Editorial: If You Don’t Like Nationalism, Vote ‘Yes’

The Labour Party doesn’t like Scottish nationalism. This much we know. It is one of the few things shared between the left and right of the party, particularly now the combination of a successful SNP and a right-leaning Labour leadership has emptied their ranks of ‘independently minded’ Scots. Barely a press conference goes by without a high-profile dig at the ‘narrow’, ‘divisive’ nationalism of the SNP and their ‘nat’ cronies, and this rhetoric has been easily welded onto the Labour-led Better Together campaign. Just yesterday, Better Together frontman and former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling articulated his mistrust of those who support independence, telling The Independent that “anyone who knows anything about the nationalist will know that they’ll chance their arm, if you like.”

So we want to make something clear to anybody who thinks Labour have a point: if you don’t like nationalism, you should vote Yes in 2014.

We have tried repeatedly to explain that most modern Scottish nationalism is a thoughtful, cosmopolitan, civic nationalism. Our own nationalism (although not all of us would define ourselves as nationalists) is founded on the idea that we must elevate ourselves above the myth of Scottish social democracy in order to see with clear eyes how best to make it real in a confident and creative independent state – and maybe even move beyond it into something new and even more vital…

Our pleas for understanding appear to have been ignored. It’s odd, really, because the British Labour Party is now embracing civic nationalism as part of its ‘One Nation’ rebrand. In a recent LabourList pamphlet edited by Ed Miliband’s policy guru Jon Cruddas titled One Nation Labour – Debating The Future, Southampton MP John Denham offers the best summary of this new approach:

If the idea of progressive patriotism was once anathema, for One Nation Labour it’s a powerful framework for centre left values. If we once thought progress meant weakening national identities there has been a profound rethink.

It’s curious that the nationalist agenda of ‘One Nation’ has got the Labour leadership so excited, considering their usual attitude towards the ‘progressive patriotism’ of the SNP.

But that’s exactly it: Labour are all about one nation, not two, three or four. To a party so deeply rooted across the British state (with the possible exception of Northern Ireland), the idea of Scotland’s departure is akin to dismemberment. The awkward infighting and apparent aimlessness of the newly ‘independent’ Scottish Labour party is unsurprising from this perspective. They’re scratching at a phantom limb, unwittingly looking for leadership where it once was but is no more. ‘One Nation’ tells us that Labour are, more than ever, a party of a proud and resolute British civic nationalism that cannot bend beyond devolution.

It’s no wonder they hate the independence movement so much. Through spectacles tinted with the Labour rose, Alex Salmond can be seen patting the great guillotine of ‘Yes’ with the hungry look on his face first seen on that nightmare day in 2007.

A great deal of the Labour Party’s positioning of Britain ‘over’ Scotland, in terms of national identity at least, comes from the historical unity of the British labour movement, which is still the backbone of the party and has cooperated for over a century across the UK to advance the interests of its members. If the British labour movement is indeed ‘British’, independence or the demand for it can be seen as obstacles to the emergence of a powerful and radical working class.

On the other hand, the cause of the British worker is undeniably held back by the institutional and electoral conservatism of the British State. This is an argument made by James Foley’s ISG pamphlet Britain Must Break: The Internationalist Case For Independence. Even on the radical and internationalist left, we find confusion: uniting British workers, or smashing the British state?

This week’s @ScotVoices curator and actor Tam Dean Burn offers a thought-provoking argument to explain his apparent disenfranchisement:

I cannot accept that there is any national road to socialism and believe that calling for a Yes vote is fostering the dangerous delusion that capitalism can at least be made better by a Scottish state. I believe the best way forward is for us to organise a fightback on as wide a scale as possible and right now that means on a European-wide level at least.”

But in no way would I want to be identified with the Unionist ‘Better Together’ platform. I want to see the smashing of the British state. So at the moment, the very unsatisfactory position I find myself in is to call for a spoilt ballot-paper in the referendum – a pox on both houses, neither Westminster nor Holyrood – but hopefully, the next year and a half can produce something more positive…”

This is a fair point, and one that hasn’t been made enough in the debate so far. But we don’t accept that “a pox on both houses” is the only option from any perspective, particularly a radical one. There’s another way of looking at things – one that requires a degree of compromise, a dash of realism, and a large slap round the back of the head for entertaining the painfully neoliberal notions of “compromise” and “realism”. But entertain them we must.

