Scottish nationalism or British nationalism? (40 reasons to support Scottish independence: 38)

For all the problems with Scottish nationalism, is it as bad as British nationalism?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
9 July 2014


“Nationalism is always inward looking” declared Danny Alexander to a packed Guildhall at the London Evening Standard's debate on independence. His high horse might have been justified, had he not started the same short speech by pronouncing on how the UK is the world's most successful union.

The facts, of course, imply otherwise: two of our nearest neighbours, Denmark (along with the Faroe Islands and Greenland) and the Netherlands (along with Aruba, Curaçao, and Saint Maarten), are unions of nations which come ahead of Britain on almost any economic or social measure, and I suspect the United States might have something to say on the matter. But never mind that. It seems the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is so blinded by his bombastic British nationalism that he can't even contemplate the UK not being best - or perhaps he was trying to prove his own point about nationalists being inward looking.

I recount this story not because it is unusual, but because it is entirely normal: all too often, members of One Nation Labour and the Conservative and Unionist party will give long lectures on the dangers of nationalist parties without ever considering that they are in one. This cognitive dissonance afflicts “No” activists across the political spectrum. George Galloway will merrily declare “I have always hated nationalism” before evoking that most iconic of British nationalist images, the Battle of Britain “when this small island of English-speaking people stood alone and if we had not stood but capitulated like others had done before us we would be having this meeting in German if we were going to have it at all”.

Ignoring for a moment that the most successful squadron in that fight was Polish: if a yes campaigner talked about an historic battle - Bannockburn, or Stirling Bridge, say - they'd be laughed out of the room. When Galloway does it, it's re-published across the mainstream press as “the speech that could save the union”. These double standards tell us something fascinating about the nature of British nationalism - how it is so ubiquitous as to be unnoticed; so hegemonic, as to go unchallenged.

None of this is to deny that there are also nationalists on the yes side; nor that there are some who will vote no without a nationalist beat in their heart. But whilst Scottish and British identities are no more mutually exclusive than Norwegian and Scandinavian, genuine non-nationalists on both sides must recognise that whether we wish to or not, our vote will at least to some extent highlight one sort of nationalism over the other.

The question, then, is this: is one less bad? Can we in general be distrustful of nationalisms whilst drawing distinctions? They are, of course, slippery ideologies. Not only is each one different from every other, they aren't even internally consistent. The Italian nationalism of Mussolini is clearly a hugely different phenomenon from the African nationalism of Mandela – but there are even significant variations between the sorts of nationalisms found within the ANC.

Nationalisms aren't about actual histories but the stories we tell ourselves, they aren't about facts, but mythologies. We will each experience them differently. The best we can do if we wish to sum them up, then, has surely to be to look at their most prominent advocates.

Likewise, aiming to define either by its fringes seems unfair: British nationalism is not Nick Griffin, or even necessarily Nigel Farage, though he represents a wing of it. It is certainly not always white. It is, however, Gordon Brown demanding British jobs for British workers and telling us we should celebrate the Empire. It is David Cameron pulling the UK away from the EU and wanting celebrations of WW1.

It is the exceptionalism which makes Danny Alexander think that it's OK to declare in one breath that all nationalism is terrible but that Britain is best; the odd mix of isolationism and imperialism which leads us to think we have more business in Baghdad than Brussels; and the conservatism which leaves us with an unelected second chamber and unaccountable monarchy. It is still symbolised by a flag which fluttered over armies which invaded 90% of the countries on earth.

Scottish nationalism, of course, also has its unpleasant corners. But largely, its public figures tell a much less destructive story. You'd never catch Salmond or Sturgeon or Swinney saying “Scottish jobs for Scottish workers”. There are no prominent Scottish isolationists, and most of its advocates argue against empire rather than apologising for it. Not only the SNP, but the broader movement is vocally welcoming of migrants, and encourage inclusion: “we're a' Jock Tamson's bairns” and all that.

You rarely even hear prominent Scottish nationalists, unlike British nationalists, claim that Scotland is better than anywhere else, though there is a “wha's like us?” strand, it usually seems to imply quirkiness rather than superiority. The standard position is the opposite: the oft repeated SNP line is that they want Scotland to be a normal country.

None of this is to say that there aren't racists in Scotland – of course there are racists everywhere. It is to say, however, that the official and most prominent account of Scottish nationalism is a much more positive set of stories than the British nationalism we hear from Labour, the Conservatives, or even, sometimes, the Lib Dems. Perhaps most importantly, a yes vote would be a blow to the least attractive corner of Scottish nationalism - the tendency to blame our problems on the English. A no vote would bolster the least attractive strand of British nationalism: the belief we're rightful rulers of the world.

When looking at how identities will shift in other ways after independence, Michael Morris makes the case that Britain as an island nation has long been defined in part by the metaphors which come from that – isolation, standing on our own, etc. These shape our understandings of ourselves as a people, largely in regressive ways. We think of ourselves as alone in the world, seperate. Of course, this isn't accurate – there are six other self governing territories in our islands. But the perception remains.

With Scottish independence, our family of rocks would become a more obviously multi-national archipelago, and we would perhaps start to see ourselves more as residents of a neighbourhood of North Atlantic nations. Metaphors are, as George Lakoff tells us, hugely powerful in shaping our subliminal understandings of the world and Britishness, in splendid isolation, protected from sociability by the sea, is shaped by the idea of being alone on an island. Independence would do nothing to change geology, but it could help shift how we see ourselves to something multitudinous, archipelagic. And that, surely would be a good thing.

The motivation for or against independence doesn't have to be about nationalisms, but we do need to remember that they exist. The national stories that come with a yes vote seem to me to be more more pluralistic and positive than those which come with a no. After all, how many of those who say they don't want to vote for Scottish nationalism really do want to vote for British nationalism? Because if they insist on seeing yes as the former, they must surely see no as the latter.

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