The Eclipse Of Scottish Nationalism


We don’t need to tell everyone we’re Scottish, we know that. What we have to talk about now is the kind of place we want to live in.

Elaine C Smith, Calton Hill Saturday 21st September

Even those of us sympathetic to Scotland’s right to rule itself are repelled by the chauvinistic yes campaign

The Observer, Sunday 22nd September

…in a speech peppered with references to Mr Salmond, Ms Lamont delivered the most virulent attack on the “politics of nationalism”. Although she did not name any particular examples, such as Nazi Germany, she described it as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”.

Johann Lamont: Referendum a chance to dispel ‘virus’ of nationalism, Daily Telegraph 22 September

There are two schools of thought on what it means to be Scottish today.

The first contends that Scottish identity and culture should be treasured, that Scotland is ‘the best country in the world’ as it is, but that the independence movement is only perpetuating regressive ideas of Scotland and cultural cringe.

The second (to which I subscribe) is that, if there is one big beast that will be slain by independence, it will be the need to overstate our nationality. Scotland’s extended identity crisis, borne from the need of politicians to make national identity a contested issue, will become a thing of the past.

With tens of thousands of other Scots, I took part in Saturday’s march and rally in Edinburgh. It was a humbling experience. The strength of the event could be seen not only in a massive increase in numbers, but also the diversity of activist groups that took part. It was not simply a ‘sea of saltires’ that stretched up Edinburgh’s High Street, but a rich tapestry of groups and communities unified by their support for independence.

The event did have nationalist overtones, symbols abounded, much like the national days that take place in most northern European countries. Yet the patriotic, ‘best country in the world’ unionists would presumably see such an event, or Bastille Day for example, as symptomatic of the virus of nationalism (though Gordon Brown’s abortive proposal for a UK version is deemed perfectly healthy).

Given that a great swathe of our political establishment is locked into this regressive view of Scottish nationality, it is  unsurprising that the event only received significant attention from foreign media outlets.

This undeniably historic happening, bringing together so many separate yet interlinked narratives, was bumped down web pages and schedules in favour of a ceilidh at the Labour party conference, chat about pensions and the birth of a koala. This mass act of support for a campaign; though it gathered numbers to rival major protest marches; was largely ignored.

That ignorance about what is happening in Scotland could be seen in Sunday’s Observer in which Catherine Bennett opted to wax lyrical about the apparent chauvinism of the yes campaign. This kind of editorialising on Scotland: inaccurate and demeaning as it is, only serves to highlight why we now need our own state. In the historic year to come, we will note time and time again that however loudly the Yes campaign talks about the future, certain ears will only hear incantations about a dim and distant past.

The one comfort we have is that the campaign on the ground is growing and that every single individual who took part in Saturday’s events is aware of the progressive, forward looking nature of the campaign. At the rally not a single speaker dwelt on Scotland’s past with the exception of Colin Fox who name checked two great forgotten Scottish radicals killed by the British state, Thomas Muir and John Maclean.

Though Muir and Maclean may be largely forgotten; as Scots learn more about how noteworthy their own history is; inherited inferiority is inevitably challenged. That’s why I have always contended that the notorious ‘Scottish cringe’ represents nothing unique on the part of the Scots.

All nations, to some degree, export and market a fictionalised image to the world. In most cases this is made up of cliché and caricature. The difference is that most other national cultures have that ability to express an accurate reality about themselves through self-government.

A shared history and culture is a profoundly important part of the fabric of any place. It defines the way a national community choses to builds its cities, how it cooks its food, or how it speaks its language. Crucially it also impacts on how it chooses to govern itself by expressing the values that define it. To think otherwise at this historic juncture is the ultimate incarnation of what Tom Nairn defined as ‘Cultural Sub-nationalism’.

The long history of support for Scottish self-determination has had a celebration of our own cultural as its hallmark. Inevitably this has unearthed positive and negative facets of our character. As when individuals look at their ancestry there is a tendency to focus on the more flattering characters: yet who would deny the natural fascination all have with that inheritance? The task in Scotland, as evidenced on Saturday, is simply to look those problems from our past in the face and not hide beneath the inertia borne of being an appendage of a far larger state.

When as Scots, we cringe, it is not because we know that tartan is inauthentic, that Bruce was a Norman baron, or that Bonnie Prince Charlie was as over indulged as Justin Bieber, but because we so often lack the space to tell real stories about who we are and who we want to be as a people. National myths are myths, plain and simple. In Scotland they take on a strange significance because of our current inability to properly shape our present and future. It is only as a result of independence that we will be able to express a modern alternative.

So let us suppose that Catherine Bennett will indulge the Yes campaign in a bit of research and perhaps listen to the wide range of voices that contributed to Saturday’s rally. She will realise that neither an interest in medieval battles or the topics of tourist geared government initiatives hold any bearing on the campaign to make Scotland an independent country.

Independence will offer not just increased confidence that must come from the ability to express who we are by shaping the society we want. It will land the death blow to this weird (often unionist) need to shout about Scottishness.

Within the strange cultural anomaly that is the union, every legacy must be fought over and hollowed out according to its place in relation to the independence question. At long last we are nearing a point at which the ‘Scottish question’ in all of its strange political and cultural incarnations no longer needs to be asked. Scottishness will no longer be something that we have to transcend or analyse: any more than we would seek to obsessively examine the Norwegian nature of Ibsen, or ask how much of a Finn Sibelius was.

Hugh MacDiarmid is a prime example. Though he is often counted among the likes of Ezra Pound, W.B Yeats and D H Lawrence as one of the greatest modernist writers he has been ostracised in his native land. Why? Because, just like all of the other writers I have just mentioned, in the 1920s he dabbled with fascism. Yet unlike the others, his legacy; at the roots of Scottish nationalism; has had to be defamed by other Scots terrified at the key concern of his work, summed up in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle:

And let the lesson be – to be yersel’s,
Ye needna fash gin it’s to be ocht else.
To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’,
Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en.’

It’s a message that, almost a century later, resonates with the progressive, inclusive contemporary face of the Yes movement on show last Saturday.

Only independence can deliver a healthy state of affairs in which we no longer need to reductively question each other’s Scottishness: it will be a given. This is why so many unionists are at pains to assert Scottish patriotism when no one has ever asked them to: the Scottish nationalism they despise, like Bennett’s is a fiction. They still see a Scotland that is parochial and incapable, or a ‘narrow tartan backwater’ to quote one prominent advocate of the union.

I felt a great deal of pride taking part in Saturday’s events, but it was not pride borne from some abstract idea of Scottishness. It was pride  in the quality and conviction of those assembled to change their own part of the world. I was privileged to sing two songs, with TradYes,  not about nationalism, but about internationalism: to a crowd that responded with a knowing affinity.

I’m proud to be a Scot because we are able to sing songs about a better Scotland and a better world in the same breath: ‘That man tae man the hale world ower, shall brithers be for a that’. Only a nation with a very canny understanding of the limits of nationalism could have a national poet who was also pioneer of global solidarity.

Saturday’s rally was an event at which chauvinism had no place. It was rich and inspiring in its celebration of a shared past projected onto a better future. Like the modern, self-governing nation that we caught a glimpse of at the top of that hill, our culture, identity, and history provide a starting point, not a conclusion.

Christopher Silver
National Collective