This is the fourth in a series of articles looking at the topics which will dominate the coming independence referendum campaign. These pieces are aimed at undecided voters and soft no voters. In this article I look at the claim that support for independence is nationalism and that opposition to Scottish independence is also opposition to nationalism.
Nationalism and Thatessempee – Supporting independence doesn’t make you a nationalist, opposing it doesn’t make you a non-nationalist
How many times have you heard someone say that they’re not going to vote for independence because they “hate that SNP”. Often Thatessempee is spat out as though it was a single word, and a swerrie word at that. Just as frequently you’ll hear people say that they don’t want to vote for independence because they don’t like Nicola Sturgeon, whose name has also developed a tendency among certain people to be spat out as though it was a swerrie word.
The overwhelmingly anti-independence media in Scotland has always been very keen to foster an association in the minds of the Scottish public between independence and a single political party. Most often the BBC presents discussions on independence by having on a sole representative from Thatessempee, and then “for balance”, he or she is up against a Labour person, a Tory, and a Lib Dem. The other main pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens, are rarely invited. Other smaller parties which support independence, like the Scottish Socialists who once had representation in Holyrood, never get a look in. The impression given is that Scottish independence is a party political project belonging in its entirety to Thatessempee.
The desire of the media and opponents of independence to foster the myth that Scottish independence is the sole preserve of Thatessempee is constant and unrelenting. How many times during the independence referendum campaign of 2014 did you hear the phrase Alex Salmond’s referendum? And how many times did you hear the UK being personalised by the name of the leader of the Better Together campaign as Alistair Darling’s No Campaign or Alistair Darling’s Pro-UK project? Not once, that’s how many times.
The aim of this messaging is to discourage people who do not support the SNP from engaging with the arguments for independence. Yet there are many independence supporters who do not support the SNP. There are other parties which back independence. There are even people within the traditionally anti-independence parties, particularly the Labour party in Scotland, who privately support independence. A vote for Scottish independence is not a vote for the SNP. The anti-independence parties and their friends in the Scottish media just want you to think it is.
When Scotland does become an independent country, and there’s a now a majority in Scotland who believe that it’s merely a matter of time before that happens, it will be a democracy. An independent Scotland will not be a one party SNP state. Voting for an independent Scotland is not a vote to have Nicola Sturgeon as dictator for life. In fact, voting for Scottish independence is not even a vote of confidence in the SNP. It’s certainly not a signal that you support the actions of the SNP administration of the devolved Scottish Government. A vote for independence is nothing more and nothing less than a statement that you believe that it is up to the people of Scotland to decide what course this country takes. It’s a statement that the government of Scotland should be elected by the people of Scotland and should be answerable to the people of Scotland and to no one else. Voting for independence is not party political.
The desire for Scottish independence is motivated by a recognition that Westminster governance is not allowing Scotland to develop to its full potential. It is driven by the understanding that there is a great deal that is wrong with Scotland, and these wrongs and shortcomings can best be addressed if the people of Scotland have a government which is responsible to them, and which puts the interests of Scotland first and foremost. Saying that you refuse to vote for independence because you hate Nicola Sturgeon or Thatessempee is rather like saying that you’re not going to have your toothache dealt with because you dislike a particular dentist. You’d rather have the toothache.
You may also have heard people say that they are voting against independence because they don’t like nationalism. Opponents of independence are very keen to paint the Scottish constitutional debate as a debate between nationalists on the one hand, and non-nationalists on the other. However this is untrue. The independence debate is not a debate between nationalism and non-nationalism. A vote against independence is equally a vote for a nationalist project, because by a vote against independence is effectively a vote to back the intensely nationalist project that is Brexit and to support a British state which is every bit as nationalist, if not more so, than an independent Scotland would be. In a debate between Scottish independence vs remaining a part of a Brexit UK whose government plasters union flags on everything there is no non-nationalist option.
Opponents of independence are aided in misleadingly characterising this as a debate between nationalism and non-nationalism by a deficit of the English language. The English term nationalism encompasses two very different political philosophies. Nationalism can mean the aggressive aggrandisement of an existing state. It’s often xenophobic, authoritarian, and intolerant. Brexit was driven by a British nationalism of this sort. Howeverthe word nationalism can also mean the campaign for independence by a nation which currently doesn’t have it. These are not the same political philosophies at all, and in some languages they are called by different names. Scottish nationalism is of the latter variety, and in Spanish it would be referred to by a different word, independentismo. Unfortunately if you try to adopt this term into English and call yourself a Scottish independentist, people just ask you how much you charge for orthodontic work, so it’s unlikely to catch on.
