Isle of Skye. Flickr/Moyan_Brenn
Is there anything duller than a glossary? Probably not. Then again, it’s important that we know exactly what we’re voting for on September 18th. The debate over Scottish independence has not been helped by a lack of clarity around many of the key terms which is why it’s worth looking under the bonnet of the basic concepts; there are, it turns out, significant differences lurking in the detail.
Some qualifiers: all language is contested and unstable; its usage is always political. Many words have a multiple meanings – with different inflections in scholarly, legal and everyday contexts. The definitions that follow reflect my own background in political geography; I’ve also taken the rather unorthodox step of abandoning an alphabetic ordering in favour of developing a modest argument. This is a rather unusual (as well as an incomplete) glossary. So let’s start with the biggie:
Nation: a community of people whose members identify with a sense of belonging to a homeland, a shared attachment that is rooted in an historical sense of difference from other nations. Benedict Anderson famously argued that a nation is an ‘imagined community’. This doesn’t mean that nationhood isn’t ‘real’; it does mean that nationhood has no essence or permanence beyond its cultural construction through mutually recognised images, symbols and stories.
When the sociologist Anthony Smith called nationhood ‘perhaps the most compelling identity myth in the modern world’, he didn’t mean myth as in ‘not true’ but in the sense of a story about social organisation. Humans are myth-making beings.
Nationalism has two principal meanings: 1) a sense of affinity with, support for, or belonging to a nation; and 2) a political ideology that which holds that nationhood is the appropriate foundation for territorial sovereignty – in other words, that a nation ‘should’ have a corresponding territorial sovereign state. Nationalism comes in many guises, from xenophobic ethnic nationalisms to liberationist anti-colonial struggles – neither of which apply to Scotland. Many scholars consider nationalism as a reaction to the uneven geographies of capitalist development.
Nationalist can describe a person who subscribes to either of the two meanings of nationalism above but more usually it refers to someone who supports the second sense of the term: one who believes that nationhood is the appropriate basis for territorial sovereignty. There is an important distinction to be made between someone who might identify as ‘Scottish’ and someone who thinks that Scottishness is incomplete without independence. Both could be described as nationalist, but the currency of the term arises from the second position rather than the first. By the same token, someone who believes that the existence of Britishness authorises the continuing existence of the United Kingdom is no less of a nationalist than Alex Salmond. The pejorative use of nationalist by people who have cheerfully signed up to Labour’s One Nation-ism or applauded Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ speech should be called out. It is depressing to find the derisory term ‘Nat’ bandied around by people who fail to see that their own flag-waving is part of precisely the same historical phenomenon that they profess to hate.
Nation-state refers to a distinct political state, governing a bounded territory, in which nationhood of some form is mobilized to secure the participation and consent of its citizens. In many cases, however, nationhood is not co-terminous with state sovereignty. In the case of the UK, for instance, there are multiple and overlapping national identities: Scotland is a nation but not yet a nation-state. Nation-states are generally sovereign states but not all sovereign states are nation-states, Vatican city being an example of a sovereign state without a corresponding nation.
Sovereign state is the basic unit of the international legal system, having supreme
independent authority over a given territory. A sovereign state also maintains
a monopoly on the legal use of violence; it has been the recognised unit in
international politics since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. Any functional
sovereign state requires recognition from other sovereign states; only on this
basis can they enter normal diplomatic relations. In the event of a Yes vote, Scotland would
of course seek international recognition as a sovereign state.
There is more to the concept of sovereignty than its narrow international legal definition. It is also an ideal of territorial authority – a fantasy of total control – that is never perfectly realised. Other external forces always qualify the extent to which any one state has sovereignty. For instance, Eurozone members have little direct control of their own monetary policy which is controlled by the European Central Bank. And that’s not even starting on the rival power of corporations or supranational bodies like the International Monetary Fund. Sovereignty, in other words, is messy in practice.
Country is one of the most confusing words in the whole debate; it may or may not be a coincidence that it is also one of the key terms in the referendum question – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. Although it has no precise meaning within international relations or political geography, country is frequently used as shorthand for sovereign state, nation-state and nation. The problem is that it tends to readily conflate or elide all of these terms. Take the singer Eddi Reader:
No-one really doubts Scotland’s existence as a nation. Scottish nationhood is not under threat, even with a No vote. But Scotland does not currently exist as a nation-state; No voters think it shouldn’t – but that doesn’t mean they have existential doubts about Scotland.
