David Jamieson

David Jamieson

The Strange Absences of Scottish Nationalism

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Scottish nationalism’s problems don’t begin or end at the top of the SNP. Whatever happened to the ideas of Scottish nationalism, asks David Jamieson.

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Nicola Sturgeon is gone and another First Minister will soon be upon us. At this point I’ve little to add on the SNP leadership. I’ll simply state what everyone already knows: no one who follows Sturgeon is likely to do a better job than her on either domestic policy or independence strategy, and she flopped on both these fronts. Time will tell if they fail in her only area of notable success – winning elections and sustaining the gravy ride.

It’s time to step back and look at a broader vista. Something that received strangely little attention during Sturgeon’s departure was the evident fact that the cause of independence is no nearer its goal than 19 September 2014. Indeed that cause is weaker today. The mass movement has largely dissipated. Just as obviously, the official case for independence has collapsed in the wake of events. But perhaps most importantly, mainstream Scottish nationalism has never reckoned with the contradictions of its own politics.

Ideological incoherence is not rare. It increases with the cynicism of modern politics. It’s no longer a cheap goad to note the very un-proletarian character of the Labour party, or the failure of the Conservative party to uphold the family, state church, sanctity of the monarchy or the publicly funded village greens which were its charge.

The language of politics long ago dissociated from its real content, and not just in Britain. Across Europe Christian Democrats have left the pews, Social Democrats have hacked at links to trade unions. Today’s most wolfish capitalists are found in the Chinese Communist Party. Any Irish Republican who knows their history curls a lip at the ‘Republic’ of Ireland, French republicans sing the national anthemin defiance of Macron, referred to by protestors as a republican king. Jefferson’s United States would be unrecognizable to him, having long ago shed the ethic of revolutionary citizenship for capitalist monopoly and global empire – and that’s before we get to the Republican party, that postmodern spectacle whose de-facto leader was almost the opposite of the heroic image of the citizen President.

On the subject of republics, various pro-independence politicians have signed a new Declaration of Calton Hill – swearing Scots to a republic on the occasion of the ascension of King Charles. I share their contempt for the title of King, but this Calton Republic is already – ahead of its establishment or even declaration – decantated of the political content of republicanism as understood by a Machiavelli, Garibaldi or Pearce. How can a Res Publica, the desired common realm of equal citizenship that gives republicanism its name, square with member-statehood, the mutant ruling paradigm generated through the growth of transnational institutions?

A republic whose leaders hide decisions from their own citizens in the EU Commission or Nato high command isn’t worth the title. After all, member-statehood – the derogation of national democracy for international ruling class governance – is more important in British state power than the largely ceremonial trappings of monarchy. The lack of clarity on questions like these allows language to disjoint from meaning, and political forces for reproduce the prevailing order whilst posing as a radical alternative to it.

The Scottish National Party, likewise, is oddly estranged from the dilemmas and consequences of political nationalism. This truth, glimpsed only partially through the lens of political unionism, is acknowledged by a fair question: ‘Why do you want national independence just to hand sovereignty to Brussels’? The questioner could equally add – ‘or Washington, or London’ – but as it happens the questioner often has an uncritical attitude to these powers, in a way that makes an equal mockery of British nationalism.

In the 20th century, national independence typically implied economic war with the former empire. People tend to think of Nkrumah’s Ghana, Mao’s China or Castro’s Cuba in this connection. But it was just as true of De Valera’s Ireland or Piłsudski’s Poland. A socialist programme – committed, ambivalent or pseud – was the rule not the exception for national independence movements. Naturally it was the socialism of national, not class solidarity. Protectionism, import substitutionism and economic planning were seen, even by temperamentally conservative leaders, as necessary steps on the road to a meaningful national independence. It wasn’t an arbitrary choice – creating a new nation sate in a crowded field, dominated by a few big players, meant hammering-out zones of economic and social autonomy. Where foreign banks, corporations, trade and military organisations maintained their influence, this was generally viewed as a counter-revolutionary development.

The complaint here is not that the SNP isn’t socialist. It would be odd if this were the natural proclivity of an independence movement in our historical conditions. It’s more that the debates about economics and sovereignty have never materialised.

Of course, the official SNP case for independence depends on emptying sovereignty into various foreign vessels – a kind of hyper transnationalism, where the national question is abolished by simple jettison. But this isn’t something that was ever polemicised for. You won’t find a manifesto for Scottish transnationalism (‘Independence in Europe’ is badly outdated). There are no great speeches, and there isn’t the wall of poetry that embellished earlier nationalist projects. The modern SNP, the one that emerged from the 2014 referendum, has yet to produce a single intellectual willing to fight its corner at home and abroad (the party’s earlier generation of intellectuals notably did flirt with socialistic appeals).

No one really seems to believe in this curious anti-nationalism. Instead, SNP leaders have surrendered to transnationalism, flopped into it quietly and joylessly. If the nationalist programme is dominated by the infamous Thatcherite dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ to the current arrangement of the world system, this is never spoken aloud.

When I say that independence isn’t coming round the corner, know that I mean it’s not even turning a corner in the mind. We are ‘closer to independence than ever before’ in much the same way an addict will ‘quit whenever I want’. The SNP leadership project for independence happens to be unworkable. But even if it were workable in theory it wouldn’t be ventured. There’s a real sense in which the SNP leadership resent the national question. They want rid of it.

You’ll recall that Sturgeon didn’t even like the presence of the word ‘national’ in the party label. This is more than an aesthetic judgement. It’s a linguistic slip that indicates a much deeper unease. Some will always wave-off comparisons to past national independence movements because their context is utterly remote to our own. It is remote, except in one absolutely crucial sense: Sturgeon, and whoever replaces her, and whoever replaces the next bod, would be overturning the rule of an old, powerful capitalist state, just as surely as any olive-uniformed guerrilla. Do we really get the feeling our reluctant nationalists are up to that audacious task?  

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