On the Nature of Scottish Nationalism

There has been rather a lot of fuss in recent weeks about London-based journalists getting Scotland and, in particular, the nature of contemporary Scottish nationalism badly wrong. In a scathing piece, the Nationalist blogger Lallands Peat Worrier rightly laid into what he called “tin-eared London-based commentary”. Among his targets were some who plainly did not know what they were talking about: the Observer’s rather silly Catherine Bennett, with her claim that a Yes vote would be “primarily a statement of bellicose, English-phobic nationalism” (22 Sept 2013) and the Telegraph’s unfortunate Andrew Gilligan, whose sub-editors presented him as having found “hatred at the heart of Scotland’s struggle to be free” (21 Sept 2013).

But others should have known better. Andrew Marr, a London-based Scot, was reported as having said at the Edinburgh book festival that anti-English feeling is still “entrenched” in Scotland and can be “toxic” (Scotsman, 17 Aug 2013). I do not know if he was accurately reported. What I do know is that Marr wrote in August’s Prospect magazine that “If you listen to Mr Salmond’s speeches and interviews … you would assume that the ancient, almost racist Anglophobia of earlier periods in nationalist politics had mercifully declined”.

This last quotation reflects precisely how it seems to me. I was born, raised and educated in England, before moving to Glasgow ten years ago, where I have lived happily ever since. It’s as as Englishman in the West of Scotland that I offer these remarks on the nature of today’s Scottish nationalism.

Of course, anti-Englishness rears its head in Scotland from time to time, and anyone who chooses to go looking can find it on extremist websites, for example. But my day-to-day experience of living as an Englishman in Glasgow has been that I meet anti-Englishness only exceptionally. Even when I am targeted by some of the more aggressive Nationalist websites, the cause seems to be not my English ethnicity, but my Unionist politics. This is as it should be: even in the heat of this extraordinary and sometimes horribly bitter, personalised referendum campaign things are generally the opposite of how they are portrayed by the likes of Bennett and Gilligan.

I’m told by those who have lived here for much longer that it was not always thus. Thirty years ago it seems that anti-English prejudice was a default subject of conversation in polite West End dinner parties. In part this may have passed in the same way and for the same reasons that casual sexism and racism have been relegated from such occasions. But in part Scotland has moved away from anti-Englishness because of the work of the SNP leadership. Now, readers of this blog will have picked up that I am no supporter of the SNP’s constitutional politics, but there are a number of respects in which the SNP leadership deserves praise, and I’d place this matter at the top of the list. Twenty-first century Scottish nationalism — the Scottish nationalism that has brought us the independence referendum — is civic in nature, not ethnic. On this view, you are Scottish if you live here. It’s not so much your blood that makes you Scottish as your address. Of course, you may feel Scottish wherever in the world you live, but you won’t have a vote unless you live here. (Likewise, anyone on the electoral register in Scotland will have a vote, whether they self-identify as a Scot or not.) The independence debate is an argument about territorial politics, not tribal belonging.

Which is why anti-Englishness is all the more marked when it does appear.  The only time when as a citizen of Glasgow it is uncomfortable to be English is when England are playing an international football match that matters. Fortunately, this occurs only infrequently, as England are little more successful on the international football pitch as their northern neighbours. But it may yet happen once or twice in Brazil in June (I’m not holding my breath) and it happened this summer when Wembley played host to an England v Scotland “friendly”. I hated every minute of it. The English were largely indifferent to the game: an international friendly at the beginning of the club season would be likely to excite the English only if the opponents were Germany or Argentina. But the passions that the game stirred in the Scots were as ugly as football passions always are when it’s your great rivals lining up against you. I kept my head down, prayed that it would end well and kept the curtains shut until it was all over. I hope it never happens again. I don’t hate much — it takes far too much energy and it feels like shit — but I really hate England v Scotland matches.

Perhaps if the sentiments unleashed by England v Scotland were confined to football all would be well. But, despite what I’ve written here about the nature of modern Scottish nationalism, there is still the odd contribution to the debate that trades in old ethnic division rather than contemporary civic virtue. Again, such contributions stand out because they so cut against the grain. The SNP’s former leader, Gordon Wilson, was reported in August to have encouraged his successor Mr Salmond to do more to attack the English “southern cancer” (Telegraph, 14 Aug 2013). Better Together condemned such language as “absolutely disgraceful” and “deeply offensive”. A more notorious example is Alasdair Gray’s essay on Settlers and Colonists.

