‘Nationalism’ vs Independence: it’s time to choose

The website of Euronews (11 July 2023) carries a piece headed ‘With the SNP weakened, Scotland’s ultranationalists are trying to seize their moment’. With the SNP weakened, Scotland’s ultranationalists are trying to seize their moment | Euronews)

Other than with reference to the independence group Siol nan Gaidheal, the concept of Scottish ultranationalism is difficult to locate in common use.

But its appearance in a new guise Europe-wide should force us to return to the vexed topic of the name of the Scottish National Party and the inevitable misuse of the terms ‘nationalist’ and ‘nationalism’ in confusing the nature of the impetus toward Scottish independence.

This matter assumes new importance since recent troubles affecting the SNP have increased awareness of the wider parameters of the independence movement.

The terms ‘nationalism’ or ‘nationalist’ are used in discussion of Scottish politics either carelessly or with intent, in both cases misleadingly and ahistorically. Within unionist discourse on the independence question it has at least a latent pejorative function, given the history of, especially, European nationalism. 

A rough trajectory from Hitler and Mussolini to Putin is not what any left of centre contemporary political party would choose to associate itself with. Little in the SNP’s practice or discourse suggests any connection with that tradition, either. Much could be cited in favour of strongly differentiating the SNP in its policies, its politicians, and its voters from the tendencies of European nationalism – not least the SNP’s pro-European stance, in contradistinction to the Euroscepticism of the European right (including in England; or until English votes delivered Brexit, removing the English right from Europe).

Speaking at an event during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017, Nicola Sturgeon was reported as saying that she wished that she could change the name of the party, suggesting it carried unwelcome associations with ‘inward-looking and insular‘ nationalist movements elsewhere. (Mure Dickie, Nicola Sturgeon admits to difficulties of SNP name, FT, 18 August 2017.)

She described a ‘civic, open, inclusive view of the world’ running through a Scottish independence movement that was ‘outward-looking and internationalist’. 

The FT piece notes the ‘sensitivity of many members of the SNP to association with ethnic nationalist movements in other countries and to accusations that their goal of separation from the UK is intrinsically divisive and anti-English’. 

Comments at the time from Labour and the Scottish Conservatives were predictably and wilfully obtuse, Jackie Baillie, for example, choosing to miss the point entirely by noting that Labour rejects ‘narrow nationalism’. (Though six years later Sir Keir Starmer and Labour generally don’t seem to be committing to rejoin the European Union).

It’s understandable that Labour and the Conservatives prefer to deal with a movement labelled as nationalist, rather than an independence movement. But the institution of British journalism, north and south of the Scotland/England border, has come to use ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationalist’ in relation to Scottish politics in the main unthinkingly. However, given the constitutional stance of nearly all of the UK press and also the BBC, this carelessness also serves a purpose.

Given that Ms Sturgeon made these comments six years ago, expressing doubts that many had held for decades, it might be surprising that the SNP doesn’t take the question more seriously. That Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks were not widely reported at the time and have been largely forgotten since even by those once aware of them is unsurprising. The UK media has in general little interest in reassessing the convenient notion of Scottish nationalism, as distinct from the Scottish will toward independence.

The fact that comment in 2017 from Labour and the Conservatives poured scorn on a misrepresented idea of a mere name change, when a very serious political statement was being made, is characteristic of the often juvenile tone of much of British politics in recent years. A disturbing trend for British journalism, with some solid exceptions, to become yet more ideologically uniform – and also more trivial in its approach to matters of concern for British civil society – was well established by 2017 and has not improved since.

These sad tendencies notwithstanding, and at a time when the SNP is starting to be recognized, for good or ill, as only a part of the independence movement, it’s less and less appropriate that independence supporters are dismissed – because dismissal is what it is – as ‘nationalists’: even when they have no connection with the party which is so inappropriately named. 

And whose supporters, members, activists and politicians are grievously misrepresented by this terminology.

When a very visible European news outlet starts to raise the stakes to ‘ultranationalism’, it might be time to really take issue with politicians and journalists – and supporters of independence themselves – who through carelessness, ignorance, prejudice or ill-intent taint a legitimate, pro-European independence movement with the association of nationalism.

That the SNP itself seems reluctant to take decisive steps to stop fuelling its own misrepresentation is increasingly incomprehensible.

Comments (13)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    A more fruitful line might be to call out many British Unionists for what they are: Imperialists. And make the point that most of the Scottish Independence movement is anti-Imperialist (those that don’t want USAmerican overlords, for a start). That is where the SNP’s sometime fondness for NATO and Btitish monarchy are their weaknesses. British imperialism is all over the news but usually in a disguised form in corporate media, which needs to be comprehensively, skilfully and energetically exposed.

  2. David says:

    This is the moment to rename the party, and drop the national. Perhaps SIP

  3. Niemand says:

    Interesting there are so few comments on this piece – too close to the bone?

    I think its premise is a really good question but I find some of it naive or simply in denial or unwilling to really face the music, e.g.

    “She [Sturgeon] described a ‘civic, open, inclusive view of the world’ running through a Scottish independence movement that was ‘outward-looking and internationalist’.

    The FT piece notes the ‘sensitivity of many members of the SNP to association with ethnic nationalist movements in other countries and to accusations that their goal of separation from the UK is intrinsically divisive and anti-English’.”

