Borg Nationalism

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.


Comments (26)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Why say ‘downfall’ of Nicola Sturgeon. Even the most diehard unionist acknowledges that she’s moved on at a time of her own choosing on her own terms

    1. I’m not sure I believe that she moved on because everything was going great?

  2. Willie Lawrie says:

    “the recent downfall of Nicola Sturgeon” – whit?

  3. CathyW says:

    Another strong piece, Mike, with which I mostly agree. However, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that all who oppose the gender reform legislation are in favour of Westminster invoking an S35. There are real concerns, not anti-trans at all, about the form this legislation has taken which looks horribly like another in a sad sequence of well-intentioned but poorly-constructed laws that would prove to have unintended adverse consequences and/or be difficult to interpret or implement consistently. But these are issues that absolutely should be resolved within Scotland and it is purely cynical, party-political opportunism by the UK Tory government to use the S35 mechanism. As you rightly say, it is part of a campaign to attack the SNP and unpick devolution with nothing better to replace it. I think not challenging the S35 is pragmatism rather than principle: a legal case would be costly, lengthy and most probably unsuccessful. A sad state of affairs indeed.

    1. Yeah, fair enough, I recognise that there are some people who are critical of GRR that are not in favour of S35s. I’m pretty wary of the narrative that Holyrood cant or doesn’t produce policy and laws efficiently, which seems to be the thrust of some arguments. It suggests that the Scottish Government/Parliament is just innately incompetent

      1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

        The process of development of the SG GRR Bill was definitively and exhaustively shown to be lazy and incompetent, quite apart from failing to consult all interested perspectives and do an adequate Equality Impact Assessment.

        Beware of too precipitous a joining -in to the ‘feeding frenzy’; take time to let some of the inevitable chaos settle here and there.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, I agree with CathyW and others on the points of the neglect of duty to consider unintended consequences of the GRR and ill preparation of the legislation, as far as I can see. I watched some late-stage Scottish parliamentary process, made more painful by frequent pauses to consider protocol confusion. A Guardian article called it the best and worst of parliamentary politics, which seems about right (the best coming from those proposing amendments). A Green MSP made some quite deranged remarks as if the question of unintended consequences did not exist, not a sane trait in a lawmaker.

        Everyday language can be slippery, which is why laws sometimes have to use their own terminology and definitions so they can be applied and enforced, and not conflict with other legislation. The word ‘gender’ is frequently used in multiple ways, and even ‘sex’ is contested. For a critical view by a philosopher, you could read Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism by Kathleen Stock (2021, 2022).

        I have admired your investigation of political advocacy groups, for example the Spike crowd and your coverage of Peter Geoghegan’s research on dark money, which may have a direct bearing on the trans debate, since right-wing USAmerican Christian organisations are funding anti-LGBT politics across Europe. Although supporting Scottish Independence, you have robustly criticised others across the movement. Given this, the lack of investigation by Bella into the more varied viewpoints, novel positions and extreme fringes of the L*G*B*T constellation’s views on the trans debate are an inexplicable omission. You mention 1997, but some of these developments are much more recent than that, and still ongoing. By your silence, you seem to imply a consensus in trans goals/models/worldviews that does not exist and perhaps never has.

        1. “the lack of investigation by Bella into the more varied viewpoints, novel positions and extreme fringes of the L*G*B*T constellation’s views on the trans debate are an inexplicable omission”

          – I don’t really agree. As I see it the trans phenomenon is one that all of society is struggling with. This is a very small and vulnerable group of people. The legislative reforms were (imho) quite modest and are replicated in many countries without a problem. I see the debate as being almost impossible on these subjects, and am astonished that the GRR has dominated and distorted public discourse to the extent that it has. There are in my opinion issues and topics of far far more importance and impacting far far more people than this.

          It may well be that there are unintended consequences of GRR that I am not aware of – none of the commentors state what these actually are. The question I raise is that it is not the role of WM to block or undermine legislation passed by majority and cross party support at Holyrood. We are now in a situation where Alister Jack feels emboldened to do that. Incredibly his role as Secretary of State for Scotland has evolved into one where his principal motivation is to undermine devolved government.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            I know, I’ve been trying to follow the marine protection negotiations while doing background reading into British military culture (incidentally, military service is one mainstream LGBT demand that you don’t mention as much as equal marriage). It’s a cacophony out there. Who benefits?