It may be that I am still the only person ever to have co-written a book with Alasdair Gray. In 2005 we co-authored a little pamphlet entitled How We Should Rule Ourselves (HWSRO). I was in the middle of my republican phase. The Queen was coming to open the new Scottish Parliament building. The Scottish Socialist Party, who in those days had a number of MSPs, boycotted the event and organised their own alternative celebration on Calton Hill. Friends who knew some SSP activists got me on the bill, and I gave a little speech about citizenship and the common good (or some such). Alasdair Gray was in the audience and, afterwards, he had his man write to me. We met, we drank, his man took notes, and in the space of three rather mad weeks we produced HWSRO. It flopped. We had a book launch at the old Borders bookstore on Buchanan Street. About 35 people showed up. Afterwards we had dinner in town and since then I’ve not seen Alasdair again, save on a couple of occasions when I’ve bumped into him on Byers Road. Last time that happened I was sure he’d no idea who I was. Still, the writing of HWSRO features in the biography Alasdair’s man (Rodge Glass) later wrote about him, and to my great amusement the New Statesman once listed the pamphlet at No 48 in a list of the top fifty works in the library of socialism.

Settlers and Colonists appears in a volume of short pieces written by a range of Scottish authors and artists, advocating a variety of visions, aspirations and fears for an independent Scotland. Loosely left-wing utopias figure prominently. It’s all rather dreamy and disconnected: an artifact animated by an inchoate sense of cultural yearning rather than a work of serious political analysis. Gray chose this context to let rip about the management of the arts in Scotland. His gripe is that, owing to several directors and producers coming to Scotland from the outside (and, particularly, from London), indigenous Scottish arts have not flourished as they ought. The Scottish scene is compared unfavourably with Ireland and, as in all Gray’s non-fiction, there is a healthy dose of history peppering the argument, so that he lets it be known that he’s doing something more than bringing a passing fashion to our attention.

Whether Gray has a point or not I do not know. Theatre management and the Scottish Arts Council are not my world. In the slice of Glasgow culture of which I most frequently partake — the live music scene — I’d be surprised if Gray’s analysis holds up, but he has nothing to say of this. What has drawn attention to Gray’s essay is not his argument but his terminology. For him, “outgoers and incomers” are all — every one of us — either settlers or colonists. Scots who leave Scotland are either settlers or colonists; folk moving into Scotland from elsewhere are the same. They are depicted as “two sorts of invader”. The difference between them is whether, after invading, they continue to need “their homelands” or not. Settlers settle; colonists continue to regard their new location from the perspective of their old one and, one day (if they live long enough), they go home. Gray has nothing nice to say about colonists. Settlers, by contrast, may on occasion be praised. While many leave their homeland simply “as a way to enrich themselves”, others — the “true settlers” — do work in their adopted land that turns out to be good for it and for its inhabitants. Gray is fully conscious of the overtly imperialistic language he is employing. In the essay he writes directly of imperialism, of how the USA has changed it from old forms to new, of the British Empire, and of the contribution made to it by Scottish settlers and colonists. But all of these points are made in the clear context of Scotland and, in particular, of her arts scene being invaded by the English.

This is ugly stuff — ask yourself whether it would be out of place in the mouth of a Nigel Farage or of a Nick Griffin, even. Peoples are pure and are best left alone. Enter from the outside and you’d better become one of us, as quickly as possible, and forget all thought of where you came from or what you were. To live justly and with moral propriety, you can never go back, and all thought of doing so must be banished. Settle. Blend in. Become invisible. Lose yourself. The job of an arts administrator in Scotland is to promote the art of what Gray calls “the local natives”. Theatres in Scotland are for Scottish plays, to be performed by Scottish actors. All others are “invaders”. Even the well-intentioned are unwelcome — who welcomes an invader? All are on probation: assumed to be a wicked colonist until they can prove themselves a true settler.

What is arresting about Gray’s essay is not that he is anti-English. I am sure that he is not. Certainly, he never was with me. In our pamphlet we never identified the “We” of our title, although we talked about it in his study, sometimes with the note-taker but more often without. I knew that for him it was “Scots”: How the Scots Should Rule Themselves. And he knew that for me it was the “Brits”: How We British Should Rule Ourselves.

No, what is arresting about Gray’s essay is that it shows that the move from an ethnic to a civic nationalism in Scotland has been only partially achieved. Anti-Englishness may not be the drumbeat that I’m told it was thirty years ago, but neither has it disappeared altogether. Nor could it: not while the Scottish Nationalists cleave to their cherished policy of independence. For, one has to ask, independence from what? Scotland, the First Minister said in a powerful speech this summer, is a member of six unions, and it is just one of these which he seeks to terminate. Scotland would still be in the European Union, post-independence, as well as in NATO’s defence union. It’s the political union with the rest of the United Kingdom — and that Union alone — which should speed towards divorce, in the SNP’s view. Why? Not because their policy is to pursue a period of splendid isolation. Economic union with Europe is fine. A defence pact led by the Americans is fine. It’s just the 300-year Union with England that the SNP sets itself against.

