The Bearable Lightness of Being A British Scottish Nationalist

21 May 2014

1:54 PM

21 May 2014

1:54 PM

Backstory: I wrote a post suggesting that Scottish Nationalists’ rhetoric might these days usefully be compared to Doublethink. I suppose there were many who could have been chosen to serve as examples but I decided to pick on Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire. Unfairly I quoted him extensively, something I now concede was “point scoring” (though not, I protest, of the “pointless” kind). Anyway, Mr Wishart has now responded but not, I am afraid, with anything terribly persuasive. Let me, then, in a spirit of ecumenical pity, offer the response one of the many Pete Wisharts could have written…

Patriot. Nationalist. Socialist. Whateverist. Multitudes lie within each of us. Or so the poets tell us. As Christopher Hitchens once observed, by definition quotations are taken out of context so I shall not complain at having my words thrown against me.

It is true, Mr Massie, that my views on Britain and Britishness have changed in recent years. Is that really so reprehensible or so craven? Are the middle-aged not permitted an open mind or must we hold to the certainties of our younger, less thoughtful selves?

Scottish independence is not what once it was. The world has changed and so has independence. It is both a more modest and a more achievable goal than ever before. But an independence compromised by the realities of globalisation is not a consolation prize. On the contrary, it may well be more necessary than ever.

To simplify matters (this is a blog, right?): states are like the newspaper business these days. You can survive if you are very large and you can survive if you are very small. It is the medium-sized states that struggle. They lack the critical mass to be “heavy hitters” but also the nimbleness and policy adaptability that comes more easily to smaller states. A medium-sized tanker is not large enough for some jobs yet much too large for many others. The United Kingdom is the wrong size of paper, the wrong kind of tanker.

Rationalism alone, however, cannot win independence. The Yes campaign must capture hearts as well as minds (so, mind you, must Unionists). Our opponents say we are mere opportunists, happy to adapt any line, any policy, that might persuade Scots independence offers us our brightest possible future. They say that as though it is a bad thing. Of course we are opportunists. All successful political movements change to take advantage of new opportunities. The SNP is no different. To condemn us for changing our minds is to insist we maintain a course set by our opponents.

And if we have changed it is, in part, because we have listened to the people. Are we to be condemned for that too?

It is true that six years ago I suggested “all vestiges of Britishness will go” after independence. I was wrong.  Guilty, perhaps, of wishful thinking. Guilty, certainly, of failing to question my own presumptions or make an imaginative leap to understand why other people might disagree with me. You could call it an Empathy Gap.


But what is Britishness anyway? Is it chiefly defined by shared institutions or by a shared history and common culture? To put it another way, if Britishness depends upon representation at Westminster can residents of Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands be properly British?

Westminster might be a sufficient guarantor of Britishness (for some) but plainly it is not a necessary one. And if not parliament, then what? Neither protestantism nor the armed forces – each pillars that once supported Britishness – are as relevant as once they were.

The monarchy endures, of course. Just as it existed before the parliamentary Union so it will endure after it too. A reminder of a shared history that is greater than the trifling divisions of quotidian politics. Politics is book-keeping; the Crown is a deeper, symbolic, connection.

A connection that, for some of us, may become more, not less, relevant once the parliamentary cords that currently constrain us have been cut. At the very least, a connection we may appraise more realistically and which some of us – myself included – may value more once Scotland has been liberated.

Yes, liberated. Not in the sense of being freed from bondage but in the sense that she does not, cannot, currently fulfil her potential. We can be more than we are. That is the liberation we seek. A liberation from our own doubts.

Which, yes, requires us to unleash the inner-nationalist that resides within most of our countrymen, even those who may disagree with us. Nationalists – and, yes, I am effectively a nationalist even if I do not self-identify as such – should be big enough to recognise we stand on the shoulders of Unionist Giants.

Without their work, without their preservation of Scottish distinctiveness there might be no Scotland, only a North Britain. A provincial history, not a national one. From Sir Walter Scott to Donald Dewar, we are in their debt for without them there might be no us.

Paradoxically, the call to independence is in part a tribute to the triumph of Britishness. We cannot escape it and nor, in truth, would many Scots wish to. If, that is, by Britishness we mean culture as well as history.

