“Nationalism” has been used against Scotland as a dirty word to belittle the aspirations of the independence movement, but is what is happening in Scotland really nationalism – or is it something else?

Recent mass politicisation directed towards secession from the United Kingdom and the restoration of national independence in Scotland has increasingly come to be described – especially in the British political and media discourse – as “nationalism.” It is undeniable that many in Scotland’s growing independence movement are happy to identify themselves as nationalists, but is this really what is happening? Before we can begin to answer this question it is worth noting that the prevailing trend in the British unionist narrative has been to control and weaponise the language of nationalism as a pejorative; deploying terms like “narrow nationalism” and “Nats” to belittle and delegitimise the separatist movement and dehumanise its activists (referring here to the homonymous nature of “Nats” and gnats). What is clear from this is that the unionist argument has, at least in part, sought to win the constitutional debate in Scotland by injecting a sense of embarrassment or shame into the national aspirations of almost half the population of the country rather than addressing real issues. This ploy attempts to present the independence movement as intellectually inferior and unionism as the mature, educated, and therefore the respectable choice.

At no point, however, has it defined what it means by “nationalism.” Interestingly – and the reason for this discussion – neither have the so-called nationalists. Not one of the pro-independence political groupings or parties in Scotland has explicitly described their ambition as nationalism, and neither does the wider movement speak of itself as nationalistic. This creates a disjuncture in the national debate, with the unionists either wilfully or ignorantly positioning themselves against an idea that is not being articulated by those in favour of independence.

Unlike socialism, liberalism, capitalism, and fascism – for example – nationalism is not, nor has it ever been, a unified political philosophy or ideology with its own intellectual cornerstones like Marx, Smith, or Friedman. Nationalism is more nebulous as an idea and more slippery when it comes to pinning it down with a definition. It raises the question: What is the nation? If we construct nationalism on our understanding of the nation – knowing well that no two nations are alike in character – then we can never define nationalism as a single thing. Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change (1964) made the claim that “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness,” instead “it invents nations where they do not exist.” He takes this further when he equates “invention” with “fabrication.” In essence he is saying that, as fictive collectives, nations are no better than lies with political uses. Yet he fails to notice, as Benedict Anderson points out:

All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.
– Anderson, Imaged Communities (1983).

Scotland too is an “imagined community.” It is what we have collectively and historically imagined it to be. Scotland and Scottishness have meaning only because we Scots have inscribed them with meaning, and Scotland too is distinguished from other imagined communities or “nations” by the style in which we have imagined it. That style is shaped by language, culture, histories, identities, religion, and so on – which are widely different from one nation to another.

It is important to recognise – given that British unionism has actively sought to confuse them – that this difference does not imply superiority; that would be exceptionalism or, worse, supremacism and not nation-ism qua imagined communities stylistically imagined differently. Scotland’s sense of nationhood therefore is not then necessarily nationalism. It is merely a sense of itself historically and culturally constructed by Scots that differentiates us from other imagined nations.

What is also important to recognise is that – unlike an insular or narrow nationalism – events in Scottish politics cannot be isolated from other movements reacting to the dominant social, political, and economic forces at play in the wider United Kingdom and globally. While the prevailing discourse of the unionists has fetishised “Scottish nationalism,” the discourse of the independence movement in Scotland has been almost identical to the social justice concerns of other political and social movements in Britain and around the world. The questions of child poverty, social inequality, and foodbanks in Scotland are identical to the questions being asked by anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist groups like the Occupy Movement, Nuit Debout, and the “Feel the Bern” sensation is the United States. These are not narrow or insular nationalistic concerns; they reflect an internationalisation of Scotland’s self-awareness.

Regardless of the genuine Scottish nationalists that there are, the Scottish independence movement – taken as a whole – cannot be described as nationalism. Having said this, I do not believe that there is anything inherently wrong with nationalism; that would be to accept the unionist’s false conflation of nationalism with fascism, totalitarianism, exceptionalism, and supremacism. This is nothing more than rhetoric and political spin. What is happening in Scotland, however, much as is happening elsewhere in the world, is that we have rallied around our identity as a means of resisting the forces of capitalism, corporatism, and neoliberalism – the mainstay of Westminster’s dominant political class – that have stripped Scotland of its resources, reduced our children to hunger, left our sick and elderly in the bitter cold, and forced working families and the homeless alike to queue at foodbanks, while in London the political élite squirrel vast amounts of our wealth away into their private offshore tax havens.

Further, in Scotland this resistance is mobilised against a particular facet of British post-imperial nationalism – a deeply racist and violent nationalism – that has been engaged by the élite political class to re-invent Britishness; and attempt to homogenise identities on these islands and therefore control them. In this we are all – the English, Welsh, Irish, and the Scots – being reduced to consumers to be consumed. Thus, as a reaction to this nationalism, independence in Scotland is about survival.

Article written by Jason Michael

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