Independence For Its Own Sake


There’s an article from Barton Swaim on the Washington Post which discusses his perception of the unusual case of Scottish Nationalism – namely, that it doesn’t seem to quite “fit” with other Nationalist movements. A lot of independence supporters seem to quite like it, and I can see why: usually it’s the “I’m not a Nationalist” folk who shy away from the word due to its connotations. I love the Not-A-Nationalists to bits, and I’m happy to share the journey to independence with anyone regardless of their reasons for joining the caravan, but I’m also not going to buy into the “Nationalism Is Inherently Evil” meme – one ironically perpetuated most ardently by British Nationalists who are blind to their own nationalism.

My hackles were up with the very first paragraph:

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?

A major problem I have with the article is with its extremely narrow definition of sovereignty – specifically, the idea that membership of the European Union prohibits sovereignty for its members. Yet by any reasonable definition, this is not the case – every member of the European Union is already a sovereign and independent nation.

That’s the entire point of the EU – it’s a union of sovereign states. It is not a federal republic of states like the USA, nor a unitary state of multiple countries like the UK; it is a unique supranational organisation that cannot be easily compared to other unions. The myth that Britain was not sovereign & independent as part of the EU is one of the most pernicious and infuriating misconceptions in a long, sorry cavalcade, and suggesting any substantial equivocation between the UK and the EU is – not to put too fine a point on it – wrong.

So no, I absolutely disagree that sovereignty is not “what animates Scottish nationalism” – I think it is absolutely central to the cause. It just depends on your definition of sovereignty – and I think if your definition of sovereignty is so strict that it means you cannot be a member of the EU, then it means none of the 27 member states are sovereign. And if not the EU, then what about other organisations which require each member to adhere to certain rules? Every country that is part of the United Nations adheres to its laws – is every UN member, then, not sovereign as a result? What about the World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the International Monetary Fund?

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.

I’d argue that Scotland’s leftward course long pre-dated those events – the United Scotsmen, the Radical War, the Red Clydeside, and so forth all happened before World War I – but it’s clear de-industrialisation and Thatcherism cast the darkest shadows over 20th Century Scotland, and certainly concentrated that aspect of Scotland’s political character.

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.

It’s funny looking back on the Scottish Parliament as a victory for Scottish nationalism, given its express purpose according to some was the opposite. Plus it must never be forgotten that the Other Party did not present themselves as a “Unionist” party, so much as the “Home Rule” party – indeed, there was a time where devolution was considered antithetical to Unionism. That sleight of hand is one reason they held such dominance for so long – they were perceived as the party that would bring more autonomy to Scotland while retaining the “security” of the United Kingdom. The “Best of Both Worlds” party, in short.

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.

Pictured: the Scottish Parliament a decade ago. That

Pictured: the Scottish Parliament (just under) a decade ago. The SNP are the yellow “ragtag cadre of socialists” with the most seats of any party.

A bit of a quirky definition to describe the party which was the second largest in every election since the opening of the Scottish Parliament before 2007 as “little more than a ragtag cadre of socialists,” and I’m afraid Mr Swaim will have to update that “outright majority” bit. Plus isn’t that “one unifying principle of independence” what makes an “ideological monolith?”

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.

There’s also the idea that Scotland is a country, not a region of a country. The clue’s in the name. Nobody calls East Anglia a nation distinct from the rest of England even if it used to be in the distant past, nor does anyone refer to York as a city-state even if it pre-dated the notion of England itself.

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.”

See, that’s the key thing: regardless of how large Germany or France or Spain are, none of those countries alone can overrule every other country in the EU combined – because the EU is not the UK. In the USA, California’s representatives cannot steamroll the other 49 states. In Canada, Quebec doesn’t decide policy even if the other provinces object. In the UK, one country overrules every other country combined, many times over.

I realise that Americans seem desperate to equate the UK leaving the EU to Texas leaving the United States, but the analogy just doesn’t work – because, according to US law, Texas is not a sovereign state.

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.”

Again, I have to say I think Mr Swaim has indeed misread incorrectly, because I disagree with the premise that self-determination & sovereignty cannot happen within the EU – otherwise, how could any of the EU countries be described as sovereign states? Germany doesn’t decide Cypriot foreign policy. France doesn’t dictate Malta’s budget. Spain doesn’t oversee Estonia’s international trade. Westminster does all this and more to Scotland.

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.

I don’t understand how Mr Swaim can claim a loss of sovereignty with EU membership, yet still state Scots “will eventually achieve independence” – is sovereignty not a primary aspect of independence itself? In all fairness, I appreciate the vote of confidence from Mr Swaim, and I can understand why so many Scottish independence supporters like his final two paragraphs:

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.

I think it’s fair to say that a section of the Scottish Independence Movement are entirely political and not-in-any-substantial-way cultural: the likes of Common Weal and the many socialist, republican, and similar groups certainly promote the policy and government argument. They are welcome to that belief and agenda, as long as it leads to indpendence. But to say that of Scottish nationalism as a whole? I cannot disagree more.

What is the desire for Scottish independence but “independence for its own sake?” Scots have tried to forge their own destiny within the United Kingdom for centuries, and up until literally a few years ago, all we have to show for it are decades upon decades of broken promises and wasted opportunities. Parties have pledged Home Rule for Scotland for more than a century, yet every time those parties have been in government, it never got sorted out – or they struggle to redefine the term itself.

As for that last line – well, the British Establishment has learned much in its centuries of Empire: push people a little too far, and you get America; try to eradicate their culture too eagerly, and you get India; use legal force against peaceful protest, and you get Ireland. As much as the British Empire conquered, they have lost in almost equal measure. Yet why do we never hear of the Australian War of Independence, or of New Zealand’s, or so many other former British Colonies? What about the many nations that regained their independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Could it be that Scotland’s quest to be another normal country might not follow a different route from that of the United States, or Ireland?

Perhaps Scotland’s nationalism isn’t that unusual after all.

One thought on “Independence For Its Own Sake

  1. […] while back, the Washington Post published an intriguing article. I had many disagreements with it, but the last line in particular bothered me. I pondered it, as I […]

What're your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.