Nationalism: a war over a word

A vote for independence may be the right or wrong answer for Scotland. What it won’t be is a vote for ‘nationalism’.

Niki Seth-Smith
25 August 2014

New Statesman cartoon by Dan Murell, 4/6/14From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. Patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts: an early consciousness of nationalism and pride 

1.1An extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries: playing with right-wing nationalism 

1.2Advocacy of political independence for a particular country: Scottish nationalism

There's a month to go until the referendum on Scottish independence. As the campaigns reach fever pitch, there’s one word whose meaning has been mangled beyond recognition. In an important sense, it is the key battlefield. The contradictory meanings assigned to the term have led many ‘Nationalists’ (a term used for supporters of the Scottish National Party) and‘nationalists’(used to describe the independence movement, or anyone who supports the cause) to disown the word entirely.

What's going on here? As with 'communist' in the McCarthy era, when words become so highly contested it indicates that the tectonic plates of ideology and power are shifting. How we define 'nationalism' underwrites the most profound differences on the independence question. This is not semantics. It is about the future of the 63 million people living on these islands, and the historical moment occurring, with the role of the nation-state in transition.

Salmond as hate icon

It's funny – words like “apparatchik” keep attaching themselves to the First Minister's retinue. Meaning that he's an old commie? No: it's a reference to leadership style. Another rude word you hear, sotto voce:“fascist”. Again, no one thinks Salmond has far-Right sympathies. It's a reference to the SNP's cult of the leader.” - 'Alex Salmond, the SNP and‘fascist Scotland'”, Damian Thompson, The Telegraph

Is this really about Alex Salmond's leadership style? The First Minister of Scotland may be a bit of a bully, with an instinct for centralisation. But which politician doesn't want more power? In an independent Scotland, unlike at Westminster, the head of state would be reigned in by a constitution, and would not enjoy the ability, for example, to appoint members of the second chamber at will. Tony Blair, who distained to consult parliament or listen to the public on joining an illegal war, apparently did not merit such frequent comparisons to the world's dictators. What could possibly justify comparisons of Salmond to Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe or the war-like 'Braveheart' figure, commanding the absolute allegiance of his troops?

Don't bother trying. This isn't about the current leader of the SNP, who has been governing Scotland for the last seven years without coming under such an assault. Salmond is the hate icon for the independence cause itself. The entire British establishment is united against Scottish independence as in times of national emergency and – as with any good war propaganda – they have chosen a leader to smear. It doesn't matter that the independence movement is a loose coalition of Greens, SSP, Labour and SNP, as well as non-party supporters of all political stripes that is not under Salmond's control, let alone his vice-like grip.

What's happening here is a conflation of definition 1.1 and 1.2 in the Oxford English Dictionary: that“advocacy of political independence for a particular country”is identical to, or a veil for “an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries”. Nazism is the ultimate manifestation of the latter, posing as a populist movement of the people, the 'volk', and descending into the horrors of social cleansing and mass insanity. Hence, Salmond = Hitler.

We don't care what you want, it's the wanting we don't like

Nationalism is a cultural black hole. It leads to small-mindedness, not to the generous utopia that leftwing Scottish "yes" voters dream of…. Scotland's art is doing brilliantly as an inflection of British art. Like the Turner prize itself, it is proof that Britishness has real meaning and value and is not just some oppressive colonial entity. Vote for culture. Vote for Britain.”– Why Scotland should follow its art and vote no to independence, The Guardian

Let's take a step back here. Hatred of the English does exist within the Yes vote, as does virulent Scottish patriotism. Much energy has been spent demonstrating that this outlook belongs to a tiny fringe. The bleak truth many in the independence movement don't acknowledge is that they are being labeled 'nationalistic' as in 1.1 (“an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries”) simply for advocating political independence for Scotland. Their beliefs, aside from this action, do not matter. More importantly, neither does the kind of Scotland they are proposing to build.

There's no doubt that an independent Scotland will be less 'nationalistic' in its rhetoric, policy and orientation than Britain is today. The British government faces increasing pressure to cut social and political ties with Europe, retaining only those based on economic self-interest, under pressure from an anti-immigration party with neo-fascist aspirations. An independent Scotland would remain in the EU, with a far more welcoming immigration policy. It's no wonder that the largest migrant group in Scotland, Asian Scots, are majority in favour of independence. They do not feel excluded, as the Scotland on offer will not be defined in ethnic terms, starting with the referendum being decided by current residence, not by those born or ‘from’ the country.

For a comparison, just look at David Cameron's entrance into the independence debate: “We have 7 months to save the most extraordinary country... Team GB: the winning team in world history”. No one blinked as our Prime Minister raised the ghosts of the Empire to conjure the myth of a forever ‘victorious’ UK. Like all forms of establishment power, British nationalism gains power from its invisibility. You will hear Putin talk like this. You won’t hear it from Scottish politicians. Of course this is why, in a recent study by the British Council on global perceptions, “too nationalistic” and “intolerant of people from other countries” were identified as some of Britain’s top traits. But why should their opinions matter, when we’re so sure of ourselves?

