Why Anti-Nationalists Should Vote Yes


Another speech, another volley of insults between Labour and the SNP. This time it’s Ed Miliband saying that the SNP ‘can’t be narrow nationalists and serve social justice at the same time’. All good knockabout stuff, surely? It’s the ordinary currency of Scottish politics: the endless, pointless, tribal hatred that the Labour Party and the SNP have together nurtured for longer than anyone cares to remember.

Much like Old Firm football, it’s easy for the familiar flags and rituals to obscure the fact that two centrist parties are divided less by their differences than by what they have in common. Both parties believe in nationhood, whether Scottish or British; and both are nationalist in the sense that they believe in nationhood as the appropriate foundation for territorial sovereignty.

Such hatred of the proximate Other is usually evidence of an internal conflict. That at least is a generous explanation for the trenchant disavowal of nationalism from a Labour leader who cheerfully applauded Gordon Brown’s British jobs for British workers speech, and who has sought to rally the faithful around his own One Nation-ism.

It’s disappointing then that most of the media coverage of the indyref has thus far characterised the debate as ‘nationalists’ vs ‘unionists’ rather than between two rival nationalisms. Of the two campaigns it is actually Better Together rather than Yes Scotland that wants to dish up a smorgasbord of patriotism: ‘as Scots we love our country … we all feel proudly Scottish but most of us also feel at least a bit British. We don’t have to choose between the two’. Fair enough. But nor do we have to choose either one as the basis for political organisation. For all that I have an affinity with Scotland and Britain, I don’t feel the need to turn an accident of birth into some kind of achievement. Sure, I’ll take pride in a fair society – when we develop one.

At the moment, none of the main political actors speak to the widespread interest in an anti-nationalist support for independence. ‘Anti-nationalist’ in the sense that people may vote yes not because they believe in some kind of Scottish manifest destiny but out of a desire to renew a workable democracy amid the systemic dysfunctions of the British state.

The literary theorist Terry Eagleton once remarked that the Enlightenment gave birth to two doctrines distinguished only by the letter ‘s’. The first was the people had the right to self-determination; the second was that peoples had such a right. ‘The former belief’ said Eagleton ‘is the keystone of modern democracy, and indeed of socialism; the second is a piece of romantic mystification’. In other words, there is nothing about being Scottish that necessarily entitles us to self-determination as Scots. Like any nation, Scotland has no essential integrity us a unit of sovereignty; nor for that matter does the UK.

Rather, the case for independence is a pragmatic one in that it offers, paradoxically, the most likely way of preserving the greatest achievements of postwar Britain – the Welfare State, the NHS, free higher education – as well as the best chance to enact nuclear disarmament, a fair migration policy and the structural reform of landed wealth.

All the ‘I’m a proud Scot…’ posturing by the No campaign obscures the fact that what is at stake in the indyref is much more about democratic renewal than about identity. Where many of our politicians have failed to notice this, Scotland’s writers have offered a different story. ‘Even though the referendum was brought about by the Scottish Nationalist Party’wrote Kathleen Jamie in the New York Times, ‘it is less about nationalism than about a crisis of democracy that has built up over the last 30 years’. 

For an anti-nationalist, a Yes vote might seem like a Faustian pact with the patriots but the same is also true for No. It is a regrettable feature of our modern Westphalian system that it is difficult to redraw territorial arrangements outside the rhetorical frame of the nation-state. But restoring functional democracy in Scotland cannot wait for the re-design of an international system that has prevailed for over 350 years.  Most of us didn’t want the binary question ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ but that is the choice on offer and it is a choice that must be disentangled from the nationalist agenda on both sides.

‘The independence debate isn’t really about independence’ observed the novelist James Robertson last year, ‘it’s about what independence might be for’. Yes to independence, no to nationalism. And may the patriotism of the mainstream politicians be a plague on all their houses.

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  1. yesvote2014 says:

    Spot on. The British/English nationalism of the Labour party is something that needs to be pointed out to Johann Lamont, Eddie Izzard and anybody else who rejects our independence based on their own “narrow, nationalist” beliefs.

    Check the way the Labout emphasise the English bits of the Union Jack


    And Milliband’s appeals to English nationalism.


  2. yerkitbreeks says:

    Sorry, Fraser,

    Having spent half of my life in the south of England, returned seven years ago and read ” Blossom ” I am confident to vote YES as a Scottish nationalist ( with a small n ). The end result for me will be a different, possibly more Nordic society, and will have to be called something, so why not Scottish.

    1. Don’t worry, I recommend the name Scotland! All I’m arguing is that Scottish nationhood doesn’t have to be the basis for supporting independence.

