David Jamieson

David Jamieson

To Survive, Scottish Independence Must Abandon Civic Nationalism

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Far from representing an alternative to the ideas of establishment figures like Gordon Brown, SNP leaders have adopted them. David Jamieson argues that there is no road to a viable independence movement that doesn’t break with civic nationalism.

Speaking for yet another ‘devo max’ Union reboot in Edinburgh last week (Thurs 29 May), Iraq War financier in chief and avid British capitalism de-regulator Gordon Brown said much that was candid for those willing to hear. He told supporters of a ludicrously confected ‘Alliance for Radical Democratic Change’ – made up of senior Labour figures like Welsh leader Mark Drakeford and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham – that the era of the nation-state was over:

“We’ve got to move on from the old nationalism, which is really 19th century nationalism. That wanted a nationalist state with all the trappings of nationhood. A separate army, separate currency, separate borders. We’ve got to move on from that to a 21st century patriotism, where we recognise that people love our country, our history, our traditions, and our institutions, but they understand that in an inter-dependent, integrated, inter-connected world we have to work together for the common good.”

You may recognise this attitude from another statement, made by Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, who told the Oxford Union that Britain and Scotland were: “…ancient nations that can never and should never exist again in the global world in which we find ourselves.”

It’s typical for leading figures in the SNP to dismiss such a line of attack by asserting that independence supporters are all in favour of Brown’s ‘inter-world’. What’s more, our favour is sincere and comes without hypocrisy. Scots voted by majority to Remain in the EU. Brown’s adoptive Little England should regard itself in the mirror.

This retort is usually rounded-up by an explanation that there are two types of nationalism. First, there is the ethno-nationalism of Brexit Britain. It is indeed primordial, dangerous, and doomed by nameless forces of ‘progress’.

Then there is ‘civic nationalism’, which is cosmopolitan, welcoming and forward-looking. Scottish nationalism clearly belongs in the latter category. What a relief.

There are a dozen reasons why this trite framing of two nationalisms – good and evil twins – is inadequate. But the pressing fact is that ‘civic nationalism’ is the same thing Brown calls ‘21st century patriotism’. Both phrases are euphemisms for the dominant form of state power in modern Europe – what the Cambridge political scientist Christopher Bickerton has called ‘member-statehood’ as opposed to nation-statehood.

The latter, which Brown regards (falsely) as a remnant of the 19th century, involved a vertical relation of ruled and rulers – with national political leaders presenting their policies to class-based constituencies, and seeking legitimacy from their support. The rise of transnationalism – and in the European context member-statehood – has seen the progressive destruction of this older, vertical rule paradigm, and its replacement by horizontal relations between rulers of different states.

Seeking legitimacy from one another, elites have generated a plethora of institutions that allow them to meet over the heads and often beyond the sanction of their ruled populations. This development has hollowed-out democratic life, political parties and civil society. When we talk about ‘neoliberlism’, we really ought to have these new modes of governance in mind – not just the more widely acknowledged shift to marketisation.

If we return to Brown’s quote, we see he is precisely describing this process. He comes not to bury transnationalism, but to praise it. By abandoning the trappings of nation-statehood, he claims, a common good is served. But it is the common good of state, policy and business elites, not majority populations. We should understand as well that ditching these trappings of the nation-state means an assault on many of the democratic conquests of working class people in the 19th and 20th centuries – a notionally representative democracy, strong trade unions, regulation and welfare.

The civic nationalist defence, that Scotland seeks a deep transnational integration with the world system – through the EU, Nato, the Bank of England and Sterling – comes at a staggering cost to most Scots. But what’s more damning is that it is the overweening representation of the Scottish independence cause, and that the hard-won rights of our dead generations were cast-off so easily, in the rush of SNP leaders to embrace Brown’s 21st century realities.

You’ll notice something else from the Brown quote – an implicit trade-off. In what does this patriotism consist, if it has discarded national state based popular sovereignty? His answer – veneration for cultural markers. This is how nationalist identities have continued to flourish even as nation-statehood has withered. From Meloni in Italy to Le Pen in France and Orban in Hungary, the right has embraced member-statehood, and purchased it with an increasingly strident culture war. Lacking the courage or radicalism to quit either the EU or the dysfunctional Eurozone, the cowardly hard right seeks to bolster its nationalist credentials by attacks of weaker ‘enemies’, such as refugees, already stigmatised by the policies of the EU migration system.

But leftish iterations are also available. In Scotland, civic nationalism increasingly involves the performance of a liberal national identity, with items ranging from our supposedly benign attitude to immigration (though it is spoken of by our politicians largely in terms of providing cheap labour to Scottish industries) to paranoia about a ‘Scottish cringe’, or the supposed removal of Scots language and history from school curriculums.

All these fixations in the nationalist imagination are compensatory for the real substance of a nationalist movement – popular sovereignty. Since mainstream Scottish nationalism has abandoned foreign and military policy to Nato, monetary policy to the Bank of England, and a very great deal else to the EU and to US power, all that’s left to us is trivial, identarian speculation.

I’ve sometimes asked why mainstream Scottish nationalism has failed, since it came to power in 2007, to produce a single notable public intellectual. Why its theoretical reckoning of the years from 2011 to the present, when it has been repeatedly exposed to the challenge of its ultimate mission, has been so thin.

I think Brown’s argument, and Scottish nationalism’s failure to make an adequate response – one rooted in a demand for popular sovereignty and nation-statehood and therefore hostile to transnationalism as a mode of anti-democratic governance – is much of the answer. Without addressing this acute democratic question, the independence cause is in a permanent dead end. Nationalism with nothing to say about popular sovereignty is a weak parody. It can reproduce itself endlessly as a sequence of cultural and aesthetic grievances (handwringing over bank notes and weather maps, complaints about stereotypes). But it cannot achieve rupture. It cannot answer the needs of the hour. And it doesn’t deserve the allegiance of the population.

For a coherent development of some of the ideas and frames used in this article, readers should consult a new book ‘Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy after Brexit’. Debates and reviews on the text are forthcoming on Conter.

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