A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nationalism no thanks

I was pleased to see Gordon Brown making the case against Scottish Nationalism on Saturday.

I'm not convinced that independence would be an economic disaster for either Scotland or England - after all there are plenty of flourishing small nations (not least Ireland) - but I do think it would be - and I struggle to find the right word - "diminishing" for all the current component parts of the UK.

I don't challenge the concept of Scotland as a "nation" - you only have to go there to appreciate the distinctiveness from England culturally - though the cultural differences between Glasgow and London are probably no more sharp than those between London and rural Kent or even between inner and outer London.

But it's the fact that the UK is a state made up of different nations that is worth clinging on to and fighting politically to sustain. It isn't, like France, Italy or Germany or Sweden, a state based on nationhood and hence ultimately ethnicity - it's a state based on the shared history, political values and institutions of several nations.

That makes it a state that people who are not by ethnicity Scots or English or Welsh can identify with - you can define yourself as "British" wherever you are from, as long as you sign up to the values involved. I worry that that would be lost if we retreat into separation.

There are also a lot of us who are by ancestry a mix from the different bits of the UK - quite apart from the thousands (millions?) of Scots living in England and English living in Scotland who would suddenly become foreigners in their own country. I was born about as far south in England as you can get (with Essex being "up north") but with a family sense of identity that was definitely "British" rather than specifically "English" - thanks to a great-grandfather on my mum' s side being a McKenzie from Dumbarton who moved down to Kent to find work in the 1920s - so I guess I will become a fourth generation immigrant by default if the SNP get their way. There's also some Welsh ancestory somewhere in the mix as another bit of the family were Davies who arrived via Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

That feeling of being British rather than English was reinforced in the 1980s when the general misery of growing up Labour in a Tory heartland under Thatcher was made more bearable by the idea that "our people" in Scotland and Wales were resolutely sticking with Labour.

One of the biggest problems with Scottish independence is the nature of the SNP themselves. It takes a particular kind of person to decide to dedicate their political life to the "national question" as opposed to all the other political causes that are out there - I worry about the kind of politicians who wake up in the morning primarily inspired by their sense of national identity to go campaign for independence, rather than inspired by their sense of social justice to go campaign against poverty.

The whole philosophy of nationalism, even in its most benign Plaid Cymru and SNP variants, is based on playing up differences between people and suggesting that people with those cultural differences are somehow unable to rub along together in the same state. It's a profoundly depressing view of life and the antithesis of the internationalism that inspired socialism - the belief that we all - and particularly ordinary working people - have a lot more in common than we have that divides us and that we ought to be seeking to break down the barriers between nations. Nationalism is about sticking two fingers up to the notion of solidarity - that a trade unionist in say Hackney, should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a trade unionist in Glasgow - and instead saying we'll go off and do our own thing and who cares about anyone on the opposite side of the border. The Labour Party was founded by a man - Keir Hardie - who was born in North Lanarkshire in Scotland but was an MP for West Ham in England and Merthyr Tydfil in Wales - he could see that the common political ends sought by the voters in those three places united them far more than the nations they lived in divided them.

I can't help thinking that an independent Scotland and a rump England or England/Wales would both be narrower, less open, more inward-looking societies and be the poorer for it.

I can understand the political arguments for Scottish independence more as they stood in the '80s when Scotland got a Tory government it did not vote for imposing the Poll Tax. But the current political settlement is actually a remarkably positive one for Scotland - generous funding through the Barnet formula, devolved government and the imminent prospect of a Scottish PM of the UK plus a whole bunch of senior UK ministerial positions being held by Scots. The SNP case then seems to be wholly based on emotion and an appeal to "difference" which is a pretty sad moral basis on which to campaign.

A stand-alone England - at least for the centre-left in England - would also be a bleak place politically - destined to be governed almost perpetually by the Tories.

The prospect of a grinning Alex Salmond declaring victory at Holyrood has a natural corollary - a grinning David Cameron as Prime Minister of "England" in Downing Street.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A stand-alone England - at least for the centre-left in England - would also be a bleak place politically - destined to be governed almost perpetually by the Tories."

Assuming a FPTP system for any English legislature. Even then, in 1997 and 2001 Labour would have had a working majority under FPTP in England alone.

However, all this talk of Scottish independence is just pre-election alarmism. What's more glaringly evident is the tensions within the Union caused by Labour's unwillingness to see territorial relations between the nations as anything other than token legislatures in Scotland and Wales and a Council of the Isles that barely exists. A Federal Britain would be undissolvable politically, whereas the status quo could conceivably lead to separation in years hence.

Basically, the choice is yours (I assume you favour the status quo).

11:40 am, January 15, 2007

Anonymous ted harvey said...

