Nationalism is a fantasy. Like religious doctrine it can mean whatever you want it to mean and doesn’t have to be encumbered by too much reality. It is usually embraced by political types who are deluded enough to believe in its promises. It can then be used for purposes of manipulation and power. As such, it is driven by human impulses from the naive to the sinister.
I dislike the nationalistic outlook because I prefer building bridges to knocking them down and staking nationalist claims is invariably destructive, drawing as it does on the more primal, pre-intellectual aspects of the human being. Now, it may well be that groupings of smaller units held together by international agreements is a better way of organising politics than what exists currently. Maybe we should be moving towards that. Whichever way, it is always so much harder to build a bridge than to destroy one. It is easier to huddle together in a tribe than it is to go out and make new and constructive connections.
The European initiative of recent times was about bridge building. The currency may have hit the rocks just now but at least it was an attempt for some old communities, often historically hostile, to come together in commonality. A generation earlier Europeans were murdering each other over German nationalism. The Europe of my lifetime has allowed me to go to Berlin if inclined, to live, work and participate there without having to ask some guy in a uniform for permission. That is a huge benefit. That the project is having such a hard time is a reminder of how hard such initiatives can be.
These thoughts are relevant currently because the Nationalist government in Scotland has put independence on the table. It should be appreciated right away that nationalism and independence are not synonymous. Unlike nationalism, independence is a worthy endeavour, a state of mind before anything else. It can be tough to achieve for individuals and nations alike, requiring an attitude that is outgoing and open to risk. In my experience the majority of Scots are not of a naturally independent temperament. They tend to be overly conservative, playing safe while cleaving to their kin consistent with old clannish mores. I suspect that when asked they will reject calls for a separatist Scotland.
Then there’s the detail to consider which I imagine will be infinite in its complexity. Just recently for example the Nationalists announced they would keep sterling as the currency in an independent Scotland. It was immediately pointed out how, straight off the bat, Scotland would then be tethered to London and the Bank of England in the same way that the countries in the eurozone have recently had to look to Germany for leadership. The alternatives – adopting the beleaguered euro or creating a new currency – are less appealing and riskier. With that decision alone, immediately your independence is not so independent.
Whether you value the United Kingdom or not it is still a three-hundred year union. The notion that the Scots have the absolute right, legally, morally and any other way, to dismantle it seems one-sided. Should others not have a say too in what would amount to the ending of an institution in which they are partners? The SNP's bellicose pronouncement that it is up to Scotland alone to make that decision is typical of the kind of arrogance associated with nationalism. It pontificates as if Scotland is an autonomous unit, already sovereign and separate, liable to act from self-determining positions. It discounts an alliance with an ancient history, which when formed in 1707 set the tone for an end to centuries of war and conflict. I don't say that as any kind of unionist - unionism itself being just a variant of nationalism - but merely as someone respectful of these old associations and respectful of settled politics. Unlike many Scots I have no animosity whatsoever towards the English.
Rather than spurious notions of national identity a more credible basis for an independent Scotland would be the case for economic improvement. I suspect that’s the issue which would swing the balance. True to reputation, they’re a canny lot the Scots and would go the distance for a bag of cash. If the SNP were to make a convincing argument for financial gain, if they could turn their claims about oil revenues into something believable, then I suspect their fantasy could be a step closer to reality.
To seal the deal they might then offer everyone a job working for the state. Scotland’s tribal roots, masking as communitarian and still vibrant under the veneer of modernity, could then achieve apotheosis. Like a latter day Gaddafi, some future Son of Salmond could officiate from the glens in full kilted regalia and the picture would be replete. Ridiculous, yes. But perfectly in keeping with the romantic nonsense of nationalism.
written early 2012 when starting to think
about the prospects for Scottish independence
commentary • 15.01.12