Andrew Skea’s thoughtful responses to Jamie Maxwell’s ‘Eurovision’ article made two key points about nationalism. I’d like to juxtapose these with my experience.
These key assumptions about nationalism were:
(1) That the SNP and UKIP are similarly blaming their neighbours for everything, and
(2) That nationalism is a dangerous thing. Andrew writes that:
“Nationalism appears not to tolerate other people’s beliefs / identity”, and adds that in fact “we are actually more similar than different, we have more in common than in conflict, we maybe want to devolve certain aspects of government, and we maybe want to share certain aspects of government, but we don’t want to build arbitrary borders, and we definitely don’t want to define people without their permission”.
I have lived in Scotland most of my life, I also experience myself as English because London was where I grew up (well mostly, I also grew up on Iona). Though many people may be secure in a singular national identity, I feel increasingly at home in a mixed identity: an American mother, a father from Liverpool who became a Church of Scotland Minister, a mostly English upbringing, Scottish kids and Scottish in life. I always have been and always will be British in terms of belonging to this shared island with all its diversity, but no longer in any sense British politically, now its brief triumph of social democratic values has been so harshly trampled underfoot by the elite.
I don’t experience the SNP as nationalist in the intolerant way Andrew and many other commentators describe, nor as blaming their neighbours, but just as wanting us here in Scotland to take responsibility (which is surely what anyone would want their neighbour to do?).
And nationalism in Scotland is not the preserve of the SNP; it is powerfully present in all political parties here. Some are more British nationalist (think of the UK Labour conferences’ ‘One Nation’ slogan with Milliband standing in front of it railing against nationalism, and incidentally trying to steal more Tory clothes in the process) and some are more Scottish nationalist (from the Tory party to LibDems to Labour).
Nationalism is not the preserve of those wanting independence. And likewise those wanting independence for Scotland includes far more people than the SNP, and includes far more people than those identifying as nationalists.
In fact the way the debate is playing out (not the No side of the debate where I rarely experience a debate happening at all, except for the odd thoughtful Tory or LibDem and rarely Labour, but the debate on the Yes side) . . . the way the debate is playing out makes people like me challenge the notion that I don’t belong to the same degree as those born and raised here.
My children have grown up and are growing up here, and my active care and concern for this place is the ground of my belonging.
Paradoxically, the independence debate is not building an arbitrary border; it is drawing me in to feeling a real sense of being welcome here. If the independence side in this debate is best described as ‘nationalist’ then I experience it as extraordinarily tolerant of all who come here.
I am not talking about the odd person responding to a blog, or the friendly guy in the Vodafone shop insulting England the way some people in any country can foolishly do. I am talking about the independence movement as a whole which is nationalist in the way that liberation struggles for self-determination across the world are nationalist. But that word – with all the potential negative connotations of exclusion and superiority – could never capture what those movements were really about: equality not superiority.
The only thing the independence movement seems to be intolerant of is intolerance.
And, as many have pointed out, one of the expressions of that intolerance is a kind of British nationalism that doesn’t even realise it is a nationalism; that thinks that there is no border between Scotland and England. If there was no border, no distinct identity north of that border, then Scotland is subsumed within the ten times larger England. It’s like saying it doesn’t matter if we just say ‘he’ for people in general because everyone knows it includes women. It doesn’t, it perpetuates their invisibility.
As quoted at the start of this piece, Andrew echoes many in the ‘Devo-Max leaning towards No’ camp, when he writes that “we maybe want to devolve certain aspects of government, and we maybe want to share certain aspects of government”, and that is really nice in Liberal federalist theory. Except that – as we saw with the referendum for fair votes – we are not going to be granted that from above, we can only claim it from below, and Scotland becoming independent in this minimalist way (no trade or travel borders, etc.) can kick that rethinking off across these islands.
The EU is not Europe. The UK is not Britain.
You can leave the EU but you can’t leave Europe (except physically as an individual). You can leave the political arrangement that is the extraordinarily non-democratic UK (the Edinburgh agreement and the formal referendum process are perhaps one exception) but you can’t leave Britain. ‘Great’ Britain can look benign from a distance, but look closer and you see how it proclaims its Greatness the way Kabila’s Democratic Republic of Congo today (or East Germany’s DDR yesterday) proclaim a defunct democracy: the assertion trying to make up for the inadequacy. ‘Great’ Britain is not a place, it is a lingering ‘empire nationalism’ in denial; in contrast Britain is an island where we all live whatever the political arrangement.
After independence this will be the same place with the same neighbours, but now with their citizens able to take responsibility for their own states. English Labour not relying on Scottish MPs, and Scotland not blaming Westminster Governments.
And the other problem with Devo-Max is that it doesn’t reclaim the two key decision making areas that destroyed UK Labour’s credibility: foreign policy (a Yes vote is a vote against illegal foreign wars) and defence (a Yes vote is a vote for the inevitable next round of savage cuts to be Trident not healthcare).
Of course we are similar, we have so much in common – I say that as an English British Scot with American and many others in my ancestry, and as someone who works in Africa and lives in Portobello. But this is not about creating false divisions; it is a political movement for self-determination.
