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.