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By Jason Michael
NOW SEEMS LIKE a good time to explain some of the terminology I have been using of late. In a recent article, Educating Cameron Archibald, I used the term ‘crypto-unionist’ to describe the pro-independence blogger James Kelly, Ross Greer, and Cameron Archibald – people who claim to be on our side in the Scottish independence debate. This does not mean they are unionists or closet unionists as the case may be. It simply means that they are hidden unionists. They may indeed believe they support independence, and we have no reason to doubt that, given the opportunity, they would vote Yes to independence in another referendum. But, at this stage of the campaign – independence limbo, there is more to it. The why of independence has to be justified. We cannot simply want independence for its own sake. Such thinking is purely nationalistic; it lends itself too easily to exceptionalism, xenophobia, and regionalism.
The cause for Scotland’s independence must be justified by an ideology – which is not a bad word; we all have ideologies. England dominates Scotland, Wales, and the occupied counties with a right-wing capitalist-imperialist ideology. Justifying our independence, then, demands the articulation of ideological difference. We must demonstrate to ourselves and to others that our cultural and political ideology is incompatible with that of England. Failure to do this simply undermines the case for independence – why bother with the heartache and stress of fighting for independence when its achievement means no change to what we already have under London rule?
Ideological difference, therefore, must be at the centre of any argument for independence. We must understand why the ideas and assumptions which govern Scottish culture and our people’s attitudes are different from and incompatible with England’s. State ideology and counter-ideologies are expressed in the form of narratives; the stories and accepted norms and customs of our ideological groups. In order to explain this, allow me to share a passage from my notebook:
Narrative: Our hegemon, the British state, has constructed a narrative – a complex political, historical, moral and even religious-mythical narrative of ‘Great Britain.’ By this narrative it explains – much like any national foundation myth – why the British state exists and why it exists as it does; with Scotland, Wales, and part of the island of Ireland under the control of England. This myth is reproduced by the civic institutions produced by the state; the education system, the legal system, in all the instruments of culture, and in every sphere of the media. This manufactured narrative is the ‘propaganda’ of the union state qua greater England. It is so ubiquitous that it is reproduced in the minds of the people formed by the state – and so it is accepted as normative; this is the gold standard of citizenship, the canon of politeness and respectability. Everything else, then, is by definition deviant.
Perhaps now we can better appreciate why the idea of Scottish independence must be counter-cultural; it must have a distinct narrative to that of the British state – and one which is incompatible with the demands of British state ideology. Only those people who have processed this and who have either entrenched themselves in their Scottishness (as an inherited or encultured ideology of national belonging) or who have been ideologically converted to Scottishness can be thought independentistas. But this is not everyone in the independence movement. While it is wrong to think of them as ‘traitors’ or ‘collaborators,’ there are people who support independence and who would, given the chance, vote for independence who still accept the assumptions of British state ideology. These independence supporters accept the British narrative as normative, as polite, and respectable. This is what makes them ‘crypto-unionists’ – they believe in a very British Scottish independence, and the independence they believe they want, deprived of an ideology of independence, is merely a superficial independence; one based on a combination of economics and other activities of the state. Their want is for a generic state, not one in character and spirit distinguishable from the British state. Independent statehood, however, cannot be justified by activities. Villages have economies.
Frustratingly, the Scottish independence movement has no shortage of crypto-unionists – many of whom are in positions of power and influence in the Scottish National Party and throughout the wider movement. In my previous article we looked at the attitude of Cameron Archibald, James Kelly, and Ross Greer towards Ireland and the Irish struggle for independence. Their assumption is that Ireland’s armed resistance to British occupation and aggression is deviant in nature, that it is somehow un-British, and that Scotland cannot and must not do anything which would risk a violent conflict with the British state. This is exactly the British narrative of its colonial history in Ireland; the assumption that it is irregular, rude, and uncivilised – the opposite of Britishness (normative, polite, and respectable) – to resist Britain (the most violent and aggressive state in human history). Such a ‘British’ attitude towards Ireland tells us much about their attitude towards Scottish independence. It informs us that they would much rather remain ‘British’ than resist British aggression. And we must bear in mind here that neither Irish nor Scottish independence are acts of aggression. They are acts of national self-confidence and assertion. The aggression, in the case of Ireland, came from Britain. Yet, the crypto-unionist sees resistance as ‘violence.’
