Every so often you come across an article so bizarre it forces you to re-examine long-held certainties on a subject about which you happen to be tolerably well-informed. This year that’s Scotland and her independence referendum and this time the article in question is Simon Winder’s epistle in the latest edition of Standpoint.
Having duly re-examined everything I conclude that it is the maddest article I’ve read this year.
So bonkers – really, not too strong a term – that you wonder what the magazine’s editors were thinking when they agreed to publish it. They have every right to do so, of course, and publication does not equal endorsement. But still. No-one paused to say ‘hang on, this is laughable’.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s see how Winder opens his case:
Last summer, when I was checking the proofs for my book about the Habsburg Empire, Danubia, I found myself reflecting on the way that across Central Europe over the past century and a half different forms of nationalism have done almost untold damage. Wherever I travelled there were entire towns whose populations had been killed or expelled at the command of one form of nationalist zealot or another. My conclusion (which I am sure is an uncontentious one) was that anyone who makes exclusive claims based around flags, songs or mystical and immemorial borders was at some base level evil — that to believe in such things, which have more in common with magic than rationality, puts the believer and his disciples en route to catastrophe. And then I thought about Alex Salmond.
Now Danubia is a fine book but the United Kingdom is not the Habsburg Empire and already we are entering perilous waters. Expertise in one area does not necessarily transfer to expertise in another.
I am afraid Mr Winder’s “uncontentious” claim anyone who makes “exclusive claims” of the sort he dislikes is “at some base level evil” won’t do either. Unless, that is, you think the likes of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln (and every other American president), Margaret Thatcher “at some base level evil”. Disagreeing with someone does not render them evil. I’ve never been an enthusiast for Eamon de Valera, for instance, but I’d mark him some way short of evil.
No-one doubts the horror of twentieth century central and eastern Europe. A tragedy in many languages. And, yes, nationalism – or nationalisms – played a part in this. But that’s no excuse for asserting that
Whatever terrible crimes the Communists carried out they at least had a salutary attitude towards the nationalists scattered across Central Europe who had done so much to support the Nazis and to poison community after community that had until then generally lived cheek-by-jowl for centuries, if not in harmony then in grudging indifference.
Good grief. Tell that to the millions knowingly, deliberately starved to death by Stalin. Tell that to the Hungarians or the Czechs or the Poles or the Estonians…
But you see where Winder is leading us. Alex Salmond is a kind of McNazi. Yup:
When last summer I first started suggesting to friends that there was something about Salmond’s rhetoric that really worried me – that it could be seen as effectively fascist in its mix of flag-waving mysticism allied to socioeconomic gestures to the Left – I found few takers.
I wonder why?
Winder argues that Salmond’s “socialism is a fraud” which, of course, it is since Salmond is not a socialist. Nor, however, does he claim to be one. Not these days. He marries orthodox social democratic social policy with orthodox neoliberal economics. There may, on occasion, be a tension between these positions but it is hardly an extraordinary or even unusual tension. The SNP leader might bridle at the comparison but his politics is informed, even infused, by the successes of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
It is true that Salmond is also an opportunist. Independence – or failing that Home Rule – is the goal and today’s preferred policies can always be sacrificed if it’s felt they are not helping the advance towards that goal. If this demands a certain slipperiness, even dishonesty, this is true of many, perhaps most, political leaders. Unhelpful baggage is ditched in the race to power. Think of Clause Four.
Back to Winder:
Driving back and forth across the Scottish border myself the other week it seemed incredible to imagine that very soon this could mark a real and hostile line. Salmond claims that a specific group has virtues which are unavailable to those south of that line. But this is only sustainable (because it is untrue) by imagining an “other”.
Incredible? Why yes, it is difficult to image that the Anglo-Scottish border might be a hostile one. Granted, Salmond does like to make claims about Scottish distinctiveness but his insistence upon Scottish exceptionalism is by no means exceptional. It is shared, to one degree or another, by most Scots. Including Unionists.
From James Boswell and Sir Walter Scott to John Smith and Donald Dewar, Scots have insisted upon their difference. Sometimes, admittedly, to an extreme unjustified by the facts, but that may be the inevitable consequence of sharing a bed with an elephant for 300 years. There is no need to imagine an other because in a multi-national state such as the United Kingdom there is an other. If there weren’t, the United Kingdom could not be a multi-national state.
It is true that there is no overwhelming grievance animating modern Scottish nationalism. That is one reason why a No vote remains the more probable outcome. True, too, that the Yes campaign seeks to leverage dissatisfaction with London to its advantage. True, as well, that a narrow Yes vote is one of the two worst outcomes (the other being a narrow No vote) but when Winder writes of his – and others’ – “mild incredulity that Scotland could possibly find it desirable to become independent” he illuminates the shortcomings of his own imagination and his ignorance of the United Kingdom. A Union that cannot be left is a coercive Union and though the SNP’s rise to power is recent the idea of independence – albeit theoretical for a long time – has always existed. And always, if we are honest, owned a corner of many hearts. Including hearts that will vote No in September.
Thinking about the Habsburgs, it is probably fair to say that they would have viewed the very idea of agreeing to a referendum as insane. We have somehow sleepwalked into a situation where our political classes have created something ruinous.
Granted, the SNP’s majority in the Scottish parliament is accidental, the product of a series of events and impressions beyond the SNP’s command. Hindsight tells us the Unionist parties should have insisted upon a referendum in 2008. They would have won at a canter. They could no more reasonably foresee an SNP majority at Holyrood than could the SNP themselves. But we are where we are and the notion the UK government should have taken lessons from the Habsburgs is, well, preposterous. Denying a referendum would have been the real insanity. Nothing could have more surely boosted the nationalist cause or convinced Scots that, contrary to their previous views and experiences, Scotland really was in some state of bondage.
