Scotland’s post-national nationalism

I’ve just spent several days among a pretty diverse array of Scottish nationalists — people who, whether by formal partisan affiliation or simply by political sentiment, believe Scotland should detach itself from the United Kingdom. The question I pestered them with was this: Why does a substantial minority of Scots, indeed perhaps a majority, want independence from London but union with Europe? Why, in other words, does Scottish “nationalism” — the desire to secede from an English-speaking nation with which Scots have been conjoined for centuries — usually also include a desire to pool sovereignty with a top-heavy and undemocratic league of 28 nations?

Scottish independence lost by 55 percent to 44 percent in 2014, but in the two years since, the clamor for independence has become louder. In June, Britain as a whole voted to leave the European Union, but in that same vote Scots voted 62 percent to 38 percent to remain — thus heightening the sense of ideological contradistinction and all but guaranteeing another independence referendum. And since the vast majority of pro-independence Scots wish to remain in Europe, the next “independence” referendum will be undertaken specifically to withdraw from one union (the U.K.) and join another (the E.U.).

Sovereignty, then — the right to rule independently of an external entity — must not be what animates Scottish nationalism. Then what is?

The answer begins with identity. Scots have always seen themselves as more egalitarian and democratic than the English — often justifiably so. The Scots’ established church was Presbyterian and so locally administered, not a centrally run hierarchy like England’s, and Scottish universities were never the training grounds for children of aristocrats that Oxford and Cambridge were. That self-definition intensified at two points during the 20th century — first with the collapse of Glasgow’s ship-building industry and Scotland’s economy after World War I, second with the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s. Many Scots viewed the first as a betrayal of the Scottish working class that built England’s empire; that, combined with the nation’s egalitarian history and self-understanding, set Scotland on a leftward course that hasn’t let up for nearly a century. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, which most Scots saw as the ascendency of amoral English individualism, deepened the division.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug. 17. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug. 17. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

Scottish nationalism achieved a major victory with the devolution referendum of 1997. An overwhelming “yes” vote gave Scotland the power to form its own devolved parliament. (Disclosure: I was invited to Edinburgh to take part in public discussions about American politics sponsored by the Scottish Parliament.) For years, the pro-Unionist (anti-independence) Scottish Labour party held a decisive majority in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and occupied nearly all of the London Parliament’s 59 seats. But the party’s hegemony in Scotland began to unravel in 2010 for one fundamental reason: London’s Labour elite took Scotland for granted. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which a decade ago amounted to little more than a ragtag cadre of socialists, now dominates Scottish politics. The SNP holds an outright majority in a Parliament of five parties and holds 56 of 59 Scottish seats in London. The SNP isn’t quite the ideological monolith it used to be. Its members tend toward democratic socialism for sure, but some hold socially conservative views. The party’s one unifying principle: independence from Britain.

There are differences in outlook between Scots and the English, clearly. But aren’t these better thought of as regional differences that don’t demand political separation? Not at all, a high-ranking member of the Scottish Parliament tells me. The problem, he says, is that under the Act of Union (the 1707 act joining Scotland’s and England’s parliaments) Scotland exists in an “incorporating” union with England, not in a federal or confederal one.

“In an incorporating union of unequal size it’s likely that the larger partner will dominate the smaller. That’s what has happened without any recourse to law or an appeal body,” he said.

In a confederal relationship like the E.U., by contrast, each member is an equal partner and has an equal voice. Larger members can influence and cajole smaller ones, but cannot ignore them.

That accords more or less with the views of other pro-independence, pro-E.U. Scots. “London doesn’t care what Scotland thinks,” a bioethicist and longtime nationalist said. I ask for an example. “The Iraq War. We were overwhelmingly opposed in Scotland. The U.K. went to war anyway. And it’s been the same with most wars London wanted to wage.”

Okay, but if self-determination is the goal, why not leave Britain and the E.U.? There are a few nationalists who would do that, but only a few. Most, if I read them correctly, don’t think sovereignty is the issue at all.

“The E.U. is far from perfect,” an SNP political staffer told me. “But there are undeniable benefits.” She points out that if you need admission to a hospital in France, you’re seen immediately and the hospital is reimbursed by Britain’s National Health Service. Similarly, “if you want to set up a branch office of your company in Amsterdam, you can do it without the nightmare of regulation and paperwork that used to be a matter of course.”

She acknowledges that independence will be tough at first, economically and politically, but insists that the alternative — “successive Labour and Tory governments in Westminster that totally ignore Scotland’s interests” — would be far worse.

These arguments are honorable and cogent, and it seems altogether likely that Scots will eventually achieve independence and E.U. membership on the strength of them. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is a clever and tough politician, and she is determined that Scotland will have both.

What strikes me about today’s Scottish nationalism is that it’s entirely political and not in any substantial way cultural. It’s concerned preponderantly with laws and government structure. It’s about policy directives and the allocation of public resources — tax rates, social welfare programs, fishing regulations — and only has to do with home rule insofar as home rule means social democracy and soft diplomacy rather than economic liberalism and the use of military force.

Nationalism can emancipate or enslave; it can break the back of an empire or move the masses to great evil; it can liberate or oppress. Yet today’s Scottish nationalism can do neither. It’s not murderous like the IRA or racist like fascism; not remotely. But neither does it desire political and cultural autonomy for its own sake, as for instance the Czechs did under the Habsburg empire or as Ukrainian nationalists do now. Scotland’s is a post-national nationalism — one that cares far less about who governs than about what that governance looks like in practice. It is peaceable and beautiful in its way, but no one would die for it.

Barton Swaim is author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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