Another excellent example of crypto-unionism comes from Tom Arthur, the SNP MSP no one had ever heard of until a few days ago. His idea of independence is, according to his tweets, based on some vague notion of a ‘better future’ and not settling the scores of ‘an imagined past.’ He and I agree at least on one thing; we should not base the independence cause on the politics of grievance. If grievance is all we have, then what we need is psychotherapy and not a referendum. But what, we must ask, does he imagine we are imagining about our past? Officially, Scotland has no past. It was deliberately not taught to us in school – in a very British Scottish education system (a ‘colonial’ education system). But, in reality, we do have a past. Following the Jacobite rebellions Scotland was occupied and extensively garrisoned by British troops. Inspired by English racial assumptions of ‘Britishness,’ the Highland Gaels were systematically persecuted, their language and culture subjected to genocidal British state action, before being violently Cleared from their land to benefit the British economy. Scottish independence campaigner and socialist John Mclean was imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately driven to madness by a vindictive British state – and we were never taught about him. Our oil and gas resources were plundered, against our will, to fund the wholesale deindustrialisation of Scotland and the construction of the City of London financial services ‘powerhouse.’ The British state conspired to obfuscate its economic abuse of Scotland in the years after the discovery of North Sea oil, ensuring Scotland would become the only oil producing nation in the world to get poorer after discovering ‘black gold.’ So, just what of this does Mr Arthur think we have imagined?
Again, this is the British narrative of its colonial project in Scotland – and yes, it has been colonial and exploitative in nature. Just how is Tom Arthur’s justification – for a better future – better than Lancashire’s justification for independence, or Ayrshire’s? It’s not. His is a spurious and superficial justification – one based on a British ideology which would only see an independent Scotland made in the image and likeness of Britain, where power is transferred from one dominant class to another. This is not the independence Scotland wants or needs.
Crypto-unionism cannot justify what needs to be justified – independence. In fact, crypto-unionism and crypto-unionists undermine the case for independence and ultimately make the case for the union; that case being a simple and unchallenging preservation of the status quo. Where they may want independence, they do not want the Britishness of how Scotland is governed to change – they are natural conservatives in this sense, and they certainly do not want to see this ‘Britishness’ – that which is assumed to be normative, polite, and respectable (the bourgeoise or middle-class consensus) – to be seen as a bad thing for Scotland and Scottish national identity. It is in crypto-unionism that we find the greatest resistance to any alternative route to independence which does not accept as right, good, and proper the rules laid down by their ideal parliament – Westminster. Given that independence is now the majority opinion in Scotland, unionism and unionists are not the greatest obstacle to independence. Crypto-unionists and crypto-unionism are.
Hegemony: WTF? An introduction to Gramsci and cultural hegemony
6 thoughts on “The Crypto-Unionist”
There has been some weird shit today but even amongst all that this stands out .
‘You seem to see patronising sentiment in everything that doesnt agree with your view of the world. I regard your take as wrong. You are entitled to it but it has no grounding in legal, political or historical fact.’
Someone accusing you of patronising is allowing you to have thoughts which aren’t ‘legal, political or historical’. How kind.
If ever swearing was needed it is now. What a wanker.
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Excellent Jason and truly thought-provoking, It also offers a possible explanation of why, whilst on the crest of a wave after the 2015 GE, nothing happened.
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Hello Jason. Thanks again for a very thought provoking article. I agree with a lot of what you say about Britishness and your description of how our history has been stolen from us by being hidden or twisted. I am particularly glad that you mentioned John MacLean – a great man – who for a very long time was almost completely erased from history. I am not sure though that your statement about the Irish struggle for independence and armed resistance to British occupation is entirely fair with regard Scotland and those mentioned as being crypto-unionists simply by their seeming acceptance of the British narrative of normative attitudes and behaviours.
Did the Irish not ‘react’ to British aggression? And was it not this British violence that sparked Irish resistance and that initially this armed resistance was nationalist in nature before becoming more ideological? I ask this honestly as I think that James Kelly (I don’t know much about the others except Greer) holds his present stated position simply because there is no actual physical British aggression – yet.
