The Eclipse Of Scottish Nationalism

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We don’t need to tell everyone we’re Scottish, we know that. What we have to talk about now is the kind of place we want to live in.

Elaine C Smith, Calton Hill Saturday 21st September

Even those of us sympathetic to Scotland’s right to rule itself are repelled by the chauvinistic yes campaign

The Observer, Sunday 22nd September

…in a speech peppered with references to Mr Salmond, Ms Lamont delivered the most virulent attack on the “politics of nationalism”. Although she did not name any particular examples, such as Nazi Germany, she described it as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”.

Johann Lamont: Referendum a chance to dispel ‘virus’ of nationalism, Daily Telegraph 22 September

There are two schools of thought on what it means to be Scottish today.

The first contends that Scottish identity and culture should be treasured, that Scotland is ‘the best country in the world’ as it is, but that the independence movement is only perpetuating regressive ideas of Scotland and cultural cringe.

The second (to which I subscribe) is that, if there is one big beast that will be slain by independence, it will be the need to overstate our nationality. Scotland’s extended identity crisis, borne from the need of politicians to make national identity a contested issue, will become a thing of the past.

With tens of thousands of other Scots, I took part in Saturday’s march and rally in Edinburgh. It was a humbling experience. The strength of the event could be seen not only in a massive increase in numbers, but also the diversity of activist groups that took part. It was not simply a ‘sea of saltires’ that stretched up Edinburgh’s High Street, but a rich tapestry of groups and communities unified by their support for independence.

The event did have nationalist overtones, symbols abounded, much like the national days that take place in most northern European countries. Yet the patriotic, ‘best country in the world’ unionists would presumably see such an event, or Bastille Day for example, as symptomatic of the virus of nationalism (though Gordon Brown’s abortive proposal for a UK version is deemed perfectly healthy).

Given that a great swathe of our political establishment is locked into this regressive view of Scottish nationality, it is  unsurprising that the event only received significant attention from foreign media outlets.

This undeniably historic happening, bringing together so many separate yet interlinked narratives, was bumped down web pages and schedules in favour of a ceilidh at the Labour party conference, chat about pensions and the birth of a koala. This mass act of support for a campaign; though it gathered numbers to rival major protest marches; was largely ignored.

That ignorance about what is happening in Scotland could be seen in Sunday’s Observer in which Catherine Bennett opted to wax lyrical about the apparent chauvinism of the yes campaign. This kind of editorialising on Scotland: inaccurate and demeaning as it is, only serves to highlight why we now need our own state. In the historic year to come, we will note time and time again that however loudly the Yes campaign talks about the future, certain ears will only hear incantations about a dim and distant past.

The one comfort we have is that the campaign on the ground is growing and that every single individual who took part in Saturday’s events is aware of the progressive, forward looking nature of the campaign. At the rally not a single speaker dwelt on Scotland’s past with the exception of Colin Fox who name checked two great forgotten Scottish radicals killed by the British state, Thomas Muir and John Maclean.

Though Muir and Maclean may be largely forgotten; as Scots learn more about how noteworthy their own history is; inherited inferiority is inevitably challenged. That’s why I have always contended that the notorious ‘Scottish cringe’ represents nothing unique on the part of the Scots.

All nations, to some degree, export and market a fictionalised image to the world. In most cases this is made up of cliché and caricature. The difference is that most other national cultures have that ability to express an accurate reality about themselves through self-government.

A shared history and culture is a profoundly important part of the fabric of any place. It defines the way a national community choses to builds its cities, how it cooks its food, or how it speaks its language. Crucially it also impacts on how it chooses to govern itself by expressing the values that define it. To think otherwise at this historic juncture is the ultimate incarnation of what Tom Nairn defined as ‘Cultural Sub-nationalism’.

The long history of support for Scottish self-determination has had a celebration of our own cultural as its hallmark. Inevitably this has unearthed positive and negative facets of our character. As when individuals look at their ancestry there is a tendency to focus on the more flattering characters: yet who would deny the natural fascination all have with that inheritance? The task in Scotland, as evidenced on Saturday, is simply to look those problems from our past in the face and not hide beneath the inertia borne of being an appendage of a far larger state.

When as Scots, we cringe, it is not because we know that tartan is inauthentic, that Bruce was a Norman baron, or that Bonnie Prince Charlie was as over indulged as Justin Bieber, but because we so often lack the space to tell real stories about who we are and who we want to be as a people. National myths are myths, plain and simple. In Scotland they take on a strange significance because of our current inability to properly shape our present and future. It is only as a result of independence that we will be able to express a modern alternative.

So let us suppose that Catherine Bennett will indulge the Yes campaign in a bit of research and perhaps listen to the wide range of voices that contributed to Saturday’s rally. She will realise that neither an interest in medieval battles or the topics of tourist geared government initiatives hold any bearing on the campaign to make Scotland an independent country.

Independence will offer not just increased confidence that must come from the ability to express who we are by shaping the society we want. It will land the death blow to this weird (often unionist) need to shout about Scottishness.

Within the strange cultural anomaly that is the union, every legacy must be fought over and hollowed out according to its place in relation to the independence question. At long last we are nearing a point at which the ‘Scottish question’ in all of its strange political and cultural incarnations no longer needs to be asked. Scottishness will no longer be something that we have to transcend or analyse: any more than we would seek to obsessively examine the Norwegian nature of Ibsen, or ask how much of a Finn Sibelius was.