  3. Alex Buchan says:

    I don’t know Eagleton’s argument in detail, but there is a glaring problem in the way it is presented above, which is that democracy, as we practice it in the modern world, requires a political community which has a sufficient sense of cohesion for everyone to accept the outcome of democratic elections. The reason we are having an indyref is because this has ceased to be the case in the UK; we don’t vote Tory but we get Tory policies.This is usually the case in every movement for self determination. I don’t know whether Eagleton was English (from memory I think he was) but it is precisely because one lives in a dominant political culture that one is blind to the reality of feeling politically disenfranchised on a permanent basis, rather than just every time ones party does not get elected.

    But, having said all that, I think taking nationalism out of the argument for independence is a positive step. Not only does it cut across the tribal rivalries that you rightly see as disfiguring Scottish politics but it also indicates where we want to get to in terms of an independent Scotland that is inclusive and pluralist. I think we often forget that in Scotland our political identity is not based on culture or language. The gaps between the culture of the Gaels and the rest of Scotland or between rural Scotland and the central belt, or the Northern Isles and the rest of Scotland makes any idea of a homogenous national culture problematic. This is something to be celebrated. Being a stateless nation has meant that our identity has been based more on civic grounds, based on the retention of a separate education, legal, religious, and civic identity. So Scotland is very favourably placed to develop a independent country that does not require nationalist arguments to define itself.

    1. Hi Alex, agree that political community is necessary, just that nationhood doesn’t necessarily always have to be the basis for political organisation. Eagleton is Irish, and an historian of British barbarism in Ireland – in this case writing against the idea of political community being founded on Irishness per se.

      1. Alex Buchan says:

        Thanks for the clarification. In that case I can definitely agree with him, but “peoples” does not need to be defined in nationalist terms. What I think is spurious is certain internationalist critiques of nationalism, because one needs a political community before one can have meaningful democracy.

  4. Juteman says:

    If you have the right in a criminal trial to have a jury made up of your peers, surely you have the same right when it comes to your government.

  5. Stevenson says:

    Trying to remove identity completely from independence is a rather contrived attempt to trump the labels stuck on the independence movement. Scotland has options which are apparently not open to English regions because it has an historic identity which still commands respect as a basis for progress and which in turn identifies the problems we need to address. It is a practical pride in identity and history and there is no need to apologise for it or to sanitise it.

    1. Muscleguy says:

      I didn’t read Fraser’s piece as saying we have to remove identity completely, only that it’s a poor basis for a pluralist democracy as it excludes all the non-Scots who will be voting in September. It also ignores the very careful formulation of the SNP and the wider Yes campaign. Listen to them, they talk about ‘the people of Scotland’ not ‘the Scottish people’ as they want to be as inclusive as possible. Focussing on Scottish nationalism (in its non SNP sense) is exclusive and unhelpful.

      Note that BT try hard to portray the SNP as something other than that inclusiveness given by their use of language and their plural membership. Steve Bell in the Guardian persists in drawing Alex Salmond as Braveheart and that sort of lazy stereotyping is just fine by BT.

      Nobody is stopping you from voting from whatever basis you want. The question is over how the campaign is run and how the country will be run after Independence. There will be a lot of kids born of immigrants who will be entitled to Scottish passports. I do hope you will not denigrate them from some misguided form of nasty nationalism.

  6. bringiton says:

    The fact of the matter is,that for the first time ever in our history,we are being asked, democratically,if we wish to manage our own affairs or continue to allow London to do so on our behalf.
    The tribalism has little to do with this but more about two parties who wish to occupy the same Scottish mainstream political space.
    Labour believe that they can do so by convincing Scots to continue with London rule.
    The SNP are saying that we can only guarantee social democracy in Scotland through independence.
    What British Labour are getting so heated about is that they now realise that their days may be
    numbered in Scotland and the prospects of regaining power receding into the distance.
    Of course,it is entirely about whether Scotland is a country or not as far as voters are concerned and the implications for democratic government one way or the other.

  7. Heather says:

    There are a couple of things I take issue with here. I really do not see the YES campaign as anything like Nationalist, self determination is what the Independence ref is about and to put a stop to London rule which is destroying Scotland. It is not nationalist to want to govern your country. I am a member of the S National P, (SNP), it isn’t called the S Nationalist P, and A Salmond has made it clear that he is an internationalist. The bt camp like to equate the SNP at any opportunity with nationalism, this is to try to portray them as rampant nationalists, which they hope people will interpret as having sympathies with the likes of the horrendous bigots the bnp.