Luke, as a Scot, I agree with your misgivings about politicians like the SNP people who wake up in the morning driven by a sense of 'nationhood'. However, there are couple of aspects peculiar to the Scottish situation. One is that the Labour pro-Unionist arguments are so fascicle. They seem to amount to 1). The bribe of 'Scotland does very well out of the UK' (based on the blatant untruth about 'England' subsidising 'Scotland'). This bribe argument reflects the pork-barrel practices by Scottish Labour at national (Executive) and local level to use public money to buy votes and buy off interest groups. Ironically this is an increasingly out-of-time approach as Scottish opinion and populist sentiment seems to have moved (belatedly) down the path of seeking more enterprising and culturally autonomous modes of life. 2). There is a deeply embedded ignorance amongst the 'English' opinion-makers about the present day workings of the Union (never mind the history). At the populist level, this comes out, for example, in the way the BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation just cannot move its corporate mindset beyond its English pre-occupations; I listened to a panel discussion on global matters on BBC 24 hours last Sunday morning when the USA speaker's repeated references to 'England' instead of Britain or the UK were not once challenged or even politely corrected. Another facet is the inability of the metropolitan London-bound newspaper media to 'do' Scotland... even a supposedly liberal paper with an earlier 'regional' identity like the Guardian has made some risible efforts recently (Peter Preston; need I say more?).
You are also right Luke to worry about what the separated nations of the UK might look like. There have been some pretty arresting converts to the independence cause recently - not least, the ex-right-wing Tory Michael Fry. These converts are based on a view that a Scotland detached from the UK would be a far more social conservative country. This is also a reminder of the 'Scotland is more Left-wing' mythology brought about by Scottish Labour. The reality is that Scottish Labour’s rise to political dominance was due in large part to a unique alliance between Labour and a deeply reactionary Roman Catholic church (you give us our tax-payer funded separate Catholic schools and we will give you our Catholic votes). Even that alliance is now out-of-time; as realised by the likes of Michael Fry. This alliance might have been a squalid but effect bit of real-politics, but it was never the basis of a truly indigenous Scottish progressive politics.

I just have a feeling of a dismaying drift-by-default into a stronger and stronger acceptance of the arguments for independence. From my vantage point in Scotland, the LibDems with their ‘devolution-for-all’ have made a far better pro-Union case than Labour has; mind you that’s real effective devolution – and please not another version of the pathetic regional assembly nonsense championed earlier by John Prescott.

11:51 am, January 15, 2007

Blogger JohnJo said...


An interesting post much of which I agree with. One thing though; we should be careful when throwing the word nationalism around because we need to recognise that Brown is making the case for a brand of British nationalism.

The main problem though, that of the stresses introduced by New Labour with partial devolution and the inequalities of citizenship that it has introduced, need addressing. Being British, if it does not mean being equal, means very little indeed.

The question that must be answered is what can be done about it?

It should also be noted that there is no reason why the notion of Englishess or Scottishness cannot be inclusive. All the people I have been in contact with (except for one Turkish boy) accept me as English when, traditionally, I am nothing of the sort. True, they also accept me as British but increasingly (as seen in recent polls) the British identity is being used as a secondary defining attribute rather than the primary.

2:06 pm, January 15, 2007

Anonymous Andrea said...

"Assuming a FPTP system for any English legislature. Even then, in 1997 and 2001 Labour would have had a working majority under FPTP in England alone."

In 2005 too. 2005 GE in England: Lab 286 seats, Con 194, LD 47, Gorgeous George and Dr Taylor. A majority of 43

2:48 pm, January 15, 2007

Anonymous Andrew Travers said...

Luke, good to see you taking this subject on - although rather astonishing news that your family are from the same town in Scotland as mine!

A couple of points that struck me. Firstly, that for myself and a number of the Scots I know that live down here - we *do* regard ourselves as living in a different country.

I've got no time for the SNP, but I do have a lot of sympathy for Scotland taking more responsibility for the decisions that affect it. There is a really paralysing 'it's nothing to do with us' syndrome that the current political arrangements exacerbate - it is what I think lies behind some of the embarrassing anti-English sentiment that still floats around. Taking that responsibility on would be a good thing for Scotland and make it confront a lot of difficult decisions (defence, health etc.)

Brown and particularly John Reid's ill-judged contributions to the Labour Party's recent Scottish conference backfired rather badly and I think Labour is still struggling to put a really positive and progressive case for why the union is still relevant and the best option available.

My feeling at the moment is that Labour is making a mistake by being perceived to push an apocalyptic argument allied to a kind of 'this stuff is all far too complicated for you Scots to understand - don't worry your little heads about it'.

9:49 am, January 17, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke - an excellent take on events in Scotland.

Ted Harvey - an excellent informative response (not unlike what I've been writing!).

Regarding "quite apart from the thousands (millions?) of Scots living in England and English living in Scotland who would suddenly become foreigners in their own country."

Perhaps following the Irish/NI example? People could claim British citizenship or Scottish citizenship.

2:50 pm, January 21, 2007

Blogger freescotlandnow said...

You say "I'm not convinced that independence would be an economic disaster for either Scotland or England"

So why should Brown and Blair claim it would be? Also people devote their whole interest to the national question in Scotland because we are in a parliament with a country ten times our size and while this continues we are not free.

If our positions were reversed I think you would understand it.

Independence is normality for every other country around the world.


12:16 am, March 14, 2007


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