Nationalism

As I mentioned, we are in the middle of a general election campaign here in the UK. One of the key themes in that campaign is nationalism – yet it is a theme that is not often examined with the same critical eye as, say, the parties’ economic policies.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) articulates Scottish nationalism, and seeks an independent Scotland. Recently, Scottish historian Tom Devine said that the SNP had been a barrier to the kind of xenophobic nationalism that seems to have been on the rise elsewhere in Europe. The SNP, he argued, has articulated a ‘civic nationalism’ that is not based on belonging to a particular ethnic group, and is opposed to the politics of the London-based UK Government but is not opposed to the English people.

There is some truth to this – I argued something a bit similar here – but I also think the SNP achieves this trick of inclusivist, civic nationalism partly by avoiding the question of what makes Scotland a separate nation that deserves to be independent. Indeed, Tom Devine himself acknowledges that ‘no nationalist party can be entirely devoid of ethnic roots. The SNP is after all committed to one nation, Scotland, whose identity has been shaped over the centuries by the markers of history, religion, memory and myth.’

The SNP talks on its website about putting ‘Scotland in the driving seat of our own destiny’ in order to ‘shape our own future’. This, it says, ‘is what we all hope for ourselves and it is what the SNP believes is right for Scotland’. There is a sleight of hand involved, however, in talking of a nation as though it were an individual who can be ‘in the driving seat’ and have desires for the future. It avoids the question of what makes ‘us’ a nation that should be in control of ‘our own destiny’. Why is Scotland a distinct entity that should govern itself? There are good answers to this question, but they lie partly in history and culture, matters the SNP embraced in its earlier years but now largely seeks to avoid.

Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, gave a speech this week in which she sought to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism, she argued is is light-hearted, pluralistic and positive. Nationalism, on the other hand, is negative, divisive and authoritarian, characteristics she argues are displayed by the SNP.

I have a certain amount of time for Ruth Davidson – she is one of the Tories’ few genuine liberals – but this speech was not one of her finest hours. Apart from the fact that it exhibits the same binary, us-and-them thinking she attributes to nationalists, it is simply not plausible to portray the SNP (of which I’m no great fan) as inward-looking and anti-pluralist. She also fails to mention the way in which her own Conservative Party is currently surfing a wave of British nationalism, particularly in England.

The Conservative Party launched its election manifesto for the whole of the UK yesterday. There are many interesting aspects of the manifesto – not least its very transparent attempt to appeal to Labour voters – but I was especially struck by its appeal to nationalism and national pride. Throughout the manifesto (and consistent with Prime Minister Theresa May’s constant repetition of the need for ‘strong and stable government’) there is an emphasis on Britain being a strong and great nation (or nations – as always, there is ambiguity about whether the UK is one nation or four).

I’m particularly interested in the way in which the manifesto makes brief but significant references to history, in broad, sweeping terms, and always linked to the future. So, for example, we have:

Britain is a great nation. We have a glorious history but we believe that our best days lie ahead of us. …

Britain has always been a great trading nation. …

Some industries have a great history. We believe they can have a great future too. …

The United Kingdom is a global nation. Our history is a global history; our future must be global too. …

This election will decide the composition of our parliament, the oldest of all large democracies. … This unequalled democracy and legal system is our greatest national inheritance. … It is the purpose of this Conservative Party … to re-establish faith in our democracy…

As with the SNP, there is an avoidance of real engagement with the complexity of history, or the question of what constitutes the nation. Admittedly, a manifesto may not be the document to look to for complexity. But there may be a larger problem here.

The Tory manifesto talks of a ‘global Britain’ with a ‘glorious history’. Britain does indeed have a global history – I’ve been looking out for signs of it as we’ve travelled around over the past year – but it is also a history of imperial conquest and domination. That history has often been less than ‘glorious’, and has not always been a story of ‘unequalled democracy’. A number of commentators have linked Brexit to Britain’s failure to confront the legacies of empire (see here and here, for example). I fear that a Britain that is unable to look realistically at its past, and that trumpets its greatness and glory, is one that displays the very same negative qualities Ruth Davidson attributes to Scottish nationalism.

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