            I don’t doubt that genuine compassion and perceived self-interest are behind the GRR, but if an unspoken intention for some was to split and weaken the Women’s Movement, it may have been successful in that.

            I was hoping there could be some political compromise that doesn’t involve erasing the category of ‘Woman’ (or ‘Man’). Kathleen Stock talks about legal fictions, which sound a bit like Plato’s Noble Lie (that to bring harmony in the ideal republic, a foundation myth is spread about different essences in people’s souls); there is a line of thought that by treating truth as contextual (things can be true inside a specific realm of fiction or thought or law that don’t apply outside) such compromises might be made.

            Many of these battles are about categorisation, and these categories tend to be philosophical claims which can be tested philosophically. But I had a remarkable experience recently on an online course where learners were asked to categorise media examples. About half categorised analytically on objective internal features, and about half categorised on whether they liked the example or not, sometimes going into detail about their emotional responses to each one. The culture war between Classicism and Romanticism seems still to be raging after hundreds of years. Of course, what we need is systems thinking…

  4. MacGilleRuadh says:

    Anent your unionist friends: I detect a group of yes favouring folk who, confronted by the muscular unionism intransigence and their inability to fathom that after all that has happened a narrow majority in Scotland still cleaves to the UK are starting to think ‘if you canne beat them, join them’. This group see the absolute bourach the SNP have made of things and also notice the juxtapositioning of economic development in England with regular announcements of economic hollowing out in Scotland. They are starting to realise that ‘muscular unionists’ are going to steer development to England and wonder if it is better to sue for peace and just get rid of the whole hopelessly ineffective halfway house or ‘pretendy parliament’. With an English nationalist UK government ruling with the consent of a consistent small majority of people living in Scotland they are starting to give up on what the see as a doomed experiment.

    1. Frank Mahann says:

      Direct rule from London via Governor-General Jack (and his successor, Governor-General Murray) will protect them ! Excuse my laughter.

    2. BSA says:

      Until someone produces a proper analysis of the SNP record in government in the context of what amounts to an enemy state in London, then ‘bourach’ and ‘hopelessly ineffective’ are not really credible no matter how often the British drip feed that view into the media.

  5. Alec Lomax says:

    The perception from the overwhelmingly unionist media in Scotland (including the state broadcaster) is that Scotland is being run rather poorly. Then we look south of the Border…..
    Direct rule involves slavishly following the right wing menu of the Conservative government, such as the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, banning demonstrations, curbing the right to strike and more of that kind of stuff. Is that what your pro-devo unionist friends want?
    Another attack on the Scottish Parliament comes from the Wings fraternity (which is a wee bit funny as the operator of that site -based in England – has declared he will be voting Conservative at the next General Election. As for Craig Murray, the phrase useful idiot comes to mind.

    1. Yes to all of the above Alex. Yes the right Unionist and the right nationalist are now in complete unity. They despise the SNP and devolution in equal measure and are signalling and messaging now in almost complete unison.

  6. Lynn Reid says:

    I agree with Cathy W. that the trans law was a poorly constructed piece of legislation and Kate Forbes and Ash Regan had differing reasons for objecting to it, and I am concurring with everything else you have written. What stands out for me as usual, is the overwhelming power of the media to manipulate and use their influence.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Surely the unavoidable problem of attacking the competence of the devolved Scottish Government is that it looks far less incompetent and more functional than the Conservative-Unionist-led Westminster one?

    What is healthy for the Borg is generally unhealthy for the cultures it assimilates, although parts of them get to live on in some way, I suppose. That we can objectively (if imperfectly) assess the health of a polity (generally through proxies) is an essential requirement for a biocracy. Health at a polity level is a complex of biological, social, environmental, technological elements. One aspect of health (progress or healthy development) is highlighted in the article “We are hurtling backwards before 1997”. Going back is not always unhealthy, as nuclear disarmament illustrates. But we should have at least a definition of progress. #biocracynow

    My working definition of political progress would necessarily contain the metaphorical move from the Cave of Shadows into the Sunlight of Understanding.
    This requires us to shed our planetary-unrealistic ideologies (superstitions, religious orthodoxy, wish-fulfilment fantasies, misleading propaganda) and acquire a more planetary-realistic ideology (including climate science, evidence-based research into human nature, robust political science).

