Dad, is Scotland Sacred?
Don’t be ridiculous, son. Scotland’s not even sovereign.
So what’s all this stuff I’ve been hearing about the importance of standing up for Scotland in this election? The need to make Scotland’s voice heard in London? And I don’t just mean the SNP. Labour are at it too: Jim Murphy, of the Scottish Labour Party, for Scotland, in Scotland! It sometimes sounds like Scotland is all that matters.
Well it’s our country, isn’t it?
Right, so we keep saying, but why should a country matter so much; why does it count in a way a city or a region doesn’t?
Being a country just means more; and meaning is political currency. There are hundreds of thousands of cities and regions, but there are only 200 or so countries in the world, and we’re one of them – it’s a status claim I guess, but a valid one.
Sounds like Nationalism to me. England, Wales and Northern Ireland are also countries – meaningful things too – and we’re not standing up for them, are we? Not to mention the UK – that should be a delicious cocktail of meaningfulness, no? What’s so special about us? Isn’t it a bit parochial? What about solidarity with people like us who just don’t happen to be Scottish?
Nationalism is not a four letter word. Nor is capitalism, for that matter, but you’ll find you need something resembling nationalism to resist the incursions of global capital. There is a social and cultural and civic fabric built into the idea of nationhood that helps you know what to protect, which makes all the difference between living in a society with a market, and living in a market society. Mass privatisation and austerity means the UK’s centre of gravity is now the latter, and for many the idea of Scotland is the only game in town to bring back the former. And caring about Scotland doesn’t mean you stop caring about anybody else you know? At a human level, we all remain equally important…A man’s
Oh please, spare me the Burns…
But politically, other countries are not extensions of us in the way Scotland is. Have you heard the expression: “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody?”
Oh for God’s sake, now you’re getting mystical.
Well anyway it’s a bit like that. If you can identify with one part of the world with confidence, and feel you have a stake in that place, it’s easier to contribute meaningfully elsewhere. It’s a place to stand.
But I already have a place to stand. It’s called values, policies, allies, plans – that’s plenty!
And where do those things stand? Look closely enough at things that appear to be universal and you’ll find they need to stand in a place; and moreover the cultural conditions of that place have to be right before they’ll stick.
And that’s Scotland now, because the UK has somehow failed? Scotland is the new default touchstone, the thing we trust in? And that’s why we’re all going mad for the SNP?
Yes, sort of. The power of the Yes campaign was the rediscovery of the connection between politics and culture. For the same reason, in terms of its political institutions and priorities, lots of people don’t identify with the UK in the way they used to; they don’t see themselves as part of it emotionally or existentially. The idea of 4 nations working together feels increasingly chimerical, more an aspiration or memory than a reality; a worthy but outdated idea. Scotland is easier to invest your hopes in, even if you have to throw in your lot with people you wouldn’t otherwise agree with.
But didn’t we reject precisely that idea? We talked about this stuff for months on end and decided it wasn’t for us?
True, but that’s only part of the story. Guardian Commentator, Suzanne Moore, put it rather well: “There is a refusal to understand that an organic social movement does not fall apart once it feels its own power.”
Nice. So in the process of seeking constitutional power, the yes campaign generated cultural power that now seeks political expression?
Well said. It’s a kind of political physics; a conservation and transformation of energy. For some, the referendum was protracted argument followed by a decisive vote, but for many it was a life transforming experience. Lesley Riddoch, for instance, called it ‘the best year of my life’, and she wasn’t alone.
OK, but yesterday I read a piece by Alex Massie that freaked me out. He says the SNP is like the new religion, effectively replacing the Church of Scotland. And you have to admit, with over 100,000 members and the SNP likely to win virtually all the Scottish seats it’s getting a wee bit creepy, no? When Nicola Sturgeon was given a standing ovation by 12,000 people at the Hydro Arena part of me was glad for the positive vibe, but it did have a bit of a mega church feel to it. I just felt somehow safer with the diversity of the yes campaign.
Well, Massie is on to something, but it’s not ultimately about religion at all. It’s about the fundamental human need for touchstones, without which we struggle to make sense of our lives, alone and together. The idea of Scotland has become a capacious and pliable holding pattern from a myriad of hopes and dreams, and the SNP are the main institutional vehicle for that.
So you’re telling me Scotland matters because it’s a source of meaning, identity, and belonging? It’s about knowing who you are in a geopolitical home that is big enough to be fascinating and small enough to feel familiar. It helps shape our shared sense of moral boundaries. And from that place, our sense of what matters flows, and political norms and policies follow?
Yes, that’s about it.
So then the idea of Scotland really has transformative power, and that may be why it’s so willfully misrepresented? And it’s because of our broader cultural appreciation for what politics could be that we’re not too fussed when the oil price drops – even if seriously undermines SNP economic policy? People say we’ve lost our economic heads, but it’s more like we’ve rediscovered our political souls?
So back to my first question Dad. Is Scotland Sacred?