The Abhorrent Vacuum of “We and They”


Nuance has been forced from Scotland’s constitutional debate. This was evident from the moment the then-Prime Minister excluded a second question from the 2014 Independence Referendum in the Edinburgh Agreement, which just so happened to be the more popular choice at the time – and thus, the one most likely to prevail. There was no option for those who did not want either independence or the status quo. At least, until the latter stages of the campaign, where the status quo was “replaced” with Devo Max – only to be yanked away again like Charlie Brown’s football.

This is why we have found ourselves in a battle between Scottish Nationalism and British Nationalism – because regardless of anyone’s complex ideas about what independence or the UK could be, the polarisation of politics sucks them out. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a Nationalist, you are going to be placed in one Nationalist box or another, especially following the EU referendum. You either believe that Scotland should be the sovereign independent state, or that the UK should be.

When polarisation occurs, then it is the largest, loudest, and strongest who end up as representatives of either side.

FATHER, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They !

There were many differing pro-independence campaigns throughout the referendum, but only the most prominent voices were given a hearing. Last time around, Yes Scotland took the stage: they were the official campaigning arm of the independence movement. Likewise, the Scottish Government were the primary government voice, and the SNP were the largest political voice: the other pro-independence parties were marginalised. As a result, it was the Yes Scotland/Scottish Government/SNP vision of independence which, rightly or wrongly, was presented as “the case for independence” in the popular media narrative.

Likewise, Better Together was the UK counterpart to Yes Scotland; the UK Government the premier pro-UK body. While the UK Government party was the de facto party of Britain in Scotland, they were not exactly popular at the time – which led to the largest UK party in Scotland being the Party of Britain by proxy. And so, we had the curious situation of the party of UK government using their own opposition to do their work north of the border. While the reality of a No vote was a victory for the UK Government party, the Other Party managed to convince themselves it was a victory for them, too – clueless to the end that they were mere patsies for the true masters of the UK. Subsequent elections, leadership contests, and referendums have laid bare the foolishness of such a proposition.

The Independence Referendum was two years ago. Yes Scotland and Better Together have closed down, but those who believe in their causes continue to campaign. In their absence, it is two political parties which have become the “faces” of Scottish Independence and the United Kingdom. Following the referendum, the Scottish National Party increased its membership four times, its Westminster representatives eight times, and won an unprecedented third term in the Scottish Government, to become the third largest party in the entire United Kingdom. At the same time, the UK Government Party gained an overall majority (despite a historically weak turnout in Scotland), doubled its Holyrood representatives, and has become the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the first time in history.

As Pete Wishart observed, the next independence referendum will be fought between these two parties – no more phony wars with Red and Orange rosette warriors as their useful idiots, but the real nature of this perfidious Albion.


We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
And They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

This is not to deny the existence of other parties, of course: the Greens and Socialists assert their continued commitment to independence, while the Other Party and Coalition Party look to gear up for another round of Better Together despite the devastation alliance with David Cameron has wrought to them. Similarly, the minor parties, and those of no party allegiance, don’t cease to exist. But in terms of size, resources, support, and visibility, it is quite clear that the SNP are the most prominent champions of Scottish Independence, while the UK Government Party have now replaced the Other Party in Scotland as advocates for the United Kingdom.

You’ll have noticed I’ve sprinkled some poetry throughout this post. The verses are from Rudyard Kipling’s 1926 poem “We and They.” Kipling has a complicated history in regards to multiculturalism, but at his best, he promoted tolerance and understanding across cultures and nations. “We and They” acknowledges the differences between cultures, but also compels the reader to challenge their subjective understanding of “we and they” – after all, “we” are all “they” to somebody. The question is, how do “we” treat those we judge to be “they”? Do we treat them as fellow travellers on earth, even perhaps a deeper level of “we”? Or do “we” treat ourselves as special & superior, compared to the clear subordination & subservience of “they?”

In the ongoing campaign for Scottish Independence, the two Nationalisms which are the most prominent voices of the pro-independence and pro-United Kingdom movements have very different approaches to “we” and “they.”

On the side of the United Kingdom, we have the UK Government. This is led by a Prime Minister who masterminded a punitive £35,000 threshold for non-EU migrants, criticised the Human Rights Act for restricting the ability to deport people (while happily championing the despicable European Arrest Warrant), and the infamous “Go Home Or Face Arrest” vans; a former Prime Minister who referred to migrants as “a swarm“; a Foreign Minister who called Africans “flag-waving pickaninnies“, accused the first black US President of a genetic antipathy to the British Empire, and said black people have lower IQs; a Home Secretary who suggested forcing companies to disclose the foreign proportion of their workforce; a former Cabinet Minister who said appalling things about black communities in the UK; and a raft of councillors and former MPs who have expressed what can charitably be called bigoted attitudes. All of whom have, at one point or another, referred to Britain/the United Kingdom as a country or nation. “Our” country or nation. Their policy and rhetoric tells us what to think of “they” – the people of those countries which are not Britain.