    The bt camp are however, the biggest flag wavers and only wish to continue to beat the Scottish people down and control and manipulate them to their own ends, that is what the unionists are all about, creating a false image of ‘all in this together’, when that is absolutely not the case and never will be.

  8. Stevie says:

    BritNat dreaming has led to wars, nukes (£100Billion) and putting the vested interests of the rich and people last. A YES vote is a vote for freedom. Freedom from all these right-wing elitists is the freedom to create a decent place for people to live where government serves the people and not the people surviving in servitude to the government.

  9. Dave Coull says:

    Most anti-nationalists ARE planning to vote Yes, and many hundreds are actively campaigning for Yes. Most real, internationalist socialists support a Yes vote. Although NuLabour may have, belatedly, rediscovered how to talk the language of solidarity, their “solidarity” is with the financial and political elite in London, and definitely ends at the Straits of Dover.

  10. muttley79 says:

    I have a problem with this article. I have noticed that some independence supporters act in a seemingly superior way, because they emphasise that they are not Scottish nationalists, and/or involved with the SNP. I can remember reading a Tweet from an independence supporter a while ago, and it was basically saying that they had been in a Yes meeting of some kind, and how it was great because none of those present were Scottish nationalists. It is really starting to grate with me that some pro-independence supporters can be so disparaging about the SNP. The SNP have been the main political organisation responsible for bringing about this referendum. They have been campaigning for independence for decades upon decades, and their activists have kept the dream of independence going through difficult and trying circumstances many times in the past.

    I am not sure how much self awareness some Yes supporters have of this, nor of some of the great people in the SNP that have contributed so much to the independence cause, and who often personally suffered by way of their careers etc. Many had great integrity, and were people of a very high calibre. I am thinking about the likes of Stephen Maxwell, Neil McCormack, Margaret Ewing, Allan McCartney, and many others. To see some pro independence supporters distancing themselves, and acting in a superior manner, towards these and other Scottish nationalists, saddens me greatly.

    1. setondene says:

      Muttley 79. Spot on. I’m sick of hearing people on this site disparaging the SNP and denying Scottish identity. I often feel like I have to deny I’m Scottish to fit in here. As you say, if it weren’t for the SNP this Referendum would not be happening. It’s fair enough that Yes is a broad church but let’s have a bit of respect between its different elements.

    2. facelessnobody says:

      I think you have misunderstood this. It isn’t anti-SNP, it’s anti-nationalist. I would consider myself anti-nationalist. I don’t understand the whole flag-waving thing or feel any “pride” in being of a particular nationality. I think patriotism is pretty senseless. That doesn’t mean I have anything against the SNP. I have a lot of respect for how they have continued with their aim of independence like you described and I would imagine other anti-nationalists who are pro independence would feel the same.

      1. Gordon Murray says:

        The UK is one of the least democratic countries in the west. The EU were on the verge of expelling the UK because of this in 1997. that is the REAL reason Tony Blair granted Scotland and Wales their devolution. The UK have no interest in maintaining your wellbeing and I doubt if they even appreciate your loyalty, they want and demand unquestioning obedience. This ain’t about pride or flag waving, it is about giving our families and communities protection from faceless nobodies in grey suits at Westminster and providing a all of them and us chance to develop into the best we can be. Hardly senseless, blind slavish loyalty to people who neither appreciate it or thank you for it, in my book THAT’S pretty senseless

      2. setondene says:

        How about if we had an article on this site by ‘anti-socialists’ for independence? For the avoidance of doubt I’ve discovered I’m a left liberal after doing the political compass test.

    3. Muscleguy says:

      Think about why the SNP and the wider Yes campaign are careful to use the form ‘the people of Scotland’ and not the more natural ‘the Scottish people’. Why do you think they do this?

      When you have the answer to this you will realise where Fraser is coming from and why that stance is the correct one.

      1. These guys are conditioned by British right wing ethnic nationalism and simply seem unable to comprehend the concept of Civic or Civil nationalism. Not about flag waving or my lot are better than your lot because of the accidents of what and where we were born, but an inclusive nationalism born of the ideals of Liberty Egality and Fraternity, of Freedom and the persute of happiness, the founding principles of the democracies of France and the USA . Where’s the problem in that?

  11. tartanfever says:

    Interesting article Fraser, thanks.

    It’s easy to define societal groups into ‘pigeon holes’. Either through nationality, gender, age or race. At every turn we face it in our daily lives. Fill in a form at a doctors, apply for a bank account, fill in your census return, electoral register – they want to know details that are supposed to ‘define’ you but I personally doubt that many of us actually take a moment to question these definitions, at face value they are benign.

