Embracing The Politics Of Place: Globalisation And Independence

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“Localization, it seems, is not so much “other” to globalization as contained within it, brought into being by it, indeed part of globalization itself.”

J.K Gibson-Graham, Querying Globalization

Every good political idea is met with threats of capital flight. Shrill though these boardroom proclamations are, they tell us something of profound interest about Scotland’s coming referendum. Namely, that it’s about established power reacting against the politics of place in the only way it knows how: by threatening to move somewhere else.

Scotland is not oppressed. This is a fact that unionists of all political persuasions are keen to point out. There is no existential threat to the Scottish nation and the tanks haven’t been out in George Square since 1919. Also, even if the British state’s project of extending the reach of its power and capital all over the globe is something you now wish to disown, guess what jock? Your great-great-granddad probably had a hand in suppressing the Indian Mutiny.

Small wonder that Scottish ‘nationalism’, with its famous ups and downs and twists and turns, is often the cause of bafflement for those looking on from afar.

Scottishness doesn’t reveal much in this regard. There is no existential threat to Scottish national identity, it exists, some would say thrives, under the union. 62% of Scots in the last census saw themselves as ‘Scottish only’. 

Dealt with in terms of identity Scottish nationalism is easy to dismiss. It’s seen as a reactionary force, despite the social democratic credentials of its most vocal exponents. Like UKIP, or the Front National, it is tapping into a rich seam of voters alienated by metropolitan voices that increasingly elitist larger parties have lost the ability to connect with. Except it’s not.

Instead those who truly wish to understand what the desire for a Scottish nation-state is really about should disregard the term nationalism. It is far too slippery to be of any use and stems from a multiplicity of particular circumstances. Instead, they should consider the issue of place.

It is place, not ethnic-scapegoating, that is the driving force behind the broad movement towards a Yes vote. The Scottish Government’s White Paper is unambiguous on this front. Whatever its flaws, the document’s historical significance lies in its clear codifying of Scotland as a ‘here’ not an ‘us’. There is ample precedent for this. Scottish writing from Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Hugh MacDiarmid to Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie and James Robertson, tell us that it is a unique brew of landscape, geology, place and community that sparked and sustain the process of national revival. The dream is not for archaic notions of bloodline (something intelligent pro-union voices still cite) or ethnic purity, rather it is for the very real contours of this place that we collectivity call Scotland.

Scottish politics is bloodless for precisely this reason. Those who have sought to map out what a new Scotland could be, have not done so to draw a line between us and them. The border, it must be noted, has not gone away in 300 years.

Even at its height the British state never embarked on the kind of linguistic centralisation experienced in countries such as France. In contrast, a kind of ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ emerged, expressing a vitally strong link between place and culture in the British Isles.

For these and other reasons, Scotland has obviously, self-evidently, remained a different place to England. Only an elitist could find such difference negative or unworthy of a modern political project. Of course, a blindness to particular differences or circumstances is what defines the global elite who own most of our planet’s wealth.

Geography tells us more than anything else about a country, with a remarkable amount of indigenous variety, strongly attached to its native soil. However this is not some romanticised notion, it is a very real place based identity forged from centuries of political alienation, emigration and crass exploitation. Perhaps for many, stripped of a sense of political, social, economic or even cultural agency, place became the one irrefutable claim of right. At its most basic the ability to assert where you’re from was the only available rallying cry to a people all too often turfed off the land, locked out of jobs and left out of politics.

It was a Scot, Patrick Geddes who first suggest that we should think global and act local. This contrasts with the standard progressive defence of the union: that action can only be effective at a global level. The removal and likely mothballing of Trident in the event of a Yes vote is derided in comparison with an entirely undefined notional commitment to multilateral disarmament from Labour. Our status as the ‘sick man of Europe’ cannot be tackled through independence, it would, we are told, be selfish to take distinctive action unless it is in step with the rest of the UK. The ludicrous notion that Britain acts as a force for progress on the world stage, is reduced to the notion that Security Council members (old Empires) have some kind of inalienable right and ability to make the world a better place. A litany of foreign policy disasters over the past sixty years make a mockery of the notion that large nation states acting on a global level make a more just world.

Whatever their impact: all acts of resistance must be local. Opportunities to challenge the neo-liberal consensus that Britain has championed are rare. By following the potential for local change (and in a world of seven billion, devolving full sovereignty to five million people is in a sense a very radical act of localism) we have a new democratic space, not just to make a better nation, but to find a better way of being a nation.