Mainstream Scottish nationalism is of the civic variety. It defines Scottishness not by where a person was born, but by where a person lives or how they choose to identify. Mainstream Scottish nationalism is honoured to accept as Scots those people born elsewhere who have come to this country, made their lives here, and have become a part of Scotland’s story and journey. Scottishness is not about where you came from, it’s about where we are all going.
Brexit on the other hand is most definitely strongly characterised by many of the features of the first kind of nationalism, the intolerant xenophobic sort. Opponents of independence seek to blur the distinction to get people to believe that by supporting Scottish independence, they are also supporting intolerance, xenophobia and racism. The claim that supporters of Scottish independence are anti-English racists is a constant refrain. However the movement for Scottish independence is no more defined by anti-English racism than opposition to independence is defined by the sectarianism, anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic bigotry of the Orange Order, or the out and out racism of Britain First, both of which are groups which oppose independence. The claim that Scottish independence is racist is a tactic designed to prevent people in Scotland from supporting independence. Yet one of the most active grassroots groups campaigning for independence is English Scots for Yes.
Even without Brexit, a vote against independence would still be a vote to support a nationalist project. It’s a vote to back a British state which is every bit as nationalist in its actions as any independent Scotland would be. In fact as a country which is quick to take military action around the globe in pursuit of what it sees as British interests, the UK is far more aggressively nationalist than an independent Scotland would ever be. Supporters of the British state do not get a free pass from nationalism just because they back the UK. Indeed, one of the defining myths of British nationalism is that it’s better than the nationalisms of lesser breeds by virtue of not being nationalist at all. It’s a comforting fairy story, but it’s not true.
The reality is that the debate about Scottish independence is not a debate between Scottish nationalism on the one hand and non-nationalism on the other. It’s a debate between two different visions for Scotland’s future. One vision puts that future into the hands of the people of Scotland, the other surrenders it to decisions made by a Westminster Parliament which is not primarily accountable to the people of Scotland. Both sides of this debate contain people who are nationalists, and both sides contain people who are not nationalists. The debate about Scottish independence is essentially a debate about accountability and democratic representation.
As we have seen with Brexit, Scotland is being subjected to a damaging and reckless estrangement from Europe even though the people of Scotland have consistently voted against it. Yet throughout this entire process the voices of Scotland’s parliament and elected representatives have been ignored and sidelined. As far as Brexit is concerned, the British Government has made precisely zero accommodations to the needs of Scotland. This is merely the latest and most egregious example of Scotland’s needs and concerns not being met by the Westminster Parliament. This happens because Westminster Governments do not rely upon Scottish votes in order to get into power, so are free to ignore Scotland’s needs with impunity. British governments are not accountable to the people of Scotland.
Over the past 50 years, Scotland has only had governments in Westminster that it voted for for a total of 17 years. As long as Scotland and the rest of the UK were on the same page politically, both alternating between Labour and the Conservatives, this was tolerable. Scotland got what it voted for often enough that we could pretend to ourselves that Scotland really was a partner in a Union. There was always another election in five years time. But that foundation myth of Scottish Unionism has been blown out of the water by Brexit. Brexit is forever, not just for five years, and the way in which Scotland was treated by Westminster during the Brexit process has proven that Westminster governments have no interest in making accommodations to Scotland’s needs or concerns.
Scottish independence is about establishing the principle that the path that Scotland takes should be decided by the people of Scotland. It is about ensuring that Scotland always has a government elected by the people of Scotland, and which is accountable to them and to no one else. If we cannot vote them out of office they will not take decisions in our interests. Theresa May or Boris Johnson have no need to consider Scotland’s interests, and so they treat Scotland with arrogant contempt. They know that Scotland can’t vote them out of power. Acknowledging that Scotland is a nation which has the right to self-determination no more makes you a nationalist than acknowledging the existence of matter makes you a materialist.
The real reason for Scottish independence is to ensure that our politicians and our governments are kept accountable to the people of Scotland. It’s to ensure that Scotland always gets governments that it elects. It’s to ensure that those politicians always operate in the interests of Scotland and that they are kept accountable to us. It’s only by keeping them close to us in an independent Scotland that we can ensure that their backsides are within kicking distance of our feet and that we can vote them out of office when they break their promises.
That’s the very nub of the argument for Scottish independence. It’s not about party politics. It’s not about nationalism. It’s about democracy and accountability.
NEW MODERATION POLICY
In the wake of recent events I am determined that this site will not become a home for bigots and conspiracy theorists. They will not be welcome here. Moderation is the most stressful part of running a blog, but this site is going to continue to make the positive case for independence. With this in mind as of today a new moderation policy is in force.
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