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By Jason Michael
LAST NIGHT ON TWITTER a friend voiced her concerns about her future in Scotland post-Brexit. Mel, an American living in Edinburgh with her son, said that she is genuinely considering moving to London to escape the hell-scape we all fear Scotland will become while the current Scottish government drags its feet on independence — the only sure way for Scots to protect our place in Europe and to safeguard and determine our own future. Naturally, not everyone was going to like this disclosure, and this was clearly evinced in some of the replies to her tweet. It was frustrating to read fellow Scots respond with the dismissive off you pop remarks; ‘Bye bye, then,’ and ‘If your not happy here in Scotland and think London will be better then get on with it [sic].’ Naturally, I feel a great deal of sympathy for Mel’s predicament — as you know, I live in Dublin.
In my own experience, my absence from Scotland has been used by unionists to dismiss me and my opinions as someone who ‘abandoned’ Scotland and by many independentistas when I publish something with which they disagree. Clearly, our belonging to the nation is an ambivalent concept; with our Scottishness shifting depending on our changing acceptability to other people’s agendas. In this regard, then, our Scottishness is similar to Stuart Hall’s analysis of race as a ‘floating signifier:’
The meaning of a signifier can never be finally or trans-historically fixed. That is, it is always, or there is always, a certain sliding of meaning, always a margin not yet encapsulated in language and meaning, always something about race left unsaid, always someone a constitutive outside, who’s very existence the identity of race depends on…
Who is and who is not white and who is and who is not Scottish are questions answered on something of an ever shifting slide rule, always subject to the whim of power and privilege. Gaels — the Scots, the Irish, and the Welsh — have not always been considered truly white, for example; not pure-blooded Saxons or Teutons, and therefore not worthy beneficiaries of white Anglo-Saxon privilege. Our racialisation has been floating, our racial status dependent on the priorities of the British state qua Greater England — the quintessential racial state. This is much the same within Scotland, with our Scottishness — our belonging to the nation — also a floating signifier.
At the same time I am Scottish in the eyes of some because I was born in Scotland, an alien in the eyes of others because of my Irish heritage, and a traitor to others because I left Scotland. Being born in Scotland is not universally accepted, more especially for people of colour, as a defining feature of Scottishness. While Scots are not particularly racist, we are all familiar with the question: But where are you really from? Asian Scots born in Scotland and New Scots are asked this question all the time. Determining who is and who is not Scottish — of the nation — is not as easy a question to answer as we might first imagine. And we can complicate this all the more by acknowledging the fact that there are many people throughout the world who were born in Scotland and who never spent much more than a year in the country before being taken ‘home.’ So it is this nativism — national belonging imbued by birth — I would like to discuss in this article.
Reflecting on the same tweet from Mel, another friend — KarenKel, the author of The Wee Detour blog — asked this of her readers:
Does this sound like people who would fight for this country, no. It sounds like someone who has made Scotland their home because it suited them at the time, or someone from Scotland leaving because the country does not suit their needs.
Would someone willing to ‘fight for this country’ ever leave Scotland? Historically, the answer to this question is yes — in every rebellion, insurgency, and independence struggle dissidents have been forced to continue their struggle from sanctuaries overseas. Charles Edward Stuart — ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ — was not on his way to Edinburgh when Flora MacDonald ferried him ‘over the sea to Skye.’ Not only has resistance been waged from abroad, it has also been discovered abroad. It was not until the young Indian lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi travelled to South Africa that his struggle against British imperialism began. And let us not forget the many Scots, like myself, engaged in the struggle for Scottish independence who do not live in Scotland — to name a few: Stu Campbell (England), Roddy MacLeod (Catalonia), Rhiannon Spear (wired to the moon).
KarenKel believes that ‘when it comes to the question of independence it should be a question for those born in Scotland or those of Scottish descent,’ and this thinking troubles my waters. Please do not get me wrong; we can all appreciate that this creeping nativist thinking comes from the frustration we all feel. The Scottish National Party — ‘the party of independence’ — has certainly not acted in a way that inspires the confidence of a significant part of the independence movement, we have been taken out of the European Union against our will, and now we have the British government touting an old fashioned brand of musical imperialist fascism to our school children. This is enough to drive anyone to more strident flavours of nationalism. But we must take care.
National belonging is not in fact native to the human condition. Nationalism is a psycho-political development with which both Wallace and Bruce were unfamiliar. When we ask how these heroes of our ancient past would react to Scotland today, we may have to prepare ourselves for the worst. Neither William Wallace nor Robert the Bruce would recognise their Scotland in our Scotland. They would not understand our language, that peasants elect other peasants to government — our democracy — would confuse them, and that we abandoned the Church of Rome and the idea that God is the supreme monarch in a feudalistic conception of the universe would disgust them. We do not live in their Scotland, and our Scotland is not theirs.
It will always be difficult to determine who gets a say in the future of the nation, but what is clear is that neither the land nor the blood in our veins transmits the nation to human beings. Geography and genetics are not essential ingredients of nationhood and national belonging. First and foremost the nation is a product of the communal human imagination. As Benedict Anderson reminds us in Imagined Communities (1983):
…the fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion … Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but in the style in which they are imagined.
Our nation, then, will always necessarily be largely imagined through the lens of how each of us understand our own community, and how we answer the question: Who is my neighbour? Is this an American living in Edinburgh? Yes, of course it is. Is this a retiree living in Barcelona? Again, yes. Must we live in Scotland to be Scottish? Is it necessary to have been born in Scotland, speak English, have a Scottish accent or heritage? No — and no because few of us imagine our communities in this narrow way, and those who do really oughtn’t to. The nation, like the community, is a fluid social arrangement — like a street — with people moving in and moving out. It will always be the human bonds of affection; of memory, friendship, and common experience that make us a community, a nation. Robert the Bruce, as a medieval Gaelic-Norman aristocrat, had more in common with Edward I of England than he would have with any one of us today. Strangely, in this analysis, it is him who is the foreigner to our Scotland and not the English person living at the end of our street.
Our nation, our Scotland, is set firmly and immovably in the here and now. It is, as it was in the fourteenth century, a commonweal composed and enriched by the people who constitute it. So, no matter how we go about determining who can vote in an independence referendum, it must begin from this starting point — that it is we, the people of Scotland, who are Scotland. And this is not decided by blood or by soil, but the immeasurable wealth of human relationships.
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