    A word of warning. Any pattern of behaviour leading to enlightenment can be copied and faked. This is one of the things that makes Progress hard. The very real and very useful patterns described as ‘woke’ (another leaving-darkness-for-light metaphor) can be copied by poetic shadowshifters for their planetary-unrealistic ideologies, hence fake-woke or ‘foke’. You can see frequent examples of ‘foke’ in the rebooted Doctor Who, for example. The idea that diverse skin tones and women ministers means that the Conservatives are all-inclusive is another example: in the UK ‘foke’ generally has to ignore social class, imperialism, science etc.

    A main task of philosophers is to devise better questions, usually an incremental, painstaking and trial-and-error (heuristic) process. In a polity, questioning politicians effectively is more than an artform, it sometimes requires getting to the fundaments of a politician’s own philosophy, which is usually heavily guarded. US President Donald Trump said his popularity could withstand him shooting people in the street, but apparently he was too afraid to answer questions. A line of questioning apparently precipitated (or at least closely preceded) First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s downfall. Answers to questions may have further repercussions for Ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

    So, what questions would you put to each SNP leadership candidate that would test whether they held a planetary-unrealistic ideology?

  8. Danny says:

    Food for thought, albeit depressing.

  9. Paddy Farrington says:

    “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.”

    This is absolutely right, and make it really difficult to open up any kind of constructive critique. However, on the basis of the couple of leadership hustings I’ve listened to, there seems to be a meaningful debate going on in the SNP. It’s very coded and polite, but clearly divergent views between Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf are in contention along pretty traditional Right versus Left lines, respectively.

  10. Edward Chang says:

    “spate of S35’s”?Once in 20 odd years?What would a torrent look like I wonder?

  11. David+B says:

    What do you mean “s35 orders” (pl)? There’s been one. That might be one more than there should be, but one is not a “spate”.

    1. “The contentious Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is set to be blocked by Westminster, according to reports” – Scotsman 27 February. The DRS is going to be blocked by one too

      1. David+B says:

        Are you sure about this? The DRS regs passed in 2020. UKG has 4 weeks from the passing of legislation to issue a s35 order. They might try to challenge it under the Internal Market Bill, but I don’t think they can use a s35 order.

  12. Alice says:

    Talk about don’t frighten the horses ..and what about the downfall of Nicola statement ? what a shower of going nowhere people you have been speaking to …take deep breathes you folk and let’s see just for that pause in the political breath, what happens next …

  13. Graham Boyd says:

    Kate Forbes is on record in a recent National newspaper online video as stating that she doesn’t think the GRC legislation or for that matter any Scottish Parliament legislation should be solved by a UK court. In her view it needs to be solved in Scotland as a Scottish matter and that she is willing if elected to look at the GRC such that account is taken of both trans and women’s rights.

    1. Claire McNab says:

      In other words, Forbes refuses to defend a law passed by the Scottish Parliament with the support of two thirds of MSPs. So much for her hollow claims to respect democratic decisions.
      If it really was Forbes’s”view that “it needs to be solved in Scotland as a Scottish matter”, then she’d acknowledge that is has ALREADY been solved in Scotland as a Scottish matter. Her view that it needs to be reworked because infringes the right of women is not just untrue; it’s a direct rejection of Scottish democracy.
      This is part of a wider strategy by Forbes of being deeply disingenuous about her stance on equality. She claims to support everyone’s rights, but she would have voted against same-sex marriage. She claims to oppose conversion therapy, but wants a religious exemption to a ban, which would wreck the ban because over half of all conversion therapy happens in a religious context. She claims to be willing to uphold abortion rights, but turns out to be deeply linked to a series of ultra-conservative lobby groups, one of which funded her start in politics.
      I initially thought that Forbes campaign launch was a trainwreck. Now it looks more like a strategy: get all the nasty stuff on the table right at the start, then whine that she has been “persecuted” by the people whose rights she opposes. And then insist that it’s time to move on to other matters.
      It’s horrific to watch how much of the SNP seems willing to still support her, and to attack LGBT people who object. Even if Forbes loses the leadership election, the SNP is looking like an unsafe option for LGBT people.

  14. Graeme Purves says:

    Were muscular unionism to succeed, I don’t believe it would be content with a return to the state of affairs before we had a parliament. Even a devolved administration on the old St. Andrews House model would be intollerable to it.

    Complete assimilation would be seen as essential.

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