In September 2014, Scottish voters were asked whether they favoured national independence. 55% of them voted NO. This is not to say that the remaining 45%, who voted YES, were nationalists in an uncomplicated sense. As the historian Neil Davidson has commented, “The main impetus for the YES campaign’ – or, at least, the radical yes campaign – was not nationalist, but a desire for social change expressed through the demand of self-determination.”
Is such an expression nationalistic? My feeling is that it is. The ultimate goal may be social development but, if this goal must be sought via national independence, the development is couched in a nationalistic way. In general terms, I am suspicious of nationalistic positions. For Marxist and anarchistic reasons, which I do not explain here in detail, I regard nation-states as institutions of an oppressive world. More specifically, I consider that a radical movement that takes a national form sets out to succeed in terms that neoliberal capitalism has laid down – as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine makes very clear.
Despite these reservations, I recommended a ‘Yes’ vote – albeit a ‘Yes, But’ vote – in September 2014.2
I pointed out, with James Foley and Pete Ramand in their Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence that the YES campaign did not introduce nationalism into a hitherto non-nationalistic political scene. The present political scene was one where nationalism prevailed. The nationalism that prevailed was British or, more specifically, south of English nationalism – a nationalism on which the Conservative Party has thrived. My ‘Yes’ recommendation was intended as an attempt to deprive Cameron’s Tories of the succour that a unionist outcome might bring.
Since September 2014, much in UK politics has changed.
Do these changes mean that my arguments in favour of a ‘Yes’ (or ‘Yes, But’) position are undermined?
My feeling is that my ‘Yes, But’ arguments apply no less forcibly. The ‘But’ with which I qualified my ‘Yes’ is, I think, still needful. But the ‘YES’ which the ‘But’ introduced is as necessary as ever. It is true that one circumstance that is different calls for caution. In September 2014, the Labour Party was uniformly Blairite and no-one in Westminster politics favoured radical social change. With Jeremy Corbyn’s election and re-election to Labour Party leadership, the position is altered – not least because the Corbyn leadership has stressed its indebtedness to grassroots support. In referring to this, I do not claim that this leadership is faultless nor that the Labour Party in Scotland has an untroubled path ahead. All I indicate is that, since Corbyn’s election, Westminster politics is not (from a radical standpoint) a write-off. Is this change sufficient to dislodge a ‘Yes, But’ position? I think that it is not. In 2017, an affirmation of ‘YES’ can be full-throated. I say this not because, in the interim, my thinking has become nationalistic. It has not. It is because, since September 2014, the unpleasant character of British or south-of-English nationalism has been made plain. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the racism of this nationalism became explicit. ‘A simmering xenophobia spilled over into racism on England’s and, indeed, Scotland’s streets.
If ever there was a time when Scotland might fittingly cut its links to the south of England, that time is the present. Theresa May’s political friendliness with Trump reinforces this reflection. Not nationalism (however violated) but disgust with racism and Trumpism supply a basis for ‘Yes, But’ thought.
In the referendum that Nicolas Sturgeon is calling, I call for a pro-Scottish independence vote. My call is not, principally, motivated by issues concerning the European Union – although membership in the E.U. is a benefit of what I propose. My call is motivated by disgust about the nationalism that pro-Brexit Toryism has made its own.