    We go abroad on holiday – we’re *insert nationality here*. Apparently Scots are welcomed, where English are not. Irish football fans are the friendliest in the world and the Brazilians like to ‘carnival’. They’re all pretty lazy stereotypes, but we live with them because it makes things easy, or they might work to our advantage in some circumstances.

    However, now we have a referendum to consider. As Fraser describes, it’s convenient for politicians and, in my opinion, the press especially, to use those already well-formed stereotypes with which to label opposing sides. Media stories can be ‘packaged’ neatly into Yes vs No, which also means Scotland v England and in the case of Ian Smart, some rather unsavoury racial differences.

    So while we’re thinking about our referendum, we have the baggage of our entire lives to deal with – all those forms you filled in, all those descriptions of you, all those things that society has demanded of you to define you. It’s hard not to use the pigeon holing that has surrounded our very existence because that is the very structure which we have been taught.

    Add to this our post-modern world (or are we post-post modern now ?) where we no longer believe in the institutions of power – church congregations rapidly diminishing, trust in politicians generally declining and so on. We get to a point where we don’t really believe in anything, and all of a sudden people that do believe in something seem rather, well, radical.

    So, from a personal perspective, while I completely recognise (and if i’m honest, aspire to achieve) what Fraser has described as a ‘rational voter’ – looking purely at the politics of the situation and disregarding the mysticism, I can’t help but feel the pull of the ‘nationalism’ tag.

    I’m Scottish, I want independence, I want to break away from Westminster and it’s history and so on. I just can’t help it.

    I try to be rational, I try not to be emotional, I try to consider political decisions on their own terms. It’s a difficult process.

    How’s that going you may ask ?

    Well, it’s a kind of schizophrenic affair. Each day seems to be different. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  12. Will McEwan says:

    To want one’s nation to be self governing is nationalism. I am a nationalist. I have been a nationalist for over 60 years and a socialist because these postions are not mutually exclusive. I am an internationaist. I have done my time in the third world. To be an internationalist I have to have a nation first. My grandfather was a nationalist. My father was an Irish and Scottish nationalist.
    I am sick and tired of those people who are apologising for their dislike of the SNP and for being so late to the fray (just before the bandwagon leaves without them )by suggesting that to be a nationalist is somehow wrong. The people who freed Ireland and Kenya and India and Ghana and Lithuania and Hungary and every other country which achieved its freedem were all nationalists. Because the trendy elements of the trendy left and mockjocks have tried to defeat the SNP by implying that nationalism is akin to fascism or naztiism doesn’t lend any weight to this silly position.
    Go away and write a serious article.

    1. setondene says:

      Spot on Will, couldn’t agree more.

  13. Dan Huil says:

    I thought the article was fine. Whether we agree about that, or not… First things first: Vote Yes.

  14. Billy Collins says:

    Having the likes of Joan Mcalpine and Roseanna Cunningham lording it over us Unionists is the best advert for the No campaign you could ever find. The extremist views and behaviour we’ve been witnessing from the Nationalist camp is nothing short of scandalous and wee Eck and co say nothing as yet.

    No referendum or no Yes campaign victory will ever change the way hundreds of thousands of us feel and our pride in being British.

    The SNP will split a nation and cause division for decades to come.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Why do Joan McAlpine and Roseanna Cunningham annoy you so much? What extremism do you mean?

  15. Eagleton’s basic point is correct. ‘Rights’ of any kind are an attribute and function of being human. Groups do not have rights; only individuals have rights.

  16. manandboy says:

    Thanks Fraser for your piece.
    ‘Much like Old Firm football . . .’ – the point you make here is valid though with an outdated model
    as the Old Firm is no longer since one half of it went into liquidation in 2012.
    But whatever the model, be it Old Firm or Empire, the time for them to be gone is surely upon us with the forthcoming opportunity for Independence.
    Vote Yes.

  17. tammcgarvey says:

    I used to have a hundred reasons for voting Yes in the coming referendum but have been greatly swayed by speeches given by the Scottish and UK Labour leaders at their recent conference.
    Ms Lamont with her clear and postive vision for a fairer Scotland and Mr Miliband with his earnest efforts to ditch the the toxic brand that was New Labour for a new left of centre identity to help get them back in touch with ordinary people and represent their interests.
    I used to have a hundred reasons for voting Yes in the coming referendum, now I only have three – the past, the present and the future.

    1. Dennis Smith says:

      Not a lot to add except to congratulate just about everyone involved. This article has evoked some of the sanest comments I’ve seen in a long time.

