This article was first published by postmag.org in an edited form under the title Patriot Games: Scotland’s false starts on 16/12/2014.
‘All of us first’: the fallow minds of New Labour’s most intellectually vacant meeting rooms could never have come up with something so meaningless, yet phrases such as this have come to litter the popular discourse in Scottish politics since 18 September, 2014. ‘We are the 45’; ‘Better together’ and perhaps strangest of all ‘One Scotland’ used in almost cultish equanimity by both sides, claiming the progressive agenda for their own.
The referendum marked a recent high point in UK politics for social media, citizen journalism, and general public engagement despite this sloganeering. Yet an oft overlooked group of beneficiaries from the near two year campaign are the pseudo-intellectuals and pop academics that are never far behind any significant hype train. Their adoption of populist mantras born of Nordic utopianism, and nationalism with a small (they would like to think, invisible) N gave credence to a torrent of shallow reasoning that would dominate the debate up until the final day.
One of the more prominent strains of Scottish exceptionalism stemmed from a largely unfounded belief that Scotland is like, or can be like, the celebrated liberal democracies of Scandinavia. The most frequently cited being Sweden, which has somewhat hindered this fantasy by electing a significant number of far right xenophobes, managing to bring the governing coalition to its knees in the past week. Practical anomalies like this are not really welcome however, and so it was with Lesley Riddoch’s much lauded ‘Blossom’ in which she set out to define Scotland as a nation formed of a remarkable tolerance for inequality, as such possessing some sort of inherited ‘spirit’ (here she employs Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus; incorrectly). A spirit which apparently didn’t manifest in England because more people had back gardens and a longer experience of urbanisation.
Other publications and frequent blog posts from outlets like National Collective and Bella Caledonia dealt with uncorrelated assumptions such as Scotland being friendlier to immigrants than its neighbours. This historical analysis stops somewhere around 1997 for it would not be advantageous to categorise the history of Irish migration to Scotland prior to this time, nor perhaps to remark that year on year Scotland sees a below capita relative rate of immigration compared to the rest of the UK, yet the majority of Scots still want to see it reduced (1).
Both of these examples disregard serious analysis of contemporary conditions. Aside from health, Scotland performs above and beyond England and Wales in almost all areas. Lower youth unemployment, lower general unemployment, higher expenditure on public services per head, cheaper public transport, lower pay inequality, lower likelihood of being a victim of crime – all of these and more place Scotland favourably in a comparative analysis within Britain (2).
As posited by Anthony D. Smith and Benedict Anderson, any imagined community requires an intense devotion to the idea of nationhood to survive. The multiplication of food banks and increase in general deprivation since 2010 supplied the nationalist cause with a shared solidarity that could be compartmentalised into exactly this sort of intense repulsion and responsible activism. This was always presented as pioneering by writers like Gerry Hassan who opined that the centre-left debate in Scotland was ‘putting the values of solidarity into a lexicon of inter-connectedness and interdependence to produce a politics of inter-independence’ (3) which is another way of saying ‘we did something different here’. We might yet be waiting a long time to see the fruits of this inter-connectedness however, unless you are in the SNP of course, who are reaping it merrily as we speak.
This imagination equally required its own folk devils in the form of the ‘fear campaign’ that shook Jim Sillars to his very core in his book ‘In Place of Fear II’ (presumably he had not witnessed a British or Scottish election prior to last year, nor read Bevan’s original). This allowed groups like the Common Weal to take vague national populism and present it as an alternative to serious costed policy. This was often dressed up in a semi-patronising ‘language of the people’ fit for the worst kind of t-shirt slogan gentrifiers about high-wage economies and reducing wealth inequality. The assumption again being that the economy of Scotland is self-sustaining and not subject to the harsh weather of global capital, so too it is replete with altruistic taxpayers who have been screaming out for progressive taxation since the days of Maxton, all of course to the refrain ‘but they did it in Norway…’.
The nationalism that now proudly states ‘I belong’ to a deferred promised land, to a Jerusalem of the young, hopeful, Yes congregation was the winner of this anti-intellectual bout, not British nationalism. As adequately evidenced by Pat Kane’s remark on the BBC’s Scotland 2014 programme that “If all the world is in Scotland, then it makes sense for Scotland to be in the wider world, and to have that conversation about Scottishness with other people in the family of nations, as a nation” in one of the finer examples of not being a nationalist by speaking exactly like a nationalist. This rhetoric presents Scotland as generous, progressive, civilized; as opposed to the UKIP voting hordes to the South who are but an unfortunate by-product of their own avarice. British nationalism is always contextualised as the Iraq war or Nigel Farage, Scotland on the other hand lilts wistfully to a tune of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ on a soft Highland breeze.
This very rhetoric provided cover throughout the debate for the new philosophy of nationalism as liberation, in just the same way that various demagogues have concealed the destructive elements of British national identity under the guise of liberalism, and continued to do so as part of the Better Together campaign. The UK and Scotland are suffering from a concerning redundancy of serious thought, falling back on Russell Brand and Owen Jones, Robin McAlpine and the Radical Independence Campaign in the absence of any critical approach to the problems of globalisation, sustainability and the domination of capital. A continuing simulacra of the social movements that have visited yet never remained.
Aside from the usual suspects confined to a strict political analysis, or historians hawking their old wares to new audiences there was little in the way of a rigorous dialectic to be found. There is nothing wrong with articulating hope of course, and certainly not during a partisan campaign, yet when that hope is dressed in the clothes of intellectual legitimacy and hard scholarship there must be calls to reveal its true face.
Perhaps such revelations are still to come, but into the sediment there now seeps a proud ignorance that might be difficult to drain away.
1. Oxford University Migration Observatory (2014)
2. All statistical inferences from ‘5 June 2014 – Output and Productivity – National Statistics, ONS’ and ‘Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 12/13’
3. Why Scotland has finally woken up and become a democracy – September 21st, 2014 | Gerry Hassan