When David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons this week to respond to the refugee crisis he engaged in the language of British exceptionalism so familiar on major national political occasions.
Britain, the Prime Minister, said, was “a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need”.
Mr Cameron couldn’t also help pointing out that in another respect Britain was clearly superior to other nations. No other European country, he said, had come close to matching the amount of aid offered by the UK to refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria.
In extolling the virtues of Britain the Prime Minister was continuing the tradition expected of the incumbents of Downing Street. From John Major’s insistence that Britain was the best country in the world, to Gordon Brown’s fondness for referring to the British genius, no-one has been left in any doubt about the strengths and virtues of Great Britain and its people.
The importance of this message was made clear during the current Labour leadership election when Liz Kendall seized on an apparent gaffe from Andy Burnham when Mr Burnham said “the party should come first. “ Ms Kendall reminded him sternly that country should always come before party.
None of this, to me, is particularly troubling. On the whole telling a community of people they are good at something would seem to be a useful means of boosting self-confidence and pride.
In addition David Cameron genuinely deserves credit for maintaining the UK aid budget amid clear scepticism from many within his own party.
But what is hard to take in a UK context is the casual, unremarked, blatant hypocrisy of all this rhetoric. Because every politician and commentator who gets misty-eyed at the achievements of Britannia, also seems to reserve particular venom for those terrible people called “nationalists”, particularly nationalists of the Scottish variety.
It was the academic Michael Billig who pointed out, in relation to established nation states such as the UK and US, the way “our loyalties to our nation-state can be defended, even praised” while issuing condemnation to others. “A rhetorical distinction,” said Billig, “is necessary for accomplishing this defence. ‘Our’ nationalism is not presented as nationalism, which is dangerously irrational, surplus and alien. A new identity, a different label, is found for it. ‘Our’ nationalism appears as ‘patriotism’ – a beneficial, necessary force.”
This spurious distinction was made time and time again during the independence referendum by those in favour of the Union. Following on from this line-to-take, some commentators and politicians are now engaged in a seemingly relentless search to expose any transgression from SNP politicians who might dare to even hint at any political difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The nationalism commentariat-police, armed with pop-academic terminology, are ever ready to pounce on those they believe have slipped from civic Scottish nationalism (just about tolerable in some circumstances) to ethnic nationalism: the perceived default position of Scottish independence supporters (remember Alistair Darling’s exchange with the New Statesman over blood and soil nationalism during the referendum?)
The vigilance level reached a new peak this week in a column for a right-wing website by David Torrance (a commentator who I personally like and usually find worth reading) based on remarks by the First Minister during a summit on the refugee situation last Friday. In her short speech the FM referred to a welcoming and tolerant tradition but went out of her way to explicitly state that this was not unique to Scotland. She praised Britain and specifically cited the London-born Sir Nicholas Winton who rescued Jewish and other children from the Nazis in the 1930s.
Her remarks by any measure were less “nationalist” than those of the Prime Minister.
They are part of a tradition in mainstream SNP thinking that rejects the idea that we in Scotland are better than anyone else. It was the current Scottish Government, of course, that binned the dreadful Jack McConnell-era slogan: “the best wee country in the world”.
But such is the prevailing mood among serious people that David rushed out a heroic discourse analysis to reveal the true nature of the First Minister’s intentions. Somehow Nicola’s inclusive words were really, in some way not quite explained, a further example of the SNP’s insidious attempt to bring the Union into every debate and were “framed in Nationalist terms”.
In fact, on the issues of immigration and asylum there is an obvious, manifest difference between the tone of political debate at Holyrood and Westminster. That’s not making a point, nationalist or otherwise. It’s just a fact. More generally I am grateful that the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland rejected the divisive policies and rhetoric of the Conservative Party at the last election. That doesn’t make voters here, or Scotland as a whole, better. But it does mean we have made a different political choice. Surely commentators would do better to try to understand the reasons behind that choice, rather than trotting out the usual lazy preconceptions that characterise far too much contemporary political commentary in Scotland.