    In other countries? Ethnic nationalism is alive and well in Scotland and growing – just look at several other nationalist bloggers and quite a few below the line posts here too and the growing use of the term ethnic or indigenous Scot and the widely held but unproven (at best) claim that a majority of those ‘indigenous Scots’ voted for independence in 2014, which is now taken as a given, another myth to build nationalism on. Just willing it to be ‘civic’ (however heartfelt) does not mean it is universally or even widely adopted. The reason members of the SNP may be ‘sensitive’ to being associated with ethnic nationalism is that they know it is real in Scotland and quite worrisome.

    Combine this with the much more subtle denigration of anything labelled ‘British’ (very often a thinly veiled code for ‘English’) and you do not have a benign civic nationalism at all; you do indeed have something that is ‘anti-English’.

    I support independence but would never call myself a nationalist: civic nationalism is a thing but it never exists in isolation from its blood and soil sibling and when you base your central case for autonomy on how much you despise the union you are currently in and especially its ‘colonial’ (sic) masters and everything they stand for, that will always open the door wide to ethnic nationalism.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Niemand, many places count the British as their colonial masters, for which the UK government is obliged to the United Nations to report on such things as human rights:
      Scotland is not such a colony, whatever the preferred official term is (overseas territories, crown dependencies etc). However, stripping Scotland of its devolved parliament and powers would be a quasi-imperialist act. Note how central the royal prerogative of Empire is in this; for example, so many appointments made by the sovereign, so many reserved powers mapped on to it.

      1. Niemand says:

        Yes of course but my reference is to the growing idea that Scotland is a colony of England. It isn’t and never has been. But it enables the idea that the English in Scotland are indulging in an ‘occupation’, even that the SNP are a colonial administration. It enables phrases like ‘house jocks’ and unionist Scots as quislings. It is insidious and no way to build a nation. But it is a growing phenomenon.

        Actual stripping of powers of the devolved parliament would be imperialist but I would like to know what that actually consist of. Some ‘powers’ have been checked recently but they were not in fact powers the parliament had in the first place, as agreed by all at the inception of the parliament.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Niemand, well, quite. But remember that the UK government, which has had Scottish representation and Scottish prime ministers, has never entered a post-imperial phase of restructuring because the British Empire has never ended. Thus a lot of features of British governance are out of step with developing (particularly non-nuclear) European norms, there is enormous centralisation of powers and secrecy, the Privy Council is still used to administer Empire, the UK government resists decolonisation and tax haven regulation, the royal prerogative is the basis for thermonuclear monarchy and militarism, and the British Empire acts as a client of the larger USAmerican Empire, the foreign policy of the former largely slaved to that of the latter (most apparent whenever there is a rare volte face by the USA). Politicians within the Metropole are somewhat shaped by these structures and influences (that seems contributory to MPs like Mhairi Black deciding to stand down).

          How many British Unionists in Scotland are Imperialists, I don’t know, but I expect quite a few (I knew one well, who would reel off in colonial fantasies in unguarded moments, including being British governor of an Indian state accepting long trains of gifts from subjects). I have not seen the phrase ‘house Jocks’ in actual use. When I propose a high bar/smoothed path for Independence, I am not ashamed that Unionists respect that. Because of the quasi-constitutional nature of the British political system, threats to limit or end the current Scottish devolutionary model have to be taken more seriously than if we had a properly encoded Constitution, even if none have yet materialised.

          1. Niemand says:

            Sound post SD, good food for thought.

        2. John says:

          Normand can I direct you to read Nelson Mandela’s views on nationalism and imperialism in Long Walk To Freedom page 111-112. I find it quite nuanced in differentiating different types of nationalism and their motivations.

          1. Agreed, there are many different forms of nationalism, but I’d be wary of equating Scotland with the fight against apartheid, just as its disingenuous when elements of the movement equate our movement with the American civil rights movement?

          2. John says:

            Reply to editor- I am not equating the cause of Scottish independence to the fight against apartheid or civil rights movement. I am trying to make a point to people (many Labour supporters) who are happy to trot out the unthinking all nationalism is divisive and bad tropeThere are many forms of nationalism but as Mandela quotes ‘the great imperialistic powers feverishly endeavour with all their might to discourage and eradicate all nationalistic tendencies among their alien subjects’. While not directly relatable to Scotland trying to achieve independence there are hints of this approach from Westminster which has become far more nationalistic and xenophobic in recent years while trying to decry nationalism within Scotland by accusing them of the very behaviour they themselves are guilty off.
            My response to Niemand was really to point out that while we should be wary of excesses of nationalism we should not allow ourselves to believe much of the hypocritical negative propaganda about Scottish nationalism that UK government and institutions propagate.

  4. Wul says:

    A change of name would perhaps help with the oft-repeated assertions: “…all nationalism is the same…”, “…all nationalism is bad…”, “…I’m against any form of nationalism…”, “…the name tell you they are nationalists…” etc.

    Any new name would probably need to include the words “Scotland” or “Scottish” which may itself be enough to invite opprobrium. To assert the mere existence of Scotland is now seen a nationalist act. Go figure.

    I certainly don’t feel “nationalist”. I’ve never waved a flag in my life. I would like to live in an actual, self-governing nation however. Maybe that makes me just like Hitler? You start off wanting control of energy policy and end up murdering millions of innocent people in genocidal pogroms. It’s a slippery slope.

  5. Magog says:

    It’s the EU, not Europe. You can leave Europe by stepping across the Azeri border into Iran. There is no excuse for getting a continent confused with a political trade-protection orginisation.

  6. Philip Raiswell says:

    As an English person, I believe Scotland has the right to determine its future, either within the UK or as a separate independent nation.

    There are many people in England who have no love for the Conservatives, mainly in areas outside the south east, in former mining towns and in the north and midlands who feel neglected by the current administration.

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