And herein lies the rub. Even a civic Scottish nationalism, stripped of its former ethnic overtones, cannot escape the fact that the sole aim of independence is dissolution of the Union with England. The argument for independence depends upon distinguishing “us” from “them”. The “us” (Scots) may be defined either as an ethnic or as a civic construct but, whichever is adopted, there still has to be a “them”. As such the separatist cause has no choice but to portray itself as something that stands in opposition to England. And in this sense it is inevitably anti-English, even when it is neither “bellicose” (Bennett), nor fuelled by “hatred” (Gilligan), nor “toxic” (Marr).

3 thoughts on “On the Nature of Scottish Nationalism

  1. For me this is the most interesting post you’ve yet done here. I was born 31 years ago in Scotland to English incomers (colonists or settlers? I’m not sure which). Of course it’s impossible for just one person to judge, but my growing up does seem to have been accompanied by a gradual decline in the anti-Englishness I experienced at school.

    But unfortunately, for me, your piece falls at the final hurdle. As I recall, Salmond’s speech also mentioned the social and cultural union with England – and how that would remain in place. He was going out of his way to say, specifically – as you recognise – that it is only the political union that must be dismantled.

    But, having laid that out, you ignore it.

    “And herein lies the rub” (this should be on a don’t-use list of cliches). What rub? In the next sentence, by the simple omission of the crucial word ‘political’ to define which union you are talking about, you allow the anti-Englishness back in. You also conflate the pro-independence movement with independence itself. (The ‘aim of independence’, if that means anything, is a more democratic, just and prosperous Scotland.) So let’s just re-jig that sentence a bit:

    “Even a civic Scottish nationalism, stripped of its former ethnic overtones, cannot escape the fact that the sole aim of the independence movement is dissolution of the political Union with England.”

    Uncontroversial; trivial, even. So where’s that rub gone now?

    For me (and my English family and friends in Scotland), as for many supporters of independence, the ‘them’ is absolutely NOT the English, Englishness, nor even England. (Your piece also lacks clear thinking on the distinction between the country and the people.)

    For me, the ‘them’ (if I really must have one) is the unreformable, undemocratic, corrupt and distant government of the UK. The ‘us’ is the people – and that includes the people of England too. I’m not alone in hoping that Scottish independence might provide a spur for positive changes across the whole of the UK.

  2. Interesting piece. I’ll need to look out for that 48th best socialist read, which I confess had escaped my radar until now! One thought, which I borrow from a tweet sent by Scots tweeter @endless_psych. Why do you think no-one seems to seeks to characterise anything in the movement for Scots independence as anti-Welsh or anti-Northern Irish? I can think of two obvious answers (one being the size of England, at least population wise, the other drawing on your fitba point that you do not get the same, shall we say, passion in matches involving Scotland and the other home nations), but the regular exclusion of the other constituent parts of the UK in articles like those you refer to is almost so unnoticed by the commentariat as to be noticeable. One last fitba point. I attended the friendly (yes, friendly) at Wembley in August and enjoyed both the game and the trip, although I did occasionally wince at some of the songs that were sung (by both sets of fans).

  3. Very interesting piece, especially on Roge Glass and Gray, but I think using “anti-English” to mean to mean two very different things at different junctures in the post creates confusion. This is a sort of fallacy of equivocation that could be avoided by using language that demarcates a clear difference.

    I subscribe to Chantal Mouffe’s view that the institution of any people is predicated on a decision of inclusion-exclusion; the political community orientates itself around a distinction between “them” and “us” which is not subject to rational debunking but formed by politics between “adversaries”. All societies have a “them” negatively defined as all the world that are not the “us” (this is, if you like, in every case independence *from* all the world). I don’t see why this should apply only to putative separatist societies, but I would be interested to understand their specificity further. Since this decision of inclusion-exclusion is constitutive of the political community, it is made whether or not the criterion defining the community is civic or ethnic. Thus the fact a distinction is made between “us” and “them” in Scottish nationalism or setting up a Scottish state does not demonstrate the “partial achievement” of the shift from ethnic nationalism, it simply represents the assertion of a separate political community.

    Clearly, the distinction between “us” and “them” does not entail the wholesale repudiation of all other societies and is “anti-” exclusively in a very particular sense. I can see the argument that some “them” communities are more significant than others, particularly those with whom a separatist society was hitherto integrated. On this view, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish would become the “significant others” of an independent Scotland, but this would not amount to a repudiation of those communities such that demonstrates enmity.

    As to the fact of the maintenance of the “other six” alleged unions, this eliding of the distinction between the Union of 1707 and essentially different kinds of association, as between separate political communities, should be rejected (I think you have done so in other posts). These so-called “unions” do not essentially purport to include the EU, NATO or Commonwealth countries within the “us”; associated communities remain in the “them”. The exclusion of such countries from the definition of “the Scottish people” seems just as susceptible to the “inevitable anti-” charge you make in the last paragraph as regards England and Scottish nationalism.

Comments are closed.