Editorial: Finally, Britain is beginning to understand civic nationalism

When the ‘Better Together’ campaign to save the union launched at the end of June, they appeared to have reached the conclusion that the most effective way of exploiting the potent emotions of patriotism to their advantage was through out-Scottishing their opponents. It was, in some ways, a confusing move from both a pro-independence and a neutral perspective. If the United Kingdom is so wonderful, why the aversion to the Union Flag and the language of ‘Great Britain’?

The tactic makes sense, of course. One poll in February suggested that 54% of Scots define themselves as either ‘Scottish not British’, or ‘more Scottish than British’, with 31% ‘Scottish and British’. The language and symbolism of Scotland appeared to be a far safer bet in winning over people’s hearts while you work on their minds (though that dichotomy can be exaggerated – the ‘heart/mind’ relationship is complex to the point of being inseperable).

The reluctance to use the Union Flag also showed how even the most ardent unionists perceive the symbols of Britishness. The tacky ‘Keep Calm’ patriotism of TV series Made In Chelsea is only marginally less of a turn-off than the insurgency of the far-right into the realm of British patriotism, and associations with elitism or racism are understandably avoided like the plague by pro-union politicians.

The significance we place on the symbols of our multiple nationalities tells us a lot about the different strands of nationalism that exist on these isles. In Scotland, we make a lot of noise about our ‘civic nationalism’ – an open, inclusive brand of national pride based on shared goals, values and institutions, summed up by the late Bashir Ahmed, Scotland’s first Asian MSP:

 “It is not important where we have come from; it’s where we’re going together, as a nation.”

Civic nationalism is a concept that most senior unionists seem utterly incapable of understanding. From every corner, the SNP and other pro-independence campaigners hear accusations of ‘narrow nationalism’, ‘anti-Englishness’ and ‘separatism’, despite openly and loudly campaigning for an independent Scotland that rejects the occasional forays into anti-immigrant populism taken by Westminster politicians of all stripes (except for those titans of principled politics in the Liberal Democrats, of course).

When we talk about flags and anthems, however, we aren’t really talking about civic nationalism. This is what political scientists call ‘banal nationalism’ – often perceived as being handed down from above by cynical politicians hoping to use national pride to shore up their legitimacy. Banal nationalism can spill over into full-blown jingoism, as Margaret Thatcher demonstrated when she surrounded herself in Union Flags after the Falklands War. Britain’s defeat of the Argentines, and Thatcher’s subsequent embrace of the symbols of British nationalism, gave her the boost she needed to turn flagging support into a general election victory in 1983.

Finally, we have the spectre of ethnic nationalism, which can often taint its banal or civic equivalents. British Future’s study of British identities, ‘This Sceptred Isle’ (which is a fascinating insight into various UK nationalisms) found that England’s St. George’s Cross is associated with racism by 24% of respondents, compared with 10% and 7% for the Scottish and Welsh flags respectively. This brand of nationalism tends to be the only one we’re taught about in schools, from the white supremacist ‘paternalism’ of the British Empire to the horror of Nazism in Europe, and the simplistic image of nationalism presented in modern schools may go some way to explaining the cluelessness of those that still see the SNP as ‘Scotland’s BNP’.

There is also the rather more complex cultural nationalism – a blend of civic, banal and ethnic nationalism that focuses on arts, folklore and tradition, but tends to be so deeply tied in with language that it can spill into the murky waters of supremacist intolerance.

Obviously, it’s not as clear-cut as those distinctions make out. Nationalisms cut across each other, depending on the place, time and people. They can operate as many identities within a state, a single state-based identity or as a pan-state identity. Various nationalisms can overlap and interact, and this complexity is evident in Scotland, demonstrated by the one in three Scots defining themselves as both ‘Scottish and British’. Within Scotland, there is Highland/Lowland, Island/Mainland, East Coast/West Coast, East Side/West Side/Morningside, Celtic/Rangers and so on.

This all boils down to the innate tendency of humans to associate. We organise ourselves into groups – tribes, even – that then inevitably define themselves against others. In his book ‘Stone Age Economics’, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins drew on studies of hunter-gatherer societies to paint a picture of how humans operate and interact when all the debris of modern life is stripped away. These stateless societies are often seen as representative of human nature at its purest, and can be immensely helpful in shaping modern political theories on almost anything. Sahlin’s hunter-gatherers, taken from various locations across the globe, share a tendency towards intensely communistic structures. They share and cooperate on everything, responding to ‘scarce’ resources and nomadic lifestyles with strict egalitarianism and an absence of private property. We work best in tight-knit groups.

It’s not all sharing and caring, though. In his classic work ‘mutual aid’, the Russian anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin points out that when one tribe encounters another, things can often get nasty. One of the central functions of their mobile, communitarian existence is to keep them ready for conflict with other groups that might emerge over resources, territory or the settling of ‘blood debts’ after a murder or mutilation. Sahlins and Kropotkin’s work shows us that humans are deeply social animals, but only up to a point. Our sociability is deeply intertwined with our competitiveness, and they feed off one another.

What we can take from this is that societies and groups, be they organised under a state or not, require a degree of competition with others to engender some sense of social solidarity. Humans are not inherently self-interested, as many right-wingers would have us believe, but groups often are.

This all sounds rather scary. Do we need the perpetual threat of conflict with others to maintain the social contract that ensures our cooperation? This isn’t necessarily the case. It all really depends on how we judge success. If ‘success’ over another state means the ability to overpower them with force, then it’s a dangerous concept. If, however, we see success as the improvement of wellbeing, greater equality and international engagement, we can use that competitiveness to positive ends. To say: “Let’s be a more equal nation than the USA” is a far more constructive use of patriotic endeavour than: “Let’s invade Argentina to show everyone how tough we are”. After all, military strength is becoming increasingly irrelevant, even dangerous, in a world of supranational terrorism and cyber-warfare.

It is this progressive competitive spirit that has been on show at the Olympic games. In the opening ceremony, Britain held up two fingers of defiance to the US politicians who criticise the NHS and the organisation of the games, and took the opportunity to show China that a successful tournament can be organised without mass repression (although let’s not forget critical mass). In celebrating the victories of the British-Somalian Mo Farah and mixed-race Jessica Ennis, Brits hit back at the open xenophobia broadcast from the pages of the Daily Mail. The British pride on show is a pride in diversity, solidarity and inclusivity, not the backwards intolerance of the BNP, EDL or UKIP. It is civic nationalism at its best, and should be celebrated.

Of all the positives to come out of these Olympics, surely one of the most significant is the potential reclamation of ‘Britishness’ and the Union Flag as symbols of defiance against the forces of intolerance and racism. From the perspective of the independence debate, perhaps these games can give those who still see the independence movement as ‘narrow nationalism’ a better understanding of how complex nationalism can be. If the Brits can embrace the positive, constructive nationalism on show in these games, maybe we’ll see a little more respect for those in Scotland who feel the same about their own country.

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  1. Charles O'Brien

    I think it could be said that Scotland has the ability and the generosity of spirit to be a truly internationalist country,as we naturally,are gregarious and have a social awareness that we can help others to see the best in themselves,but only if we can firstly see the best in ourselves.
    The United Kingdom or Britain and Northern Ireland is a new union and has not worked very well since its inception in 1927 (circa). It is an unfair union as it is not run along the lines of what is best for the people but for the few elite in the square mile of London.

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