When we talk about nationalism we almost always are asked to consider it in terms of Scotland or Ireland, but never British or English nationalism. But the recent downfall of Nicola Sturgeon, allied with the parallel rise in Muscular Unionism, has changed this. While British nationalism pre-supposes that it simply cannot exist because it is reflective of the natural order of things, the way the world is ‘just supposed to be’, the recent spate of S35s over-ruling Holyrood legislation marks a departure and a more aggressive form of a new Borg Nationalism.
Resistance is Futile in this new order.
As a thought experiment I asked Unionist friends what they thought of the renewed attacks on the devolution settlement (rather than the SNP). I was thinking not just of the consequences of the Internal Market, the power-grab from the fallout of Brexit, the unprecedented S35 orders and the shift in language about devolution. As the feeding-frenzy against the SNP and the independence movement reaches fever-pitch devolution itself is becoming friendly-fire in the orgy of self-congratulation as Sturgeon’s government stumbles and falters.
Columnist Stephen Daisley leads the chorus asking: “How many more times does the UK government have to save Scotland from its own parliament before we admit devolution isn’t working?” He goes on: “A government at all interested in political coherence would accept that too many powers have been devolved, inhibiting Westminster’s ability to set national policy.”
This is new.
My Unionist friends couldn’t really process the experiment. Of course devolution isn’t under attack they replied when presented with dozens of examples of just such attacks. One replied: “To see what has happened to Scotland after 14 years of the SNP literally makes me sick. If the Scottish government try to make bad law that Scots manifestly don’t want and that clashes with UK law I’m very glad there is a mechanism for halting it.”
It would be good to hear from a wider group of union-supporting people, but the feedback I got was that of complete denunciation not just of the SNP – whether it be the Salmond or Sturgeon governments – but of the entire devolution project. This takes us into new and confusing territory. Now, among the frenzied celebration from the media class, the question emerges, what do they actually want?
Do they really want the dissolution of Holyrood and direct rule? A few years ago that seemed a ridiculous idea, now I’m not so sure. Because this Borg Nationalism is an entirely nihilistic project. No-one in the Conservative, Labour or Liberal parties actually seriously thinks they can achieve widespread electoral support for a majority in Holyrood, no-one. This lack of a serious credible opposition in Scotland is itself a real problem.
The political project is therefore to destroy the SNP and to attack the Scottish Government, to oppose everything unquestioningly and to create a culture in which everything is determined to be relentlessly awful. This results in very serious and critical problems being overlooked.
A Union of Nations
But behind the celebrations and beyond the nihilism there is a problem.
As John Denham, the former Labour MP who has done much to explore a progressive English nationalism has written (‘Anglo-British Unionism Will Not Save the Union‘): “Unionism of the 21st Century lacks a compelling story. Smugness at the fiscal difficulties of independence merely highlights unionism’s weakness. Unionist politics, the UK state, and much of the media, academia and culture are steeped in an Anglo-centric view of Britain. Forged first in empire and then in the immediate post-war period, this Anglo-centric unionism saw the Union as the extension of English institutions. It assumed that England’s interests were those of the Union as a whole. The Union cannot find a new way forward until it can put Anglo-centrism behind it.”
He is right of course about the need for 21C Unionism to have a compelling story, arguably 21C Scottish nationalism needs one too.
Denham continues: “Today, an England-based Conservatism in thrall to Anglo-centric British nationalism wants to re-assert the power of the UK state, undermining devolution and denying Scotland a legal route to leave … without any new vision of how the Union might work. Labour also offers no radical rethink of the UK. Its proposals, to extend both national and English devolution, though welcome as far as they go, are simply trying to refresh the inadequate settlement of 1997.”
This is interesting stuff because it comes not from the beleaguered ranks of the independence movement but from the pen of the director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton.
In place of the current crisis – and looking beyond Borg Nationalism – Denham suggests a genuine union of nations. He concludes: “Only when England can see itself as England will it be possible to challenge the idea that Britain is England and allow the other nations to feel like partners of equal status.”
It’s a paradox that some of the complicity and lack of radical thinking Denham accuses Labour of is mirrored in Scotland.
It’s clear that neither Kate Forbes – if she is victorious – nor Ash Regan – will challenge Westminster over the use of the S35s. It’s an anomaly of the anti-trans reform lobby that while they masquerade as being the most fervent and agitated supporters of independence – they offer up a sort of quietism to Westminster if its convenient to quash legislation passed by overwhelming majority in Holyrood they don’t like.
We are now in the bizarre position where elements of the independence movement are completely aligned with their former unionist ‘enemies’. Things have come full circle. Circulating this week from the madder fringes of the British nationalist community in Scotland were ‘Gotcha’ style mock ups of Sturgeon, Swinney and the former head of police in Scotland. Such self-congratulation can also be found on pro-independence blogs where wild conspiracy finds fertile ground. Arch-unionists and (supposedly) arch-nationalists are now co-joined in hatred of the SNP.
There is also unity in the attack on devolution. Here Craig Murray asks of politicians arguing we should challenge the S35 orders: “Why would you waste time trying to maintain the rotten devolution settlement if you genuinely mean to replace it with Independence?”
The argument goes – with independence just around the corner – with Ash Regan’s imminent ascendancy you see, why bother supporting devolution at all? That’s where we are.
Former pro-devolution Unionists have now been assimilated into the Borg Nationalism that talks of devolution being something that ‘inhibits Westminster’s ability to set national policy.’ We are hurtling backwards before 1997 … back before equal marriage and civil partnerships … back before climate change was even a thing. It’s difficult to see how a pre-devolution Scotland can leapfrog to independence or how a reactionary politics can be a beacon for a new state.