With an international interest in what is described as ‘nationalism’ it should be no surprise that Scottish ‘nationalism’ is once again being forced in to the spotlight of political debate. Indeed, such is the interest in the word that the First Minister has conceded that the term is ‘problematic’. Sensing the mood unionist politicians and columnists have therefore wasted no time in trying to once again suggest a dark side to Scotland’s relationship to this most enigmatic of terms.
Probably the best summary of how many unionists perceive the Scottish variety of ‘nationalism’ has come from Douglas Alexander the former Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary. In response to the FM’s remarks, in a series of tweets, he suggested an equivalence amongst all ‘nationalist’ movements. According to Douglas’ definition all nationalisms are characterised by ‘grievance, othering, victimhood and exclusion’. He ended his return to Scottish political debate by concluding ‘patriotism needs no enemy while nationalism demands one’.
For Douglas there are no apparent exceptions to this ‘nationalist rule’ and all nationalist movements are therefore undesirable. Even Gandhi, George Washington and Nelson Mandela along with the movements that brought independence to former British colonies and democracy to nations once controlled by the Soviet Union are all a product of ‘grievance’ and ‘victimhood’. The sheer stupidity of this position needs no debunking from me other than to note with astonishment and regret that someone as thoughtful as Douglas Alexander can seriously believe this.
But Gandhi and Mandela are not the targets in this extraordinary recasting of historical heroes as grievance nurturing villains. The target is what is happening in Scotland and the campaign for Scottish independence. A critical part of defeating Scottish ‘nationalism’ is to suggest that it is motivated by the most sinister of motives. Unionists who peddle these arguments take no interest in the many interpretations of Scottish ‘nationalism’ as an entirely civic affair which puts at its core the simple belief that the people who live and work in Scotland can make a better job of running Scotland than Westminster. The democratic argument at the core of the case for Scottish independence is the one feature they can’t acknowledge and must be discarded and ignored.
What in fact the movement for Scottish independence has done is to practically recast the arguments about what we understand as ‘nationalism’. Contemporary civic nationalism was only an academic theory until it was adopted and put into action during the independence campaign. Scotland’s nationalism has no ethnic association and it is a nationalism where culture is also pretty much a side feature. People involved in the movement for Scottish independence wave saltires and express pride in Scotland because they are the patriots that Douglas Alexander praises and are pretty much the same as patriots right across the world.
Then there is the suggestion that those who do not support Scottish independence and enthusiastically favour continued membership of the UK are somehow not ‘nationalists’ themselves. A UK that has just demonstrated its own ‘nationalism’ by voting to leave the EU, mainly on an argument that wished to restrict immigration, would surely rate much higher on any ‘nationalist’ scale than an independence movement that wants to abolish nuclear weapons and end austerity.
But it is in the use of the word against supporters of Scottish independence that will continue to consume our debate in an almost pointless and self defeating way. The 45% of Scots who voted for Scottish independence will simply not recognise themselves as ‘grievance seeking victims’ in hock with Radovan Karadzic. People who voted for Scottish independence simply saw independence as a better way for Scotland to be run and a means to make our own positive contribution to world affairs and the international community. They imagined a better future for our community and saw the opportunities that the full powers of independence would give us to achieve that. If unionists really believe that independence supporters are the equivalent of Steve Bannon it might go a long way to explain why Douglas Alexander lost his seat.
Finally, like most Scots regardless of their view on independence I believe in inter-dependence, international solidarity and social democracy. Like everybody who lives here I am a passionate Scot who loves this country and fundamentally believes in the abilities of the people who live and work here. My political motives have never been motivated by ‘nationalism’ and if I had my way I would rename the party the ‘Stop the world Scotland wants to get on Party’. I simply believe that my country would be a better place if we had the normal powers of self-Government. It is that, and only that, that separates our approach to politics, and yes, our differing ‘problematic nationalisms’.
This is Pete Wishart’s article for next edition of the Scots Independent.