Dissonant Notes

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nationalism, 'Braveheart', and the Scottish Independence Debate




When asked for his opinion on Scottish independence in a recent Daily Record interview, Bobby Gillespie, lead singer with Primal Scream, stated:

“We can’t be nationalistic about it. Nationalism has never done it for me. It leads to fascism.”

Gillespie is seen by some poor souls as a political firebrand but his thinking in regards to nationalism is predictably thoughtless. More disappointing are the opinions of comedian Billy Connolly, who dismissed the Scottish Parliament as a “wee pretendy parliament” and went on to say:

“I hate nationalism. If you look at the history of nationalism, you will find the history of war and horror.”

To be fair to Connolly, he has since refused to have anything to do with the No campaign and publicly stated that he will happily endorse whatever decision Scottish voters decide to make. The main purpose in quoting him was to highlight a disturbingly commonplace view in regards to nationalism that exists in the UK. This view paints nationalism as a fascistic, anachronistic, and dangerous philosophy. The reason why is because nationalism is consistently equated with Hitler and the Nazi Party. All other instances of nationalism are forgotten and, without fail, the Nazi Party are wheeled out. What this viewpoint fails to do is separate the race-based nationalism of the Nazi Party from the modern civic nationalism of the SNP. What it also fails to do is recognise that more often than not nationalism is the end result of war and colonialism, not the cause.

The modern nation-state is a relatively young creation. In Europe, there is a tendency to confuse tribal groupings and early administrative regions with nation-states. The modern German nation came into existence in 1871, but people talk of Germany as if it has existed since time immemorial because of the existence of Germanic tribes and the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Italy was born in 1861. These modern nation-states came into being as a result of people joining together for the common cause of establishing sovereignty after suffering domination under a foreign overlord. Again and again nationalism was forged under the anvil of an outside threat. The great irony of the current Scottish independence debate is that, by scorning Scottish nationalism, voters are passively throwing their hat in with perhaps the most murderous and destructive nationalism in the history of the modern era: British nationalism.

When Winston Churchill said "It makes me sick when I hear the Secretary Of State say of India, 'She will do this,' and 'She will do that.' India is an abstraction.... India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator”, he failed to notice the great irony in his statement. The British Empire created Indian nationalism by attempting to subdue and rule the people in the geographical region known as India. Indians united against the British Raj. Irish nationalism was the result of British rule. America was born as an act of resistance against Britain. Nationalism has always been a bulwark against oppression. Is it any wonder that so many in Britain speak derisively of nationalism (unless it is the unspoken but always superior British kind)? Nationalism destroyed the British Empire. Nationalism broke up the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Nationalism is now threatening the very notion of the United Kingdom.

So when does nationalism become toxic? When it becomes race-based. The Germanic nationalism that flourished under Hitler was a perfect example of tribalism and race-based nationalism (and a culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism). The relationship between race-based nationalism and civic nationalism is as close as the relationship between a totalitarian state and a modern liberal democracy. Anyone using Stalinist Russia to dismiss any and all forms of government would rightfully be dismissed. Yet those who invoke Hitler at the mere mention of nationalism are given an audience. British nationalism, with its barely concealed white supremacy and history of oppression, war, and colonialism, is closer in spirit to Hitler than Scottish nationalism. The only reason the British Empire faltered was because oppressed people fought back. Britain did not recede out of some innate sense of decency and fair play; it was beaten back by rising tides of nationalism.

With that in mind, is Scottish nationalism race-based? Absolutely not. When Scottish author William McIlvanney gave a speech in 1992 before a crowd of Scottish nationalists he famously stated “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition”. The response was cheering and applause from the listeners -- hardly the Beer Hall Putsch. Being Scottish does not mean being Celtic. Yes, ancient Scotland was created by a uniting of Scots and Picts, but for a true picture of Scottish genetics you have to throw in a bit of Danish, some Norwegian, some Anglo-Saxon, and some Norman. For a more modern view, add a lot of Irish, some Italian, some Lithuanian, some Polish, some Jewish, some Pakistani, some Chinese, some Indian, some African, some Caribbean, and a lot of English. In truth, you are more likely to hear complaints about too many immigrants from Unionists rather than Scottish nationalists. These same Unionists claim that Scottish nationalism is anti-English, while at the same time denying that a sizable aspect of Scottish society is anti-Irish. Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Scotland does not have problems with racism, but it is a fact that extremist parties like the UKIP have no foothold in Scotland, and any people that do support them are much more likely to be waving a Union Jack than a Saltire.

British nationalism is also dangerous because when it looks in the mirror it does not recognise its own reflection. Despite invading the vast majority of the globe, many Brits seem to think that British nationalism does not exist. There is a notion that British identity is merely an evolved point that all will reach when they outgrow such squalid notions as nationalism and race. Scots who speak of rejecting independence by rejecting Scottish nationalism clearly agree with such a notion, but what they fail to acknowledge is that choosing British nationalism means siding with a more powerful nationalism, siding with a nationalism that is built on an inherent sense of superiority, and siding with a nationalism which includes a lot more dangerous race-based thinking.