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

These are the people who have the brass neck to call supporters of Scottish independence “divisive nationalists,” and complain that they are the ones being treated like the Nazis’ victims. The same people who are now dragging Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar out of the European Union despite those nations voting to remain. The same people who denied EU citizens the right to vote in a referendum in which they have the greatest interest of all. The same people whose response to the refugee crisis is to dance on the head of a pin on what actually constitutes a “true” refugee, and who is “just” a migrant.

And for all the good people, activists, campaigners, and politicians within the Other Party who reject the pernicious insularity of Theresa May’s new government, the machine which controls the “opposition” remains all too ready to legitimise it:

The SNP, on the other hand – the party frequently referred to as the Scottish “Nationalist” Party – consider “we” to mean anyone who lives in Scotland. Our First Minister’s first speech upon the result of the EU referendum was unequivocal to those citizens of the EU who were denied the right to vote on their future in the UK – “you remain welcome here, Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.” Access to Scotland’s free tuition is based not on your ethnic or national origin, but your residence: whether you’re from Europe, Asia, or even (gasp) England, if you live in Scotland, you are part of Scotland’s “we.” In the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the Scottish Government fought to include EU Nationals, and succeeded. The first non-white and Muslim MSP, the first EU national MSP, the first Muslim member of the Scottish Government, and the first Scottish Government Ministers to speak to European leaders in over 300 years were SNP.

But, of course, because they’re both nationalist, that means the Scottish & UK Governments are practically the same, right? Apart from all that pesky policy detail, there’s nothing separating them, eh? Scottish Nationalism is just as bad as British Nationalism, isn’t that so?

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

In the battle of Scottish Independence and United Kingdom, you can call yourself whatever you like. You can say you want to think beyond borders, that you’re an “internationalist, not a nationalist,” that you want a Federal Britain, or whatever. But at the end of the day, the two most powerful forces in this battle are nationalist governments – with very different interpretations of what nationalism means. One government excluded EU residents from the most important vote in their lifetimes, and questions their very right to comment on British matters. One government wants firms & schools to supply information on their employees’ and childrens’ nationalities. One government wants to stop “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” from charging soldiers with human rights abuses. The other government rejects every one of those things.

Don’t want to choose? Then don’t take a side. If you don’t care about nations, then don’t support one or the other. Go join the World Socialists or Socialist Party of Great Britain, boycott both sides and spoil your ballot, content in the knowledge that you refused to endorse any nasty Nationalism. But when you speak at conferences and events for a Nationalist party, campaign with the assistance and resources of a Nationalist party, faithfully repeat the xenophobic rhetoric of a Nationalist party, and cheer for (and with) a Nationalist party, then at least have the guts and the decency to acknowledge it, instead of claiming you are “against all Nationalisms.” You helped one Nationalism in their quest to win the Scottish Independence Referendum. That Nationalism won the General Election and the European Union Referendum. Helping them win was a price worth paying to save the United Kingdom. Will you aid them again?

That’s the thing about “We and They”: that dichotomy will always be with us. There will always be a “we” that excludes another “they”: always a “they” which you do not consider yourself a part of – male and female, young and old, family and non-family, over here and over there. We, as a people, cannot be rid of “they” as a concept. But We can choose our relationship with They. We can choose to treat They as other, foreign, alien, threatening, inferior – like in the cartoon at the beginning of this post, where everything “We” is good, everything “They” is bad. Or We can choose to treat They as friend, familiar, ally, equal. We can be true internationalists, and recognise that the only material difference between We and They is perspective.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They !


7 thoughts on “The Abhorrent Vacuum of “We and They”

  1. Marconatrix says:

    One of the best pieces I´ve read in a while, and much needed right now. Excellent, one ´like´ is not enough 🙂

  2. Dek says:

    This deserves to be widely read . The xenophobic hatred which has been cynically stirred up and which poisons what passes for debate in this polity will not end well. Our main stream media is culpable in stoking up these toxic narratives.

  3. xsticks says:

    One of the best articles you’ve written Al.

  4. clipper says:

    Excellent post, will be keeping a lookout for future articles.

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