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By Jason Michael
THE STATE OF ISRAEL has no right to exist! This is a statement which deeply offends many Zionists and their supporters around the world, but one which is nonetheless true. Whenever the assertion is made that the denial of Israel’s right to exist is a form of hate, I am quick to respond that Israel does not in fact have a right to exist – and this has nothing whatsoever to do with my attitudes towards Israel and Israelis. It is a simple statement of fact. No state has a natural right to exist; not Israel, not the United States, and not even the state we independentistas desire to bring about – Scotland. States are constructs, developed around ideas of community, nationhood, and security, which exist entirely as negotiated historico-political contingencies.
This is not to say that I want to see the end or the destruction of Israel. Given that it is an existing state with the means to protect its existence, I hope for a two-state solution to the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sure, one would have to be a complete idiot to believe Netanyahu’s Israel has any intention of settling for such a geopolitical compromise, but the evolution of states is a long process – anything can happen, and the best outcome for all concerned would be a two-state solution. Yet, it remains the case that nature does not provide for the right of either to exist.
While Israel is in no immediate danger of ceasing to exist, the United Kingdom – another “New Jerusalem” – is beset by a number of existential threats. Today there is a majority in Scotland for independence, an eventuality that would break the political union at the heart of the UK state project. In the six counties of Ireland still occupied by Britain there is a clear majority in favour of unification with the twenty-six counties of the Republic. Even in Wales the support for independence has reached the level at which Scotland was at in 2012. There are two other factors pulling at the fabric of the British state; namely the threat of Brexit and the growing social unrest due to severe wealth inequality and deepening austerity. At no time since the defeat of the Jacobites has the future of the British state been as uncertain as it is right now.
Seeing that its existence is as negotiated and as precarious as any other state’s, the UK has become hyperactive in its efforts to impress its identity on its population. Outwith the nation-state – in the multi-national and multi-ethnic empire for example – this has more typically been achieved, albeit temporarily, by force. Within the nation-state this is best achieved with the use of symbols – the whole nexus of shared historical experiences, language, literature, art, culture, and the physical paraphernalia to which the wider national community attributes the same or similar meaning. Yet, while the UK is not a single nation, it is a composite state made up of very similar nations. England and Scotland, for example, are not the same nation, but they are culturally closer to one another – sharing many social, historical, political, and cultural commonalities – than either is to any other nation or state outside the UK.
It is no accident that from 1999, with the opening of the Scottish parliament, there has been a marked increase in the popular cultural use of the symbols of Britain and Britishness. Before then, with the exception of a minority of nationalists and republicans, the union flag flying over council offices and other public buildings in Scotland hardly raised an eyebrow. The flag of the UK was a simple and largely inoffensive statement of political settlement and reality. It was rare, if ever, it was featured in popular entertainment. As an uncontested symbol it was parked in the background of the state-national consciousness. Now, as Scottish independence and Irish unity become likely outcomes of the UK’s current instability, there is nowhere and nothing safe from the union flag – it is everywhere. This is no accident.
Much the same can be said of the symbol of the crown. But this is more difficult to employ in the twenty-first century. It is inseparably associated with pre-modern ideas of privilege, nobility, and class distinction, and indelibly stained with the ugliness of empire and slavery. In its more polished form it is a symbol reserved for the purposes of unifying the establishment and enchanting tourists. In its unwashed state it is a locus about which the savagery of British nationalism and religious bigotry can gather. To the vast majority it has become a relic, tolerated only insofar as it is kept largely out of sight.
But the symbol of the union flag – now reduced to souring Tesco’s milk (only in Scotland) – has become everywhere the epitome of a contested symbol. It is not to the union flag support for Brexit in England has rallied, but to the Cross of Saint George; a revived symbol of resurging English nationalism. In Scotland, the north of Ireland, and Wales it has retreated into the hands of unionists as unionism continues to shrink. Abandoned for the most part by the popular movements of all the nations of the UK, the union flag is a dying symbol of unity – and no symbol makes as much noise as a dying symbol.
Realising the evaporating usefulness of the union flag, the British state has turned to another unifying symbol; one that speaks to the deep sentimentality of shared memory and pain – the poppy. This is a flower with a long cultural history and one with a surplus of meaning. It comes with individual meaning, community meaning, and state-national meaning, and this is what makes it such a powerful token of united Britishness. This is a symbol used by the state and the establishment as a proxy for other, less useful, symbols of British patriotism, but the act of resisting it is made difficult because at the personal and community levels to resist it is tantamount to sacrilege and treason.
This is something we in the independence movement must seriously think about. In remembering the heroic dead – members of our own families – with the poppy we are imbibing a powerful and psychologically potent emblem of Great Britain. We cannot have one without the other. The poppy is a hypostatic union of the personal and emotional with the ideology of the British state and an undercurrent loyalism. It is not possible, given the nature of the human imagination, to enter into the performance of state remembrance – as opposed to personal grief and respect – and support independence qua the destruction of that state. These are deeply emotional forces that are in complete opposition to one another. We cannot serve two masters.
No nation has the right to exist. They exist first in our imaginations, and by the sharing of that imagining the state is brought about. Had nations a right to exist we would still have Prussia and the Soviet Union, but history has denied them the right to exist precisely because the Prussians and the Soviets imagined something else. Scotland is in the process of imagining something other than the United Kingdom. The UK has no right to exist, and facing its imminent demise it is working to tame our imaginations with symbols that have the power to intoxicate us. Scottish independence and statehood, if it is to become a reality, will not begin with concrete political action. It begins with the reshaping of Scotland’s collective imagination – and there can be no room in that for the relics of Britishness that will only further captivate us.
Danny Bhoy on National Symbols
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