There is such a thing as Scottish culture, unique to us, just as there is an Irish literature unique to Ireland but, in truth, each is intimately related to and part of a broader British culture that is in large part impervious to constitutional revolution.

It will, that is, remain. We shall still listen to much the same music, watch many of the same television programmes, read many of the same books and play the same sports as our friends and cousins elsewhere in these islands. Our cultural reference points shall remain the same and still be chiefly unique to these islands. Politics will change more than culture or our “way of life” (however that is defined).

Which is why independence will be both a great leap into the unknown and much less dramatic or terrifying than many people assume. It will be noisily exciting yet also quietly reassuring and we may be surprised as much by what will not change as by what will.

It’s not just me that thinks this. Consider this:

If culture doesn’t trump politics, it softens whatever blow politics may inflict.

It’s this shared inheritance and culture that provides Unionism with both its great strength and its weakness. The strength is evident: we share so much that independence might be thought unecessary. The weakness is evident too: if we share so much then much of it will survive intact, whatever constitutional arrangements are made in the future. If that’s so then it’s Unionism, at least as the term is commonly understood, that’s unecessary. That’s the theory.

So is this: The English are not an alien people. But then neither are the Scots. Nor the Irish either. They may do things differently in the different parts of this rainy archipelago but no part of it is truly “foreign” to any other. Whether we call it such or not it is – and will remain – a Commonwealth.

Not my words, but Alex Massie’s. 

We may indeed drift apart in some senses after independence is achieved but in many more we will remain who we are. Scottish first but unavoidably British too. We will live, just as (whether they like or recognise it or not) the Irish live with this shared cultural and historical inheritance that has made us who we are. We will always be more like the English than like the Norwegians.

We could not escape that even if we wished to. Perhaps, once upon a time, I did seek such an escape but, being older and I hope a little wiser, I know such a thing is impossible. One kind of Britishness is in decline and, in my view, anachronistic; that does not means all kinds of Britishness are or must be.

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Show comments
  • LucieCabrol

    This bodes well for a post independence day celebration…watch the scots descend into a furious internecine blood letting. Maybe its better to have the balance of the rest of the kingdom to settle ye all doon.

  • allymax bruce

    “That is the liberation we seek. A liberation from our own doubts.”
    See ‘Merchants of Doubt’, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.
    This is what the ‘No Campaign’ is all about; nothing more.

  • Wessex Man

    oh dear, why use 10 words when you can use 100, is Massie paid by words printed?

  • Salmondnet

    So by one (stretched) definition, when Scotland is independent the Scots will still be British. Equally, by some definitions they are, and will remain, Germanic.. Will either of those terms reflect anything significant in the real world? Absolutely not, zilch, nada, niet To the rest of us they will just be a bunch of charmless and difficult foreigners in the Northern third of this island and will rightly be treated as such. We have better neighbours to the south and east.

    • asalord

      Bitter together, better apart.

      • Salmondnet

        Exactly right, and with a properly controlled border to ensure maximum benefit from this improvement.

      • HJ777

        I detect no bitterness from anyone in the UK towards other peoples of the UK (why would there be? They all get along just fine), except from a few types like you with your determination to manufacture resentment and division where none exists.

    • asalord

      What about the west?

      • Salmondnet

        I don’t know. What about the west?

    • terregles2

      You make it so hard to say goodbye, Thankfully you are not typical of the average English person who are good fun like a laugh and get on well with most people.

      • Salmondnet

        What a pity. I was hoping to make it easy.

      • HJ777

        Hard or not, please just get on with it.

        Nobody in Scotland or the UK is likely to be anything other than relieved to see the back of you and your constant melodramatic denouncements about how ‘discredited’ everything is. Then after the ‘No’ vote we can all get on with enjoying the benefits of the union in peace without your hysterics.

  • Martin Adamson

    “Yes, liberated. Not in the sense of being freed from bondage but in the
    sense that she does not, cannot, currently fulfil her potential. We can
    be more than we are.”

    Name me three things that I, as a Scot, will be free to do in an independent Scotland that I cannot do now in the “repressive” United Kingdom.

