I’ve always admired the ability of top journalists to cover topics they may have little prior knowledge of with such authority, nuance and flair. However, there’s one topic – the independence referendum - that seems to bedevil many inside the M25, and it’s one that writers and broadcasters don’t even need to leave their own shores to investigate.
The latest bizarre piece on the independence referendum came from Catherine Bennett in this week’s Observer. Catherine, who describes herself as “naturally sympathetic to Scottish self-determination”, managed to shoehorn Bannockburn, the English Defence League, and the obligatory quote from Orwell’s “Notes from Nationalism” into proceedings- with friends like this, who needs enemies?
This monochromatic understanding of nationalism skews the whole piece horribly off-piste. Catherine’s linking of Homecoming Scotland 2014 to the referendum campaign is particularly disingenuous. Armed with a calendar and a parliamentary timetable, it’s evident - particularly after taking into account the negotiations around the Edinburgh Agreement and the cavalcade of elections approaching – that autumn 2014 was the most appropriate time to hold the referendum. Indeed, Alex Salmond indicated before the 2011 election that any referendum would be held in the 2nd half of the parliamentary term - hardly a nationalist conspiracy.
If Catherine is so keen to criticise the Scottish Government’s Bannockburn programme, I am sure that next week will herald a piece attacking the blatant chauvinistic nationalism behind Westminster’s plans to hold a series of events celebrating the beginning of World War 1 next year. Not commemorating, but celebrating; not the end of war, but the start of war. The resources being dedicated by the Coalition Government to mark the beginning of four years of indiscriminate mass slaughter that decimated almost every family, community and workplace in Britain should be concentrated on ensuring this never happens again; however, I doubt that will be the case.
If either campaign in the referendum debate so far has been chauvinistic and narrowly nationalistic, it’s been the No campaign. Punch and Judy-style politics, shouting down opponents and relying on traditional negative campaigning have been trialled exclusively by Better Together, with lashings of British nationalism for good measure. Defence issues have been particularly illuminating in this regard, as Philip Hammond and Jim Murphy proclaim everything from Trident nuclear submarines to speedy boarding for the armed forces to show why we’re “better together”.
The cognitive dissonance that allows commentators to recognise one form of nationalism, but to believe that the British state exists in some post-nationalist Valhalla, is just one of the familiar traps the article stumbles into. Tired old clichés about Scotland’s national journey are, by now, par for the course, particularly for left-of-centre commentators who, despite decrying foodbanks, rampaging austerity and creeping privatisation in Cameron’s Britain, cling desperately to the “Hugh Grant in Love Actually” school of patriotism as the last defence of their nation-state. Their caricature of pro-independence campaigners as old, angry white Celts in kilts, ill-disposed towards their southern neighbours, cannot and must not be altered.
I’d have loved it if Catherine could have attended the independence march and rally this weekend in Edinburgh. She’d have seen that the Yes campaign extends far beyond those tired stereotypes; she’d have seen men, women and children of all cultures, creeds and ages, as well as those of all political persuasions and none, coming together to support Scotland’s return to full nation status. The speeches given on stage, again by representatives from all walks of life in 21st century Scotland, were not the sabre-rattling, anti-English diatribes that Catherine perceives as pervading the Yes campaign.
Of course, rallies of this kind only ever attract those at the heart of the campaign. However, ask yourself this: what groups and individuals would a No campaign rally attract? Given that the British National Party and the Scottish Defence League, among others, have (quelle surprise) backed a No vote, what march would be the more chauvinistic, exclusive and narrow-minded? I’ll let the reader decide.
Criticising the neoliberal excesses of this current Coalition Government, or the authoritarian triangulation of its predecessor, is not anti-English. Claiming that a Yes campaign, staffed with a number of English-born employees and emphasising the continuation of several islands-wide unions after the severance of the political union, is on the verge of daubing the woad and sharpening the broadswords is equally ludicrous. I’m sure Catherine wouldn’t be able to compute the number of SNP MSPs, including one Cabinet Secretary and one Minister as far as I know, who were born in England; after all, isn’t all this nationalism based deep-down in anti-English prejudice?
At the start of her piece, Catherine recognises the annoyance felt by pro-independence campaigners at the reduction of our movement to “an expression of retrograde nationalism” before going on to commit the same journalistic hari-kari herself. With just under a year to go, she has plenty of opportunity to come north and follow around both campaigns on the streets and on the doorsteps. After some time with both camps, I’m sure that her view of nationalism- and who is the worst offender- would quickly shift.
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