasn’t racism – a respectable and understandable position, but did so as if there could be no debating of the matter, stating: ‘The English in Scotland – holding a culturally dominant, non-racialised identity – do not experience racism’. This was because in his view ‘racism is not just discrimination but power dynamic.’ That’s one interpretation, but the racism wiki entry opens with the observation: ‘Racism is discrimination and prejudice based on their race or ethnicity. Today, the use of the term ‘racism’ does not easily fall under a single definition.’ Which at the minimum means there should be a debate about what constitutes racism.

Then there was the pro-independence blogger ‘Wings over Scotland’ (aka Stuart Campbell) and his comments during the Tory conference when Oliver Mundell, son of Scottish Secretary of State David Mundell, spoke. ‘Wings’ tweeted: ‘Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner.’

No doubt ‘Wings’ thought he was being smart, funny and snide all at the same time, but it is a revolting comment. This is the world of ‘them’ and ‘us’, where any comment is fair game about opponents, and Tories in particular, and one laced with connotations of homophobia. Revealingly, ‘Wings’ defended it saying it was more ‘Toryphobic’ which underlines its ‘them and ‘us’ nature. Not one single senior SNP politician, many of who follow or retweet ‘Wings’, condemned it or pulled him up, though a number of party members did. In a country which has only in recent years come to terms with homosexuality and gay rights, when previously it was a forbidden subject and which produced a major cultural war with homophobes less than a generation ago, this isn’t good enough.

To be clear, modern Scottish nationalism has been a positive force for this country, as has the SNP. But all isms – and nationalisms in particular – contain problems, omissions and are never enough of an anchor, compass or guide – on the actual future decisions of an independent nation. That’s because in the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole’s words, nationalism is a ‘rocket fuel that can get you out of an old order’ or state, but ‘burns up quickly’.

If we (the various peoples who live in Scotland) are confident enough about ourselves, we cannot just insist that Scottish nationalism is about the good guys, and a virtuous story of our nation. Instead, there has to be an awareness of the sociology of nationalisms which involves more than citing Benedict Anderson’s point that all nations and peoples are ‘imagined communities’ or continually referencing how ‘civic’ our nationalism is and how tolerant we are. We should inhabit this terrain, live it, while recognising that there are other nationalisms and Scotlands out there.

Some pro-independence voices will read and dismiss the above, comfortable in their belief in our civic nationalism. Well here is a warning from these isles. British nationalism historically has been a civic nationalism – one which has articulated a multi-cultural, multi-national union of four nations. And look what it has descended into in recent years: regressive, reactionary, xenophobic and profoundly insular and nasty: something that is beginning to look like in places an ethnic nationalism.

Nationalism is never enough. This matters because the next indyref – the Second Independence Referendum – will be framed by many, including its main participants, as the SNP versus the Tories. That will entail two competing versions and claims of nationalism knocking lumps out of each other. It isn’t enough, and it will be pretty ugly in places.

The politics of ‘my nationalism is more virtuous than your nationalism’ versus ‘our nationalism isn’t a nationalism’ isn’t a very attractive one. Or one that offers much guide to the future choices of Scotland – independent or not independent.

Fundamentally, apart from looking at ourselves in the mirror honestly, we have to have a willingness to start examining and then defining what actually are our collective values, philosophies and traditions. Whether independent or not, we have to start acting as if we are independent i.e. taking collective responsibilities for our society, not pretending everything is rosy, and beginning to sketch out a post-nationalist future. As one observer said to me when I was writing ‘Scotland the Bold’: ‘How about a country that does not use the word ‘nationalist’ in its rhetoric?’ Maybe that only comes with independence, but we have to start preparing that mentality now.

Many nations before us have faced similar dilemmas – indeed, nearly every single nation which has become independent or had an independence debate. O’Toole reflected on the relevance of Ireland’s experience days before Scotland’s first independence referendum, and offered us the following advice:

What has to be broken free of us is not just the big bad Them. It is also the warm, fuzzy Us of the nationalist imagination – the Us that is nicer, holier, more caring. What a free country quickly discovers is that the better Us of its imagination is not already there, fully formed, just waiting to blossom in the sun of liberation. It has to be created and in order to create it you have to genuinely decide that you want it.

If we really want a Scotland of possibilities, enlightenment and advancement, which does good things, makes decent choices, and stands for values we are proud to call our own in the wider world, then we really need some signposts other than just nationalism – Scottish or British – and a mindset which dares to think beyond Them and Us.

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