In Scotland, nationalism is not the same as imperialism, jingoism or fascism. After independence, it will not metastasise into some supremacist beast – anybody with friends or family who support independence understands how ridiculous that idea is. After independence, most of those who currently define themselves as “nationalists” will adopt a new political identity in response to whatever political climate we end up with. Those of a more chauvinist persuasion for whom this debate offers an unfortunate platform will most likely fade back into rambling obscurity.

You might not know it from twitter and FMQ’s, but ours is the relatively calm and polite nationalism of self-determination: a request to be equal in a world of interdependent nation-states, not superior. We obviously think that this is a laudable aspiration, but we also recognise that this passionate and all-encompassing vision has corrupted and undermined almost every other major political issue in Scotland since devolution.

Our parliament has done some impressive things, and Salmond’s Jimmy Reid Address this week was in part a reminder of the SNP’s contribution to that canon. But perhaps a devolved Scotland without the dividing line of independence would have had the dynamism and unity of voice to make greater inroads into our unacceptable levels of deprivation and inequality, and could have fostered the wider debates about our economy, democracy and society that have been missing until now. The referendum debate has finally given us a chance to talk about what kind of nation we want to be, but the referendum won’t last forever.

Constitutional gridlock is not exclusive to Scotland. In Catalonia, Quebec and Belgium, nationalist and autonomist movements often dominate political discourse in their own territories and the wider state for years or decades, impeding reasonable discussion of the very issues that they propose to solve after constitutional change. Their ambitions are often justified and progressive, and we support any nation’s right to self-determination; but until they succeed, their controversial existence hinders a lot of potential short-term progress.

This is not to say independence movements should just give up and disappear. In any nation with a degree of autonomy, the appeal of the real deal is irresistible to many. No matter how much devolution is given, the desire for independence will remain powerful until it is realised.

The First Minister was reportedly reluctant to appear too friendly with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on her recent visit to Scotland because he didn’t want to risk association with Quebec’s infamous ‘neverendum’. Nevertheless, Quebec is a fine example of why any road to independence is inevitably going to see one of three things: fast progress, slow progress or awkward and endless loitering. Recent polls in Scotland have shown a probable pro-independence “floor” – the point below which support is unflinching – of between 23% and 30%. That’s about a quarter of the electorate, and even if doesn’t rise, it’s not going to go away and shut up any time soon.

Our members are entirely prepared to accept the result of the referendum. In the event of a No, most will probably campaign for the greatest possible devolution in the ensuing political turmoil before opting to work within whatever consensus emerges. But as long as Scotland sees itself as a nation, and as long as there is an established and supported pro-independence or pro-autonomy party (a No vote will certainly not ‘kill’ the SNP), it is an issue that will cast a shadow over devolved Scottish politics.

At a time when independence needs all the support it can get from radicals and progressives, a spoilt ballot plays into Better Together’s hands. The No campaign can rely on conservative and some moderate support, and need only hope that the left either splits or doesn’t turn up. A No vote will achieve nothing more than the continuation of a political style in Scotland that shelves the ‘issues’ until the demand for independence is either politically neutered or realized. Sure, wounded nationalism might sulk for a while, but it’s only a matter of time before something makes it resurface. A No vote will continue to split most of the Scottish left between Labour and the SNP, diluting their demands by mixing them with more conservative interests. A No vote will only draw out a sluggish disentanglement of Scottish and rest-of-UK labour movements rather than engendering the radical refocusing and reorganising required to achieve concrete gains in a multi-polity and increasingly divergent Britain.

As long as we remain in the union, the reactionary nationalism of the British state isn’t going to go away, and neither is existential confusion and division at Holyrood. In both of those options, short-term and long-term progress is slower and harder than we can afford in the face of a growing environmental and social crisis. We need active, nimble democracies, shorn of national myths and ‘one nation’ platitudes. For a political agenda led and driven by working people rather than conservative elites, the abstraction of real issues into an endless battle of idealistic nationalisms must end. The only way that happens is with independence.

Thanks to Wings Over Scotland for the Alistair Darling quote in the first paragraph.

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There are 9 comments

  1. DMaquinon

    You cite cataluña, and say you support their cause. Then you talk about ending ideological nationalistic tendencies. Well if you knew anything about cataluña, you’d know their nationalism is wholly based on ideology, and actually a great deal of myth to boot.

    1. Andy Ellis

      Why would your take be intrinsically more convincing than that of the many Catalans calling for independence? Their experience and history are of course much different from that of Scotland, and the Catalan language plays a huge role in their debate, but there are also similarities. Any such struggle will of course have an ideological component…how could it not?