Fear of the masses, love of the masses

The reconstitution of a nation isn’t an act of emancipation, at least not necessarily, and rarely in practice.” – English nationalism and St George’s Day, James Butler, Novara Media

The British establishment, working with ‘Project Fear’ (as the No campaign backed by Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and UKIP calls itself in private), has propagated a useful lie. Across the political spectrum, all those enjoying real power in what is now Britain – whether in media, politics, business or the banks – can readily conflate Scottish independence with extreme, patriotic and supremacist nationalism, while appearing uncontroversial. My question is: how have so many radicals and independent-minded thinkers swallowed this lie? After all, it’s as old as the hills. People demanding more voice and power – in this case through legal, democratic and non-violent means – are cast as the faceless mob, bound by a kinship to which ‘we’ don’t belong, just as the proletariat has been described by the middle and upper classes through the ages.

That this is a democratic revolution of ‘nationhood’ not ‘class’is one argument that keeps getting made. As before, the socio-economic realities of the Scotland being proposed are discounted. An independent Scotland promises to raise taxes for the richest, protect social security and crack down on income equality. Those from lower income groups are more in favour of breaking away from Britain, yet the fact that they would benefit based on residence makes this, apparently, a‘nationalist’not a‘class’war. Class struggles throughout history have been restricted in some form by national borders. As before, the injustice of the status quo is rendered invisible, with the creation of a new border at fault, despite this ensuring Scotland's continued membership of the EU and thus greater capacity for united struggle alongside citizens of the twenty-eight member states.

In any case, while we may desire the utopia of a world without borders, most radicals, anarchists and many on the left agree that bigger is not better when it comes to self-government. While the No campaign propagate a fear of the masses, the left elite’s ‘love’ of them has also proved historically disastrous, amounting to an abstract “identification” with the millions living precarious existences and on poverty incomes, that is the other side of the coin to patriotic “devotion”, rather than meaningful solidarity. Could it be that some in the British left simply don’t want to let go?

Creating a state unbathed in blood

There will be havoc if you vote Yes in September. Havoc in Edinburgh and throughout the land and you will break the hearts of many others too” – George Galloway, Spectator Speech

 That nations have been baptised in blood is borne out in the history of the British Isles as it has been all over the world. Empire was a nation-building exercise of horrific proportions, while the revolutions of our early ‘cousins’ France and America showed that an emancipatory national vision must still be built ‘on the bodies of the fallen’. From God in the crown to the secular state, religious feeling was transferred to the nation, to reconcile citizens into subsuming their personal interests within those of the imagined community: their interests and their lives.

Scottish independence doesn’t belong to this history. A‘Yes' vote does not ask for self-sacrifice, and thus does not necessitate patriotism. Compare this to the demands of Westminster austerity: the very word is a synonym for self-deprivation. The language of kinship, of 'divorce' from Scotland,‘we're all in this together',‘maxing out the household credit card',‘tightening our belt', enacts the identification of the individual with the ‘family’of British nations, made flesh in the resurgent national obsession with the royal family. Which government, British or Scottish, is asking people to sacrifice themselves for the mythic‘whole’?

The argument remaining is: what’s the point of creating a new nation? The nation-state is a product of the capitalist system and is dying anyway. This may be true. Our system of national liberal democracy is indeed a closed shop, corrupt, cowed by global finance and business, superseded by trans-nationals, NGOs, and international governing bodies. However, given that the nation-state remains the form through which our government, institutions and civil society operate (albeit with diminishing levels of autonomy), you might think that bringing these apparatuses closer to the people would be an aspiration.

Importantly, ‘closer to the people’ does not mean simply moving parliament from London to Edinburgh. Independence would rock the foundations of the British establishment. While gradualist in its immediate ambitions, it would open up a host of possibilities for people in Scotland to alter the conditions for protest, unionization, research, investment, education, de-militarization, press regulation, health administration – the list goes on. Those who reject the current form of the nation-state as a vehicle for their politics, and reject the opportunity to change this system, are falling prey to nihilism.

In conclusion

Many have pointed out that Britain has a more extremely patriotic culture and politics than Scotland. We can go further. The cause of keeping Britain together is more ‘nationalistic’ than so-called ‘Scottish nationalism’ (despite the Oxford English Dictionary definition). In today’s ‘democratic’ battles for hearts and minds, language is the key weapon. The ‘joke’ that compares Salmond to Hitler, as many jokes do, relies on a kind of linguistic trick. It’s origins run deep into British state ideology, colouring attitudes from across the left-right spectrum. Whatever your opinion on the referendum, don’t let yourself be fooled by the propaganda of this ‘useful confusion’. A vote for independence may be the right or wrong answer for Scotland. What it won’t be is a vote for ‘nationalism’.

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