      Just one actual comment. I’ve no hang-ups about describing myself as a nationalist, but only because I distinguish sharply between different senses of the word ‘nationalist’: I’m a nationalist in some senses of the word but not in others. If anyone is interested in following this up, I had an article in the Scottish Review a while back trying to disentangle some of these senses, at http://www.scottishreview.net/DennisSmith53.shtml

      1. tartanfever says:

        Thanks Dennis, I enjoyed your article very much.

  18. ramstam says:

    You cannot have a union of 5M and 60Million. We de facto were annexed against our will in 1707 (riots of the common folk etc.) Today’s self styled unionists are actually provincialists who are accepting of Scotland’s role as it offers personal opportunity for some, even though it harms Scotland as a community, and of course the poorer folk in particular who are just not on their radar except for their polling power. These same people have immense power in their hands on Sept 18. Mobilising and educating the ordinary folk to vote in their own interest VOTE YES will win the day for Scotland. Scottish Labour know this and will do all in their power to stop “their” votes going to yes.

    1. Alex Buchan says:

      That point about offering personal opportunities for some reminds me of Linda Colley’s series of talks on radio 4 called Acts of Union and Disunion. I thought it would be interesting because she has written some interesting stuff on the nature of the union. In the program on Scotland it was interesting enough until she said the most stupid thing. She said that Scotland gained from the union because individual Scots became prosperous in a way unimaginable before, fair enough I thought, but then she cited those who were given control to run Scotland by the UK government and said Winston Churchill called the secretary of state at the time he was prime minster the King of Scotland. It beggared belief that a serious historian could see this as evidence of how Scots benefitted under the union rather than as evidence of how utterly undemocratic and unaccountable the government of Scotland was for more or less the entire period of the union. When this is deemed a reasonable comment to be aired on radio 4 and transmitted into Scotland one realises the chasm that exists between how Scots see things and the BBC see things.

      1. tartanfever says:

        Alex, I suffered through that series as best I could. Some interesting points but when she eventually came out and told us that Scotland was an economic nothing until oil was discovered I turned off.

        It was full of factual inaccuracies, speculative interpretation and delivered by a narrator with the most condescending delivery I have ever heard.

        At the end of every programme I felt like a 6 year old school child who’s just been to the head teacher’s office for a scolding.

      2. Alex Buchan says:

        tartanfever, the series was clearly devised to deliver a message; the Irish Union was badly conceived therefore it has no bearing; the case for Scottish Independence is based on a misreading of history. It was typical BBC britnat propaganda presented as objective analysis. She clearly feels the need to not be seen as endorsing Scottish Independence, so, either of her own volition, or in discussion with the series commissioner, this was brought out as part of a larger project to shape public opinion. But if it was just that it wouldn’t be so bad but obviously its part of something more pervasive. Writing this my mind immediately thought of Gramsci and just clicking on the first listing under Gramsci I got this which describes this BBC phenomenon perfectly.

        “Gramsci used the term hegemony to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. Commentators stress that this involves willing and active consent. ‘Common sense’, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is ‘the way a subordinate class lives its subordination’ (cited in Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett 1992: 51).”

        The above is very relevant to Scotland, except that something’s changing; more and more people are not taken in by it, because they can see the obvious slantedness of all this. Lets hope enough Scots see through the BBC’s common sense before September.

      3. Alex Buchan says:

        When I went back to read the rest of that article I couldn’t believe how relevant it is. It continues:

        “However, unlike Althusser, Gramsci emphasizes struggle. He noted that ‘common sense’ is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself’ (Gramsci, cited in Hall 1982: 73). As Fiske puts it, ‘Consent must be constantly won and re-won, for people’s material social experience constantly reminds them of the disadvantages of subordination and thus poses a threat to the dominant class… Hegemony… posits a constant contradiction between ideology and the social experience of the subordinate that makes this interface into an inevitable site of ideological struggle’ (Fiske 1992: 291). References to the mass media in terms of an ideological ‘site of struggle’ are recurrent in the commentaries of those influenced by this perspective. Gramsci’s stance involved a rejection of economism since it saw a struggle for ideological hegemony as a primary factor in radical change.”


  19. One of the best articles on the independence referendum I’ve read in a LONG time. I’m glad this seems to be the direction that writers in Scotland are taking too. This is about a socio-political aspiration towards something more democratic than the politics of Westminster and the economics of the City. But of course questions and reimaginations of Scottish culture and/or identity will inevitably (and hopefully creatively) be a part of this historic process.

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