Hugh MacDiarmid is a prime example. Though he is often counted among the likes of Ezra Pound, W.B Yeats and D H Lawrence as one of the greatest modernist writers he has been ostracised in his native land. Why? Because, just like all of the other writers I have just mentioned, in the 1920s he dabbled with fascism. Yet unlike the others, his legacy; at the roots of Scottish nationalism; has had to be defamed by other Scots terrified at the key concern of his work, summed up in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle:

And let the lesson be – to be yersel’s,
Ye needna fash gin it’s to be ocht else.
To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’,
Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en.’

It’s a message that, almost a century later, resonates with the progressive, inclusive contemporary face of the Yes movement on show last Saturday.

Only independence can deliver a healthy state of affairs in which we no longer need to reductively question each other’s Scottishness: it will be a given. This is why so many unionists are at pains to assert Scottish patriotism when no one has ever asked them to: the Scottish nationalism they despise, like Bennett’s is a fiction. They still see a Scotland that is parochial and incapable, or a ‘narrow tartan backwater’ to quote one prominent advocate of the union.

I felt a great deal of pride taking part in Saturday’s events, but it was not pride borne from some abstract idea of Scottishness. It was pride  in the quality and conviction of those assembled to change their own part of the world. I was privileged to sing two songs, with TradYes,  not about nationalism, but about internationalism: to a crowd that responded with a knowing affinity.

I’m proud to be a Scot because we are able to sing songs about a better Scotland and a better world in the same breath: ‘That man tae man the hale world ower, shall brithers be for a that’. Only a nation with a very canny understanding of the limits of nationalism could have a national poet who was also pioneer of global solidarity.

Saturday’s rally was an event at which chauvinism had no place. It was rich and inspiring in its celebration of a shared past projected onto a better future. Like the modern, self-governing nation that we caught a glimpse of at the top of that hill, our culture, identity, and history provide a starting point, not a conclusion.

Christopher Silver
National Collective

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  • Jeanne Tomlin

    It would be nice if you also didn’t buy English myths. Bruce was born in Carrack with more Scots than Normans in his ancestry, although he had both. But a man is not made what he is by his ancestry. Admire him or not, he was NO “Norman baron”.

    The English Lancercost Chronicle of his own time put it well: “He was a Scot so he joined the Scots.”

    • taranaich

      Even if the Bruce WAS purely Norman (which he wasn’t) and even if it emerged he wasn’t born in Scotland (he was), what would that change? He still lived in Scotland most of his life, he still fought for Scottish independence, he was still chosen by the people of Scotland to be their king, he still identified as a Scot – that would make him a Scottish hero even if he was born in Kenya to Kikuyu parents. The idea that any Scottish historical figure is somehow “less Scottish” for not being from the Pictish-Gaelic-Brythonic genetic lineage is exactly the sort of ethno-centric idea of national heroes subscribed to by the BNP or EDL.

      The Scots have always been a nation of migrants: Picts, Brythonic Celts, Norse, Gaels, Saxons, Normans and more.

      • Jeanne Tomlin

        You’re right. I just get tired of the misinformation–deliberate from the source and repeated through ignorance.

        Whether by blood, birth or choice, BRUCE WAS A SCOT!

        • taranaich

          Absolutely, not a big fan of misinformation myself.

  • Shaun Milne

    First off – Very Nice article and a welcome contribution.

    Now onto the negatives – Nationalism isn’t a dirty word. I wish the Yes side would stop thinking it is. YES Scotland represents Civic Nationalism. Pride in your country and a desire for ALL of its residents to have a better future.

    We shouldn’t be defending ourselves for being Nationalists.
    You are a Nationalist if you want what’s best for the people of Scotland.

    We buy into the Unionist idea of what Nationalism IS and thus reject it outright even when we know we don’t represent the insular, unfriendly, obsessed with the past Nationalism.

    They shouldn’t be dictating who we say we are. We should. ( And come 2014 we will :) )

    • Eric McLean

      I agree Shaun.

      All people, from Native Americans to Omanis or Zanzibari’s and everything in-between are proud of their history and culture. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a natural part of anthropology and sociology to want to find meaning in your history and culture.

      It must be clear to everyone that Britain fits the jingoistic interpretation of Nationalism much more accurately than Scotland, who don’t want to rule only themselves, not the world.

      As a businessman and someone who first and foremost supports Independence for economic reasons… I almost didn’t wear my kilt at the march on Saturday… in case it was seen as nationalistic and not serious.

      Luckily, I came to my senses in time. I am proud of my country, its music, art, history and culture. I love the lochs and mountains and weather. I have lived in mainland Europe, the Gulf, and San Francisco. My heart soars when I return home.

      Scotland is my home. It is my roots.

      Scottish Nationalist? Absolutely.

      British Nationalist? No chance.

      There is a WORLD of difference between them.

  • Susan Fiona Belton

    Our biggest problem is that we don’t believe in ourselves. Legacy of not having our own autonomy for centuries….

  • timfenian

    “If there is one big beast that will be slain by independence, it will be
    the need to overstate our nationality.”

    Thank you. I have a quiet pride in continuing the egalitarian ethos of the scheme I came from, which I appreciate as a sidewater of the whole Scottish thingy. I couldn’t tell you whether Bruce was Norman or Azerbejani, sorry. I look forwards to an independent Scotland so I don’t have to walk around with a sodding chip on my shoulder any more.