Perhaps this is why, intermittent tabloid hysteria aside, many commentators are befuddled by Scotland’s progressive, almost insipidly polite form of hope filled nationalist rhetoric. This is because it’s not really nationalist at all. Though many are simply blinded by the “n” word, where some expect to see ethnic grudge, messianic nation-destiny, or hyper-conservatism in Scotland, there is an empty space. It is a politics of place that has filled that gap.

This is why it demeans the truly remarkable quality of this debate to smear it with archaic conceptions of nationalism, crude and grossly inaccurate references to ‘balkanisation’ or fictitious notions that Scottish society is reverting to medieval blood feud to cope with an endemic post-Thatcher crisis. The search for a new Scotland is a profoundly modern one. Far less a narrow reaction to globalisation, it is instead a product of an ever more networked global society.

Contrary to what reactionary forces may tell us, global connectivity does not diminish our sense of inhabiting real, tangible places. If anything it does the opposite. The global dimension now present in all of our lives brings the local into sharper focus, alongside an awareness of other cultures, places, languages and models that we can apply to ourselves.

What this global consciousness does to our sense of time, our sense of security and the nature of our horizons is more complex. Our 21st century world is one in which the flow of information can seem to accelerate time and space to the extent that we feel entirely unable to assimilate everything that could be of profound significance to our ecology, locality or collective hopes.

Recorded culture, gradually embedding itself after a century of innovation and experiment drastically alters how we understand who we are, and just as crucially, where we are. Today, the definitive cultural experience is not one of the early 20th century modernist, to ‘make it new’ nor that of the hedonistic optimism of the sixties. Instead it has been shaped almost entirely by the act of rediscovery: a thirst for that which is not labelled and instantly consumable.

Again, this reality has two faces. The more that place seems to be thrown into flux by the fleeting promise of global opportunity and connection, the more authenticity, rootedness, culture and community have become the only invaluable commodities. This is not, by any means, a uniquely Scottish experience. Post-modern or not, the search for somewhere that is real to belong to is as universal as it is particular. Or as MacDiarmid put it in more insistent terms, ‘The universal is the particular’.

In contrast, neo-liberalism is about the abdication of place in favour of a nebulous concept of the global, of growth and the ability of capital to retreat on its own terms. Though Scottish independence many not usher in a new era of escape from this nihilistic straightjacket, it contains inherently radical potential. As an act it asserts a territorial place based politics above the threats of extraterritorial actors, whether in the shape of banks, corporations, elites or intergovernmental bodies.

In this sense there is a strong global dimension to the politics of the Yes movement. It does not conform to conventional ‘nation-building’, it is acutely laid back, some might say promiscuous, with the concept of sovereignty. Yet it is unflinching about one fundamental: there is a place called Scotland that should be governed by the people who live here. A place that, contemplating some radical changes, is now being told that its financial expertise, natural resources and global brand will suddenly be of less use to global corporations if it shrugs off the status quo.

The core accusation that is levelled agains the many voices backing a Yes vote is parochialism. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh provides a useful riposte to such metropolitan elitism in his essay ‘The Parish and the Universe’ which asserts ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’.

Joseph Stiglitz, one of several Nobel Laureates embroiled in the question of what currency Scotland should have, described the 2008 financial crisis with remarkable clarity as, ‘the socialisation of losses and the privatisation of gains’. Keen observers of the Irish experience have pointed out that alongside this, there is an equally pervasive trend towards the ‘localisation of losses and the globalisation of gains’.

With independence we can take steps to redress these two defining traits of the post-crash global economy. Why? Because our unrivalled sense of place, with all of its cultural and political resonance, cannot be off-shored, outsourced or taken from us.

This is perhaps the one truth that we can take from the indyref experience and its precursors: that no place should be privileged above any other. That a better form of nationhood can begin to assert this is something that a new Scotland will have to prove. That is why the world is watching.

Christopher Silver
National Collective

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There is one comment

  1. Fraser MacDonald

    ‘Nationalism’ has been replaced by ‘a politics of place’ (isn’t the former a variety of the latter?) argues, er, @wearenational

    Epigraph from the wonderful JK Gibson-Graham doesn’t disguise what is basically a Heideggerian position here i.e. “place is the locale of the truth of being”.

    Even aside from this, ahem, problematic invocation of authenticity, place is as much an accumulation strategy under neoliberalism as it is a site of resistance. Ditto nation.

    The independence movement cannot simply be conflated with a desire for a Scottish ‘nation-state’. Lots of people – okay, well, me at least – might want independence but also believe that nationhood gives us no necessary basis for sovereignty. Nationhood simply does not have to be any part of the independence question.

    “Geography tells us more than anything else about a country” No. Geography does not precede our telling: geography IS our telling.

    Sorry, slight trolling here and I can see that this piece is well-intentioned and raising important issues. But I could hardly disagree more.

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