Personally, I think the chance for a peaceful divorce was lost in 2014 and that confrontation will be inevitable – even with the present SNP leadership. A stronger leader must emerge at some point and confrontation is likely to create more entrenched positions on both sides. Unfortunately, I do not think that Scotland can escape from British rule without violence as it does not seem to be the British way. The noise from London is getting louder and more anti-democratic and there must come a point where Scotland has to make a stand. That is likely the time of subjugation and it is then that people like Kelly – I believe – will side with those on the right side of any struggle.
I don’t know much about James Kelly but he does seem to be focussed on independence. One other point, as a socialist I know the Scotland I want to see on the other side of the barricade but surely we need to allow all Scots to have their own vision of the Scottish nation they want to build? And isn’t self-determination a good enough reason for independence with or without an ideological anchor?
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Thank you for this response. But no, I do not believe independence for its own sake is justifiable. This, as I have said, is purely nationalistic, and – as a socialist – I am thinking that independence for the sake of independence, without an ideological vision (qua socialism) will simply result in the transition of power from one ruling class to another. This is not acceptable to me. It is not ‘independence.’ As for ‘violence,’ all I can say is that violence is not always physical. British violence is far more subtle and insidious. We are right now, as we always have been, experiencing British violence through its media and the [mis]education system, the legal system, and the entire apparatus of the British state in Scotland. The Irish Republicans did not react to British aggression. In 1916 the Republicans merely asserted Ireland’s sovereignty and right to be free. Britain reacted to this … and the rest is history.
Thanks once again, Jason. Your pieces are always interesting and enlightening to read and the additional footnotes on hegemony is also helpful.
Yes, I agree; our positions are ultimately states of mind and although it’s taken your explanation to articulate it clearly for me I now understand my own position better.
I have commented much lately on the notion that for me independence is far, far more than the same old tired British ideological claptrap simply with a Saltire plonked on the top. This, however has increasingly been what the SNP hierarchy (and sadly many camp followers) seem to have as a substitute for genuine national aspiration. Whilst I have no in-depth knowledge of Irish politics it appears that FF and FG appear to suffer from a similar, if not identical, malaise.
For what it’s worth, I believe that Scotland,upon independence, must embark on a highly visible campaign of de-Britification.
On a superficial level, this will include things as basic as signage, the re-naming of streets and the relegation of the English linguistic culture to third place behind the Scots and the Highland/Island Gaelic.
All cultural association with the English monarchy must also be phased out quickly. Radical? Undeniably, but also I feel urgently necessary to break the spell that mentally enslaves too many of us.
I rejected ‘Britishness’ a number of years ago. It’s time more followed.
I believe in independence because I believe the Scottish national identity is real, it is distinct from “British/English” and, as you describe, the UK state has been detrimental to “Scotland” (ie its people).
I also want that independent Scotland to be a modern Western European democracy where the people of Scotland decide how we are governed, by whom and the socio-economic direction it will take. That, to me, is an ideology. However, I get the impression you would describe me as a “crypto unionist” because I am not radical enough.
I remember an article you wrote some time ago where you stated you were finding it difficult to vote for an independent Scotland because it wouldn’t be a republic from day one. In this article you state that you see no point in Scottish independence unless it is radically different to “England as Britain”. That implies you would rather Scotland was not independent than be an independent state that was not to your taste. By your reasoning, that makes you a “crypto unionist” who would rather see Scotland remain under the UK than be able to take its own decisions in its own best interests, with the needs of the peoples of Scotland paramount, if those decisions didn’t meet with your approval.
When I look at the history of Ireland’s last century, I don’t see the socialist republic you want to see in Scotland. Broadly speaking, I see a country that tried to be a Western Democracy but was hog-tied by a domineering church and an economic tunnel vision centered on the UK as it’s economic superior. It was only eschewing those “givens” in the 70s, and joining the EC, that allowed Ireland and its people to thrive as a true Western European Democracy. This is what I want for Scotland.
I don’t see giving the Scottish nation the freedom to choose their future as “crypto-unionism”. I see putting caveats on whether you support Scotland’s independence as “crypto-unionism”. Given Ireland’s political trajectory since it gained independence, I find it difficult to believe you would have voted for that back then.