When Margaret Thatcher made her famous statement “There is no such thing as society” she was essentially saying that a people should not look to a government for help. Her philosophy was that government protected private property and the free market and everyone else was on their own. This same philosophy was contradicted by the power she wielded while Prime Minister. She wanted to wean Brits from welfare while, at the same time, using the power of government to intentionally put thousands out of a job. The influence, wealth, and property of the British aristocracy was protected. The privileges of the Royal Family remained in place. The poor had to make do. Her larger context was that the individual was the only true agent in society. Neighbourhoods, communities, counties, regions, and nations were merely historical accidents. While Conservatives endorsed this philosophy in principle, they did so draped in a Union Jack. Mutterings about the French and the Germans and the EU were made with the implication being that Britain was superior because it had moved beyond nationalism. Britain must be Great again by telling mainland Europe to mind its own business and let Brits run their own country. This viewpoint was not seen as dangerous nationalism. Yet, when the SNP makes gains in Scotland on a philosophy of civic nationalism, they are routinely compared to Nazis (and accused of being bullies).

The end of nationalism would be convenient for neo-liberal proponents of globalisation who wish to make every citizen of earth forget their communal and national ties and become wealth-seeking individuals. Communities and nations with a strong bond threaten the entire notion of globalisation. With these thoughts in mind, the tendency to equate Scottish nationalism with German nationalism of the Third Reich becomes more sinister. Scottish independence will apparently leave Scotland less protected from a military standpoint. So a philosophy of less militarism is analogous with Nazi Germany? The SNP supports a more open immigration policy, the exact opposite of Nazi Germany. Let us have no more talk of nationalism meaning fascism. It is an empty argument from people who do not even believe what they are saying. It would be an insult to compare Indian nationalism to Nazi Germany. Attempts to tar Scottish nationalists with the same brush should be met with contempt.

The other charge laid at the feet of nationalism is its anachronistic and emotive nature. Critics of Scottish independence constantly invoke Braveheart, that Hollywood travesty based on the life of Scottish folk hero William Wallace. It isn’t going too far to say that it is an obsession for many No supporters. Scottish (not British) nationalism is seen as not only highly fascistic but also childish and sentimental. The main problem with this argument is how completely and utterly false it is. The Yes campaign has appealed to voters on any number of issues, from democratic to economic ones, yet to many No supporters the Yes campaign is fueled by Braveheart-derived sentiments. This is nothing but a cheap ploy that seeks to undermine calls for real democratic maturity. It attempts to paint nationalism as a thing of the past instead of a modern development. The fact that Scotland was one of the earliest European nations to declare itself independent (after uniting against English invaders) should not fool anyone into thinking that nationalism is a despicable trait to be left behind. On the contrary, nationalism is a stage all modern nation-states must pass through.

Scottish nationalism fell by the wayside after Scotland came under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. The energies released by the Union with England in 1707 produced the Scottish Enlightenment, but soon after Scotland found itself bereft of a sense of culture. Walter Scott looked to the romance of the highlands in order to drape Scotland with tartan and, while this provided Scotland with an identity distinct from England, Scottish writers and artists after Sir Walter found themselves ignored or marginalised. Irish writer John Millington Synge wrote that one the weaknesses in the writings of Goethe was that he had “no national and intellectual mood to interpret”. This same criticism could be made of Scottish writing after the Scottish Enlightenment had become a memory. Celebrated British novels tended to be English, and it could be argued that Scotland did not produce a Joyce or a Yeats as no national mood existed. While Scottish businessmen used their British identity to get a leg up in the colonies, Scottish culture suffered under the Union. The Scottish people were British in a legal sense, but they could never be representative of Britain. Only the English could be truly British. Scotland has still not fully entered a mature phase of nationalism. It had marched proudly through the door and then promptly got lost as Britishness became a byword for Englishness and Scottishness sat dutifully on the sidelines. It is no coincidence Scottish writing started to regain much of its vitality in the early to mid-20th century as a national mood grew and Scottish identity slowly reconstructed itself.

Those who reject Scottish nationalism must accept that, in doing so, they endorse British nationalism. They are not rejecting nationalism. They are in fact pledging allegiance to one of the most divisive, destructive, and power hungry forms of nationalism ever set loose on the earth. To claim that British nationalism is a thing of the past is to ignore the rise of the UKIP, whose anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist stance has more than a whiff of race-based nationalism. A strong post-Empire English/British national identity free from triumphalism has yet to materialise. In contrast, the Scottish nationalist agenda is free from race-based thinking. It has produced no calls for less immigration or for the defunding of multicultural programs. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism has an internationalist feel. At heart it is a call for civic nationalism, a demand for true democracy, and a chance for Scotland to break away from a two-party system which has nothing to lose by ignoring Scottish voters. Scottish nationalism has grown according to the desires of Scottish voters and, as such, its spirit is democratic. There are undoubtedly many credible reasons for voting No in September, but a dislike of nationalism is not one of them. As long as Scottish nationalism is viewed as childish or, worse, fascistic, then a fog of misunderstanding will drift through the independence debate. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a vote for Scottish independence is an act of atavistic desperation. The opposite is actually true. A Yes vote has the potential be the most radical, the most democratic, and the most vital vote that you have ever cast.

1 comment:

  1. You cannot escape racism. Culture and race, in the modern sense, are regarded as the same thing in most circles. The Equality Act makes it clear that slagging someone off because of their culture is as racist under English Law as insulting someone's skin colour.

    UKIP isn't condemned in the English press for skin colour racism, it is condemned for cultural racism.

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