Among the progressive German community that I grew up in, nationalism was the slippery slope to fascism. I was proud to call myself a global citizen or European. Only when I left Germany to study at the internationalist United World College in Canada, did it dawn on me, that there could be nothing more German than my resistance to being German. The way I thought of “global citizenship” and the nation state – all of it was a perfectly rational response to Germany´s genocidal history. But that did not make it any less German.
Listening to new friends from Asia, Africa and Latin America I soon learned of the liberating role their nationalisms had played in the fight for decolonization (and often plays in the fight against neoliberalism to this day). I learned to differentiate and to listen.
When I moved to Scotland in the early 1990s, I encountered communities reeling from Thatcherite destruction, caught between the depressed apathy Fish describes in Internal Exile and a movement to rejuvenate communities. I learned that the people fighting to regain control over their destiny were often driven by a notion of community and belonging – by a deep emotional connection to land. This was alien to me – Hitler had, after all, made talk of a connection to the “soil” synonymous in my mind with murderous destruction. But I couldn´t be but inspired by the battles to take back the land, from the Eigg Island Trust to the fight against the Harris superquarry. The attempts to rejuvenate a national progressive discourse as the battle for the Scottish parliament intensified also impressed me – not least through the excellent theatre and writing they produced. That wonderful writers from Alasdair Gray to the late Ian M. Banks endorsed independence for reasons I could understand and support – from never wanting to fight illegal wars again to strengthening culture to local control over resources – certainly helped. Meanwhile, the rules being imposed from the Conservatives in London were so obviously not in line with the views of the majority in my adopted home, it felt indeed like an being governed by aliens. That feeling of being disenfranchised as two thirds of Scots said no to neoliberalism at every election and yet remained unheard is one that I will never forget.
And, crucially, it did not end in 1997 as New Labour – at the very least in terms of economic policies – proved yet another alien force.
There were striking parallels to the tales I had heard from my friends from the “South” and those I heard in Scotland´s communities. Any look at who owns Scotland, and for whose benefit the economy was (is?) being run, made me think more of Brazil or South Africa more so than other European countries. And I wasn´t alone in drawing the paralels. George Monbiot founded “This is Our Land” because he saw parallels between the landless struggles he had encountered in his travels and the culture of enclosure in Britain. And the fellow activist I met protesting against the M77 or the proposed new A 701 described the imposition of neoliberalism from London on the social democratic majority in Scotland just like my African friends described how their economies had been distorted to serve the colonialists first. The struggle for environmental justice and community control didn´t seem much different from the Gorbals to the South African townships I was studying for my MA thesis.
Slowly I realized that Scottish self-rule has the potential to be a building block for the “Europe of the regions” that my anti-nationalist German self had been advocating all along (initially to overcome the German nation state). The fact that Scotland is so self-consciously pro-European made this realization easier. Indeed, to me, it´s much easier to imagine Scotland alone thriving in the EU, than for a truly trusting relationship between the “United Kingdom” and the Continent ever to develop.
In the end, though, my reasons for saying YES are not about the past or my personal tale of learning to understand certain forms of nationalism as liberating. I say Ja to an independent Scotland because of the future and the promises it holds. A Yes vote, it seems to me, is simply the best way to ensure that more communities can take control of more of their own destiny. As Patrick Harvie has argued: A yes vote is needed for Scotland to have a chance to “take responsibility for the challenges of the 21st century” – and to chart a different course than the suicidal, City dependent and fossil-fueled trajectory that the London-dominated UK is on.
A yes vote does not guarantee anything. The struggle to bring back power to the lowest possible level and to deliver the fairer society that polls show Scots want will continue long after a Yes vote has been secured. But the nationalism that is one part behind the Yes vote is not the nationalism I was – quite rightly – taught to hate. David Greig says it best, I think:
I’ve kept my eye on Scottish nationalism, watching and waiting, distrusting it, expecting it to reveal its true dark heart. But it never has. For 25 years, Scottish nationalism has been a civic, social-democratic, multicultural movement. Nationalists have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they opposed Trident. They have openly campaigned for more immigration. … Nationalists promote and engage with the EU. They advocate sustainable energy, land reform, arts funding… the list goes on.
It´s a list I like. And of this “to do“ list more items will be “ticked“, I believe, if Scotland has the courage to say “Yes“. The rest of Europe may be baffled for a moment if Scotland indeed goes it alone. But then, I hope, we fellow Europeans will be inspired and work where we are to take back our destiny in whatever we can as well.
Daniel Mittler is an environmental activist and graduate of Edinburgh University. He spent most of the 1990s living in Edinburgh and blogs here.