If, against the odds, we succeed, we can recover those values underlying Englishness and Scottishness [note: spellcheck accepts Englishness but not Scottishness], human values that exist everywhere, and that are being crushed by the elite who have captured not just the British state but almost all states.
And will Scotland be any different to that after independence?
Nothing is certain, and certainly the SNP is just asking that we be another normal borderless state within the EU, albeit one where wealth is shared more fairly, where Government is close enough to us that we can hold it accountable, and where we are no longer supporting the waste of resources on weapons of mass destruction but can instead play a positive role in Europe and internationally.
Whether we try for something far more imaginative and generous and inspiring is not up to any party; it’s up to us.
But if we manage to achieve a Yes against the huge odds piled up by a mainstream media that is determined to twist and turn the facts to generate fear and apathy, an apathy beloved of the political and financial elites. If we manage to achieve a Yes despite a No campaign based on repeating big lies, based on creating uncertainty and demanding certainty except from itself, and based on avoiding all debate from the top down. If we manage to achieve a Yes then it will be because we have enabled a movement that can open a doorway to much greater self-determination.
Can that self-determination be one that recognises that we are utterly dependent on an environment that we are smashing to bits, one that recognises that change only ever comes from the margins and from real leadership, and one that recognises that the problem is not the poor or the environment, the problem is the wealthy and the economy? For the only reason we are addicted to an economic growth machine that is smashing the ecology, is because we think that without it there is not enough to go round.
But there is only not enough to go round because the elite are taking the vast amount of what we produce.
The UK’s 5 richest families own more wealth than the poorest 20%. The 85 richest people in the world own more wealth than HALF the world’s population – and even that is not enough for them. Their portion is growing larger all the time. Benefit errors and fraud costs the UK £1 million a day; tax avoidance and evasion costs £260 million a day.
With the social and political will we could create a society where none are poor, and where we take on the urgency of climate change and adopt a wartime footing to transform the economy into a zero-carbon high-quality one that demonstrates how sustainability is done in ways that increase equality and quality of life. If we left most of the oil in the ground – as we must if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change – we can be far more wealthy and healthy as we roll out wave, tidal and offshore wind, as we reduce our carbon footprint on the back of increasing equality, health, and freeing up education from being a debt-laden commodity to becoming an inspiring and innovative contribution.
The status quo is not an option.
Voting No means that systematic elitism is not under threat. It means that we accept being dociled by their bland vicious weapon of ‘There Is No Alternative’. Specifically for Scotland it means continuing to waste our resources, such as on Trident. It means that the savage cuts coming will hit the poor and society as a whole not hit the elite’s system that redistributes our wealth upwards into their benefits while blaming the poor. Elites whose schooling teaches them to reproduce a pathetic bullying system, forever trying to punch above its weight, leaving us as unloved as any bully’s sidekick in the playground, while the media try to persuade us this is normal, and get excited about UKIP blaming our misery on anyone but ourselves.
There seem to be three striking things happening right now in this debate:
(1) The No side wants to avoid debate – from town hall to TV – because to do so simply exposes their lies, and one of their biggest lies is that somehow by being in the UK we are ‘Greater’ than Ireland or Iceland (whose GDPs are higher than the UKs) when what we urgently need is to be a society that is at home with being equals, rather than being forever foreign to ourselves and others by trying to seem superior to our neighbours;
(2) Kenyon Wright (the architect of devolution far more than any politician) has not moved – as some claim – to the Yes side, but has remained where he was, a democrat wanting to ensure that sovereignty rests with the people not the elite, and has watched 1997 become 2014 without any democratisation of the UK’s second chamber or voting system, and concludes that Yes is the democratic choice. For him as for so many who wanted Devo-Max within a democratic UK, Yes means democracy; and
(3) The extraordinary calls by the incoming Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Douglas Alexander that we prepare for some formal meeting after the vote in which politicians commit to reconciliation, without recognising, as Lesley Riddoch points out, that the best way to ensure a healthy open democracy that does not have bitter resentment is for the No side to be willing to enter rather than avoid, democratic debate now. Ponsonby makes a parallel point on Newsnet, that the Church would do better demanding fair media coverage of the issues and debate now, so that there is no case for embittered resentment if the Yes side loses.
To the extent that we can have real debate now, both though envisaging and enabling a real future, and through confronting what for so many is a terrible present (see this extraordinary video of Denis Curran giving evidence on food banks at Holyrood: “People are getting penalised for being poor”) we are asserting and reclaiming democracy now, whatever the outcome.
If we can make this real in the voting booth, then the door can be opened to much bigger changes. The first vote is the European elections on May 22nd. If a pro-independence Green rather than an anti-independence UKIP takes the 6th seat, then that sends a strong message that the movement for independence is far more than the SNP, and it tells the UK establishment that we reject their pretend anti-establishment UKIP bigotry, that we insist on being inclusive.
In terms of voting, the European elections set the stage for the voting booths of September 18th. As many have pointed out, Scotland becoming independent would not only mean democracy triumphing here, it would also mean freeing others elsewhere on these islands to realise that another future is possible.
Neighbours taking responsibility makes for a far better neighbourhood; better together after independence, as self-determination continues to roll.