    • Kitty MLB

      Oh will be treated like a Alien traitor now, by Salmond. You have left the land of the clanships I cannot think of one thing myself But it is utterly wrong that you as a Scot doesn’t get a vote. Some have lived in Scotland for decades
      before moving here. And yet 16 year old children can vote.

    • asalord

      Vote to get rid of Trident nuclear weapons.
      Vote to refuse to participate in pointless imperialist wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
      Vote to receive and spend North sea oil revenues which are currently being squandered by Westminster.

      • Martin Adamson

        Err, no, Tridents would just be moved somewhere else. And I’ve nothing against foreign interventions in principle. As for spending North Sea money, Scotland won’t get any more from from them than we do now, Salmond will have no choice but to mortgage them to the EU as the price of our admission.

        • terregles2

          Trident cannot be moved anywhere else in the UK the environmental conditions for storage water depth type of rock etc in the area only exist where it is stored now,
          Many people in EWNI would also wish to be rid of Trident as they don’t want their taxes squandered on replacing it either. Scottish independence would be doing them a favour as well.
          To suggest that the EU would refuse to accept Scotland is silly. They accept poor countries such as Bulgaria and Romania refusing a wealthy Scotland entry just would not happen. Can you imagine the EU telling the Spanish fishermen they can no longer fish in Scottish waters.

          Scotland is of great strategic geographical importance to Western Europe and European security.
          Countries with far fewer resources than Scotland do well enough and Scotland will be more than able to live well on our rich resources and exports of:

          Electronics, Whisky, Textiles, Food Exports, Oil, Renewables, Forestry, Fisheries, Metals, Hydro Power, Agriculture, Pharmaceuticals, Tourism etc.

          • The_greyhound

            More of your endless stream of nonsense.

            Salmond now says he wants to be a member of NATO, so nukes stay in Scotland whether or not there is a yes vote.

            But there isn’t going to be a yes vote, so the matter doesn’t arise.

            • terregles2

              Your clairvoyance powers are impressive. Any chance of this Saturday’s lottery numbers.?
              Perhaps you should listen to the US stance on Trident before you have an outburst.

              • HJ777

                The “Yes” campaign has burnt its way through the millions they have already received from lottery winners has it?

                By the way, I’m surprised you haven’t you learned yet to keep away from nuclear matters as you merely display your supreme ignorance every time you broach the subject.

                • terregles2

                  You display your supreme, staggering ignorance every time you make any comment on Scotland.
                  You would probably struggle to find the Holy Loch on a Scottish map.

            • JPJ2

              No they will not.

          • HJ777

            “Scotland is of great strategic geographical importance to Western Europe and European security.”

            For once you have said something correct.

            This, of course, is a strong argument for maintaining the defence arrangements of the UK that have served us so well, rather than expensively disrupting and fragmenting them as the “Yes” campaign’s white paper proposes.

            • terregles2

              For once I have said something correct. I wish I could say that you have ever done the same. Unfortunately your grasp of Scottish politics is abysmal. Jumping with ignorance.
              Every comment you make demonstrates your deep ignorance of all things Scottish. I notice you are careful to confine your contributions to certain publications.
              Don’t suppose you will ever flaunt your deeply misinformed opinions on Scotland in any Scottish publications such as the Herald.

        • JPJ2

          asalord wins comfortably-you are just too embarrassed to admit it

      • HJ777

        Afghanistan was a NATO operation and all NATO nations participated. Can you explain who Scots should vote for if they want to leave NATO?

        North Sea oil revenues are, in large part, already spent on much higher public spending per head of population in Scotland.

        And if you don’t like nuclear weapons, then you’ll need to leave nATo as it is nuclear-armed alliance.

        • terregles2

          Check out the US policy on the renewal of Trident before you embarrass yourself.
          Check out the McCrone report and check out how much of Scottish sea was annexed by Tony Blair in 1999 when he moved the Scottish maritime border up from Berwick on Tweed to Carnoustie.
          Even the Westminster government have admitted that Scots have always more than paid their way within the UK..
          No wonder the wish for independence is growing when some stupid people continue to imply that Scots are getting more than their fair share.
          The wealth from the North sea has never been spent in Scotland.
          Your lack of knowledge on NATO is laughable.