Here’s a more recent example from the playwright and campaigner Alan Bissett:
"Is Scotland a country? Should countries get the govts they vote for? Vote No in Sept you're basically saying that Scotland is not a country." (@allenbisset July 19, 2014)
Is Scotland a country? Well, it depends. Scotland is a nation but not (yet) a nation-state. And it’s perfectly logical to think that Scottish nationhood is entirely unaffected by a No vote. One might believe in Scottish nationhood within the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, a state in which Britishness offers a parallel national identity.
So ‘country’ is a handy word if you are a nationalist who believes that a nation should, by virtue of its nationhood, possess a corresponding territorial sovereign state. For such a person, country is an unobtrusive way of making the nationalist case. Like many ambiguous terms, it is universally used; indeed the currency of the word derives in part from what it conceals.
Separatism is used by a minority of pro-Union supporters to emphasise the distanciating act of secession. There is little technical inaccuracy here but it’s important not to ignore the political nuances. Separatism doesn’t suggest a disunion or a dissolution of the whole. Rather it suggests – accurately enough, some might say – the breaking away of a small part from its larger progenitor. In so doing, separatism also embodies a kind of historical determinism, the implicit idea that because something has existed, it should continue to exist. In this way ‘separatism’ always attributes a certain ontological precedence to the Union.
Independence is a corresponding term to separatism but places emphasis on the condition of being a self-governing sovereign entity, usually in circumstances where this has been won from a progenitor state. In cases where independence is declared, this declaration also has to be recognized within the international community of sovereign states. Where separatism gives an ontological precedence to the ‘parent’ state, independence draws on a developmental image of maturation and autonomy – as if somehow ‘dependence’ represents a kind of infantilisation (implicitly: ‘who’d want to be dependent?’). Both terms, of course, are unavoidably political in their usage.
The point made here by National Collective is commonly articulated.
"No: Independence is too difficult (impossible). Give up. Yes: 59 countries have gained independence from UK and not one asked to come back." (@WeAreNational, February 16, 2014)
But it is important to recognise that independence has usually been declared in the context of colonial rule and this is emphatically not the situation we face on the 18th September. Scotland has been a fully active agent of British colonialism. The idea that Scotland was subject to what the sociologist Michael Hechter describes as ‘internal colonialism’ is not now generally accepted.
Self-determination is the fundamental principle of international law that holds that nations have the right to choose sovereignty without external interference. The principle does not, however, specify what the process for self-determination should be, or even what counts as a nation. The literary theorist Terry Eagleton once made the point that the Enlightenment gave birth to two doctrines distinguished only by the letter ‘s’. The first was the people had the right to self-determination; the second was that peoples had such a right. ‘The former belief’ said Eagleton ‘is the keystone of modern democracy, and indeed of socialism; the second is a piece of romantic mystification’. Adherents to this view would argue that there is nothing about being Scottish that necessarily entitles us to self determination as Scots. Like any nation, Scotland has no necessary or essential integrity us a unit of sovereignty; nor for that matter does the UK. The question of independence is therefore not necessarily bound up with nationalism even if tends that way in practice.
All of this takes me to a term that has not been in evidence in the indyref debate (though I rather wish it had).
Anti-nationalism is the belief that regardless of whether one feels Scottish or British, such nationhood should not be the necessary precondition for territorial sovereignty. In other words, anti-nationalism rejects the principle that nationhood should be tied to sovereignty. Nations do not have to be states. I consider it a regrettable feature of our modern Westphalian system that it is almost impossible to redraw territorial arrangements outside the discursive frame of nationalism. Nationalism, like capitalism, is an ideology to which I am opposed but it is impossible to politically organise outside its reach. The paradox of the indyref is that both Yes Scotland and Better Together are for the most part divided by what unites them. Their debate has, with important exceptions, been driven by their own rival nationalisms – which is why having one side described as ‘the nationalists’ is unhelpful.
To be an anti-nationalist doesn’t mean one can’t vote one way or another. I’ll vote Yes but my support for independence is despite, not because of, Scottish nationhood; I don’t vote as a Scot but as a democrat and a citizen.
When it comes to 18th September we need to know whereof we speak. It helps us to see through the hyperbole and obfuscation that abounds in the debate. But it is worth remembering that there is nothing natural about nations or states. They are malleable human entities, constantly being made and remade within the wider sweep of history. There is a sense in which we could usefully invert the famous line in John F Kennedy’s inauguration speech: perhaps we should ask what our country (i.e. the sovereignty we hold) can do for us. That’s why I prefer the novelist James Robertson’s observation: ‘the independence debate isn’t really about independence. It’s about what independence might be for’. Unionists must make the same case.
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