The Yes campaign is a campaign for Scottish nationalism

Many Yes campaigners may not be motivated by nationalism, but it's important to understand.

James McAsh
17 September 2014

You would be forgiven for considering this obvious, but it is in fact deeply controversial. For many of its supporters a Yes vote bears no relation to nationalism; it is a vote for democracy, fairness, and progress. This is not deceit either. They are not trying to sell nationalism falsely. They believe that their progressive ideals can be best realised through Independence. They are socialists, progressives and radicals, not nationalists. Nonetheless, they have joined a nationalist campaign, justified primarily by implicitly nationalist arguments

The Yes campaign is the largest nationalist mobilisation in modern Scottish history and it is bolstered by every Yes supporter. The inability to recognise this prevents the progressive Yeses from seeing the danger ahead.

What is nationalism?

I should first be clear about what I mean by nationalism or, more importantly, what I do not mean. I do not believe that Yes voters are racist or that they are obsessed with flags or other national imagery, and I do not believe that they hate the English. Some in the Yes camp conform to these crude caricatures but they are a minority. A similarly ugly minority exists for the No campaign.

By ‘Scottish nationalism’ I mean the identification with Scotland as a nation and the belief that nationality – only one of the many ways in which human society can be divided and categorised – is the significant one for politics. (I should also state that for many Yes campaigners this conception of the nation is relatively inclusive: many are in favour of immigration and of immigrant rights.)

Nationalism makes a lot of sense, and is even progressive, when the nation in question suffers under colonialism or another form of national oppression. For nations where this is not the case nationalism serves to divide working people from their foreign counterparts, with whom their interests are aligned, and unite them with their own exploiters at home – the local rich.

Scotland is clearly not oppressed as a nation so Scottish nationalism must be understood as a negative force in society. It emphasises differences between Scots and the rest of the UK and masks the conflicts within Scotland. Sadly, the Yes campaign is a campaign for Scottish nationalism.


Nationalism in the Yes camp

The Yes campaign, including YesScotland and its various minor partners, is dominated by overt and implicit nationalism. Overt nationalism, the less common of the two, explicitly references Scotland’s destiny as a nation. One example is the claim that Scotland is oppressed by the United Kingdom and that independence is a form of national liberation. Another is that unionists, by denying Scotland its manifest destiny, are ‘traitors’. This form of nationalism is more common on the fringes of the Yes campaign but it does creep into the mainstream. Last Wednesday Salmond declared the referendum a fight between Team Scotland and Team Westminster in a rhetorical flourish that denied the national identity of over two million Scots.

Overt nationalism is ugly but not dominant. Implicit nationalism, by contrast, is the guiding force of the overwhelming majority of pro-Independence arguments. This makes it much more pernicious. Implicit nationalism is the idea that Scotland’s problems come from outside Scotland; that Scotland wants to be better and fairer but that it is held back by forces beyond its borders.

This is the thrust of the Yes campaign. It is recognisable in almost everything said by Yes supporters. Whether the goal is to defend the NHS or to create a more equal society, the union is always a key, or often the sole, barrier.

The inherent nationalism is clear when you remove the nation from the scenario. There are plenty of people across the UK fighting to defend the NHS. Scottish independence represents a scenario in which the Scottish establishment promises to defend the NHS for a minority of people in return for that minority breaking away from the rest. In a labour dispute this would be called ‘scabbing’. And as in a labour dispute the strategy is ultimately futile. Not only is the majority ‘sold out’ (the rest of the UK is then in a weaker position to defend the NHS) but the minority is ultimately weakened by the breaking of these bonds. In the long term, when the NHS is next under threat, the minority section may be unable to defend it alone.

By breaking ranks with the rest of the UK’s labour movement and uniting with the Scottish rich, the radical Yes campaigners sell out their comrades and their futures. Taking promises from the Scottish establishment at face value, they accept these concessions to the detriment of their unity and their strength.

This is implicit in even the most progressive Yes voters. The Radical Independence Campaign employs the slogan ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be ours’. Even if we take this blind hope in the future of Scotland at face value it still leaves the English, Welsh and Northern Irish working class behind.


The referendum is not a choice between Scottish and British nationalism

The most common rebuttal to this accusation is that the referendum is a competition between British and Scottish nationalism. Recent polling showed that 53% of No voters put ‘Feelings about the UK’ as one of their top three motivations, with 41% of Yes voters including ‘Feelings about Scotland’ in theirs. It is certainly true that there are nationalists in the No campaign, and the official Better Together campaign does draw on nationalist imagery, but ultimately a No vote is a vote against a Scottish state, not a vote for Britain.

As an analogy, imagine that you had the peculiar belief that the UK and France should merge to create a British-French state. In no sense are you a British nationalist – your life goal is to dissolve the British state into the French. However you are certainly not a Scottish nationalist either. You want Scotland to join the rest of the UK in the French state and see Scottish independence as a huge step backwards for this. Consequently you will vote No. You refuse to support the creation of a Scottish state and do not see a No vote as protecting the British state. You vote No and continue your mission of French-British nationalism.

This example is clearly ridiculous. But you can replace French-British nationalism with any other cause that is neither pro-Scottish or pro-British and the result is the same. There certainly are British nationalists in the No camp but overall a No vote is not pro-nationalist. The same cannot be said for the other side, which unambiguously advocates the creation of a Scottish state. In other words, the Yes campaign is inherently nationalistic, the No campaign is ambiguous.

Even an argument which on its own terms is fairly internationalist becomes functionally pro-nationalist. For instance the International Socialist Group argues that independence would somehow signify an end to British imperialism, thus making the world a better place for people of oppressed nations everywhere. I have no faith in this argument but it is fair to say that it is not based on nationalism. Nonetheless, the function of the argument is still to push forward the creation of a new state based entirely on national borders. Consequently it contributes to nationalism.


Does it even matter? What’s in a name?

The purpose to identifying the nationalism inherent to the Yes campaign is not to throw slurs at its supporters. The majority of Yes campaigners have the noble goal of creating a fairer, more equal society. The great tragedy is that they now see nationalism as the best way to achieve it – although few would put it in those terms.

But recognising it as nationalism is crucial for understanding the risks ahead of us. If the referendum returns a Yes vote the fraught negotiations between Westminster and Holyrood will inevitably create further division between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Politicians on each side of the border will have every incentive to get the best possible deal for their constituents, at the expense of their now foreign neighbours.

Scotland will continue to face the perils of international capital and its problems will not disappear. But when the left fights for concessions from the Scottish establishment it will start from a weaker place. It will have lost large chunks of support from the rest of the UK’s labour movement – not due to animosity or hatred but because their priorities are no longer aligned. Moreover, it will be all too easy for the Scottish political elite to blame Westminster bullying during the negotiation period and after. This will continue to obscure the conflicts at home, inherent in all capitalist societies.

Ultimately nationalism always appears with promises of a better future. But history has repeatedly taught us that it is class unity that creates a fairer world.

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