A tale of ideologies: Scottish nationalism and unionism

Scottish nationalism  and unionism stand in complete opposition, but are there greater similarities between their ideologies than the UK cares to admit?

Gerry Hassan
12 August 2013

Flickr/The Laird of Oldham. Some rights reserved

The story is familiar: a pesky, partisan, immature nationalism is out and about influencing our body politic.

This is the account of Scottish nationalism put forward by a range of commentators and public figures. Yet it could as easily be articulated about the ideas of unionism, because unionism is at its heart a form of nationalism: British State nationalism.

Scottish nationalism has its faults and its limitations. It is cautious, conservative and shaped by the characteristics of the society from which it was born. Its actual form as a nationalism is also a limitation, but at least it understands itself as such and is seen as such a phenomenon by everyone.

Unionism, however, doesn’t comprehend that it is a form of nationalism, an obvious point when you think about it. What state does unionism declare its allegiance and loyalty to above all else? The British state. Yet unionism is in denial that it is such a thing as nationalism; it thinks nationalism is about others and not about itself.

For this reason, unionism is not at a very mature stage in the development of nationalism, being intransigent about the British state and parliamentary sovereignty in relation to the EU, and even worse, hung up on superficialities such as flags, symbols, borders and border controls, which have traditionally transfixed certain types of nationalism.

The fact that unionism is a form of nationalism – a point accepted as uncontroversial in political science debates – does not make it any less legitimate or a mainstream part of Scotland and the UK. But this lack of self-knowledge and self-acceptance limits and damages our political debate.

Many pro-union writers of intelligence such as Brian Wilson in ‘The Scotsman’ or Hugo Rifkind in ‘The Times’ believe that they can take the moral high ground by dismissing Scottish nationalism for a variety of reasons. These include that it is all about emotions, past history, imagined grievances and shaped by a bourgeois set of priorities irrelevant to economic and social concerns. 

The emotional dismissal of Scottish nationalism is an interesting one. Brian Wilson argues that the economic case put forward by Alex Salmond and John Swinney is a cover and that if it could be proven that an independent Scotland would be less well off, Nationalists wouldn’t reverse their position. Thus, the argument goes that this isn’t about economics, but emotions and instincts, and can therefore be dismissed.

Yet the opposite argument is just as true and revealing. If Brian Wilson found out that an independent Scotland would be economically better off and socially more just, he would not give up on his belief in the UK. The reason is the same – his attachment to the UK is not economic, but that of an emotional nationalist.

British nationalism – if it wanted to start engaging and being relevant at this point – would embrace the idea of a serious, long-term project of nation building at the British level which addresses the multiple challenges and crises of Britain. It would come up with pan-British projects beyond the tokenism of the Olympics and Southern connected focus of HS2 which tried to tackle the realities of the disunited kingdom.

It would deal with the quasi-independence of London as a world city from the rest of the UK, the over-concentration of public infrastructure projects and investment in London and the South East (to the huge detriment of the North West and North East of England), and the absence of any political will in the Westminster classes from doing anything about this.

The United Kingdom is one of the most unequal states in the rich world – with one of the most uneven regional patterns of development anywhere – and an economy, hugely imbalanced and skewed towards short-term, predatory capitalism. For all of the talk of ‘rebalancing the economy’, the UK in investment to GDP ratios is 159th in the world on 2012 figures, with a mere fourteen countries below it, seven in the sub-Saharan Africa.

An intelligent, reforming unionism would address these long-term challenges and crises which link to the decline in authority of the various British establishments such as political, business, media and civic, and the collapse of trust in public institutions. This relates to the decline in the idea of Britain which can be seen across the four nations of the union, and which won’t be reversed by words and bluster, but need deeds which so far look impossible.

Next year’s independence debate can be interpreted as one between two competing claims of nationalism. One (Scottish) is ‘out’, self-aware and self-reflective about its characteristics. The other (British) is mostly in denial and lacking in self-knowledge and self-awareness as a version of nationalism. 

A choice between two nationalisms does not – to put it mildly – give us a very varied or dynamic political conversation. Nor does it address the central issues which have shaped much of the Scottish debate. Nationalism is at its core a reductive philosophy, one that is about the competing claims of nations and the form of states.

This is a reason Scottish nationalism has pitched its appeal on the centre-left of politics, but we have to make the break more explicit and widen the choice. We have to address what kind of Scotland we want to live in, which just doesn’t mean self-government versus the union, but questions the values and priorities that we want to champion as a society.

This should not be about one nationalism versus another, and nor should we let the bunkum of one nationalism pretending it isn’t one, while patronising and caricaturing the other, shape the political environment.

There is an element of condescension and attempted delegitimisation on the part of a generation of senior and former Labour politicians such as Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and George Robertson. Rather than engage in their endless posturing, it would be more useful for all of us if thoughtful unionist voices address how they plan to reestablish the disunited kingdom that characterises the economic, social and political facets of the modern UK. Unionism must have more to say on the big challenges of our day rather than just hectoring and insulting its opponents; but that requires confronting the many unpleasant truths about the state of the UK, which is a bit more difficult than empty rhetoric and denial. 


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