      BUT, the current coalition calling for Catalan independence contains parties from left and right (unlike Scotland where it is overwhelmingly dominated by one “umbrella” party largely regarded as centre-left), and Catalonia is the richest part of Spain which resents subsidising the rump of Spain… not really like the Scottish situation.

      Myths will operate in any such situation, as they will on the unionist side: independence cannot, indeed should not, ONLY be about economics. There is a place for an independence of the heart and soul, as well as of the head. Crying wolf about the negative aspects of nationals over the centuries is a cheap shot often used by unionists to deflect attention away from the real appeal of broadly based, progressive civic nationalism like that in Scotland.

      1. DMaquinon

        My take is completely free of the kind of ideological indoctrination of the people of cataluña that has gone on for 30 odd years.

        Do you think it would be a good idea to create a common Scots language, which traditionally varied from town to town and has no written form, then to legislate its use throughout Scotland in every facet of business and society? We would have to translate everything into Scots, and have such laws as a minimum number of cinemas showing films dubbed into Scots. Sounds like a joke to me.

        Well that’s what’s happening there.

        Businesses are moving their offices out of the place due to this ridiculous insistence of Catalan, which was never a common language among the people of the Kingdom of Aragon.

        Catalan nationalism is a horrible chauvinistic movement based on enforcing the notion that they are different and better than the rest of Spain.

        You won’t see any areas there with life expectancies in the region of late 50s. As you say, they are the richest area in Spain.


        Well because their infrastructure and industry received heavy investment through the Franco years, as did Pais Vasco.

        Spain has a lot of economic troubles, and I’m saying as a very partisan supporter of Scottish independence that separating their autonomous regions is not the answer to them.

        I just wish we would leave other situations out of our own debate. None of them should matter one iota when it comes to Scotland, and identifying our cause with the Catalan question only tarnishes the good intentions of the Scottish independence movement.

        Sadly though, in my experience, nobody is really willing to listen, I suspect as a result of people simply looking for anything possible to use to justify their own position.

  2. Spammo Twatbury

    “This is a fair point”

    If by “fair point” you mean “yelping lunacy”, yes. He actually said “smash the state”! And I’d love to know what an actual “fightback on as wide a scale as possible and right now that means on a European-wide level” would entail. It’s fantasy-world workers’-revolution rubbish, which is all well and good in its own right but as you suggest, I hope it comforts him when his spoiled ballot condemns Scotland to countless more years of Tory government.

    1. Roary Scothorne

      I don’t think we be so quick to dismiss the arguments of those on the far left. On a personal level I can at least understand where he’s coming from. For me, independence is a necessary step in the development of a genuinely international (or at least European) socialist alternative, by stripping away the confounding layer of nationalisms and bringing us into closer contact with social and political realities. I am in that sense a *temporary* nationalist, and I would advocate a similar position for the rest of ‘the left’ – obviously that doesn’t necessarily reflect the general political stance of national collective, which is a broad church. We’re just trying to get the various arguments out there. Thank you for your kind comments on twitter, by the way :)

  3. Gregor Addison

    re: Tam Dean Burn’s quote – this is the myth of the socialist rapture, that we’ll all rise together and be free of our chains, that progress cannot be incremental, or local, and this would leave us damning those countries that have opted for socialist governments for not waiting on wider movements. It is a deceit, of course, because the very people who peddle this myth support socialist governments and wouldn’t dare argue that they should have waited until everyone was ready. So why shouldn’t Scots who want a socialist country (and to spread socialism further afield) vote YES? Does Tam Dean Burn lack faith in others supporting his political vision?

    The argument for one socialist revolution reinforces the negative idea that we should wait, wait for others to deliver on our behalf. In what way does that encourage any political project? It is the same argument that we hear about our only choice being to wait for England to vote Labour, wait for England to decide federalism is in its interest, wait for England to decide our future in the EU. Scotland is seen as the waiting room of UK politics. Self-determination, the right to decide the kind of society we want, to set our own aspirations, is dismissed as selfishness. Instead, we are to allow others to take decisions on our behalf. I remember a quote by Paulo Friere, “Self-deprecation is another characteristic of the oppressed…so often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything – that they are sick, lazy and unproductive – that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.”

  4. Guest

    Does not Scottish nationalism rest on the notion that you are superior to the rest of the UK in that you are intrinsically fairer, more generous, honest,NICER than the rest of the UK? Does that not make consider yourselves superior?

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