Moving on, charlatans and ignoramuses (on both sides of the constitutional debate) will always make much of this being the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. Few things are more laughable than a Scotsman using this coincidence of timing as reason for fresh independence but an Englishman suggesting this represents some fresh flowering of Scottish blood-and-soil nationalism is one of those more laughable things.
[S]hould there not perhaps be some minor element in Nato’s mission which involves dispatching squads to arrest anyone who organises political rallies around old battle commemorations? Or indeed arrests anyone who even tries to use some daft medieval scrimmage like Bannockburn to trump later centuries of cooperation and mutual respect? Anything involving slow drumbeats, flaming torches, body-paint, the usual junk, is so patently disturbing that it is hard to believe it is allowed to happen at all. It may be a grand day out for all the family, but there are plenty of places to put children’s bouncy-castles other than on a blood-soaked field. In what sense is this any different from commemorating Tannenberg or Kosovo Polje? The atavistic anti-Englishness is no less horrible and mad than the anti-Russian or anti-Muslim connotations of these other two examples. How can this be in any sense “socialist”, the key marker the SNP uses to differentiate itself and Scotland from a notionally less collectivist and welfarist England? But it in fact squares the circle in a very traditional way — it is “national socialist”.
There is, for sure, a streak of Anglophobia within the Nationalist movement. It is not always as deeply buried as the SNP’s leadership would have one believe and when it emerges it is always ugly. Nevertheless it does not dominate or even animate most Nationalist thinking. Indeed, the bagpipes and Braveheart bullshit embarrasses the SNP leadership. Not, perhaps, as much as it embarrasses other Scots but still enough to give Salmond and Co grounds for treating it warily.
Granted, nationalist appropriation of the Saltire annoys, even angers, other Scots but there is no nationalist monopoly on historical memory. Bannockburn is a victory owned – to the extent a battle 700 years ago can be owned by anyone – by Scots of all political persuasions and none. It is cherished – to the extent it is cherished at all – by Unionists as much as nationalists. Because it helped create the grounds for eventual Union, as opposed to incorporation.
In any case, to maintain the fiction the SNP are Nazis one must take care never to speak to anyone minded to vote for the party or for independence. I assume – perhaps erroneously – that Simon Winder is in this category. His article certainly gives no sign of the author’s engagement with the realities of modern Scottish nationalism.
Whatever else may be said about it, Scottish nationalism is not predicated upon an exclusionary definition of Scottishness. It is markedly more pluralist, for instance, than de Valera’s Irish nationalism. Indeed it is hard to think of a more peaceful, open or civic-minded nationalism in modern European history. Of course there are individual moments or expressions of ugliness or nativism or bigotry but they are not the dominant motifs. The SNP want to be taken seriously; they know that there’s little tolerance for overt Anglophobia and that Scotland’s blethering classes would recoil from such sillyness.
Sure, there are Scots who think the land oppressed but these too are Scots on the fringes of respectable discourse. When they pipe up at public meetings to worry about English tanks rolling up the A1 they are met with sniggering, eye-rolling, much sighing and the barely suppressed thought Christ, do we have to share a country with you?
Back to Mr Winder who, by now, is entering the late stages of paranoid delusion:
The Habsburgs would have restored order with a mixture of large bribes, expulsions, prison sentences and the odd execution, because they rightly saw that there was a deeper poison in nationalism than in any countermeasure. Their reasons were self-serving, but subsequent events proved them correct. It is obviously admirable that the UK authorities cannot simply let Salmond cool his heels on the Isle of Man for a few years, but those who value the plurality and anti-nationalism of the UK have sleepily allowed themselves to drift into a situation where they find themselves face to face with something seriously malevolent which feeds off fear, misinformation, conspiracy, grandstanding and scapegoating.
I hazard that by “obviously admirable” Winder means “quietly regrettable” but perhaps I do him wrong by thinking so.
[I]t may well be already too late. It must surely be a nightmare to imagine a Scotland falling into the well-worn independence rut of a week or two of parading figures, giant flags and tiny singing children in traditional outfits, followed moments thereafter by impoverishment, a hostile border, flailing autarky and the ever widening hunt for “enemies within”, those who hate and challenge the barely legitimate new state, fuelled by dissident groups in England. This is an absurd vision – except that I cannot see a way round it.
Fortunately most of us enjoy imaginations simultaneously less lurid and more realistic than poor Mr Winder. He makes a further error by insisting that Britain “almost alone” has escaped the “contagion” of nationalism. An error because it denies the obvious and palpable existence of a distinct British nationalism.
Destiny and exceptionalism coloured the world map pink, after all. Scots certainly played their full part in the expression of that nationalism – a British Empire, not an English one – just as they did closer to home in the (partial) extirpation of Highland culture. Regrettable or not, it was what it was. Only the wilfully blind can visit central London and not be impressed by a muscular nationalism expressed in stone and bronze. To be born a Briton was to be granted life’s winning lottery ticket and if that ain’t a nationalist sentiment what is?
Mr Winder concludes (at last!):
The referendum is meant to be a moment of chain-shattering change — not just a mild and highly dubious redirecting of revenues to a new state’s smirking functionaries. Yet it is impossible to imagine this a happy place, or one which offers any actual benefit to most of its inhabitants. It could in turn promote a disgusting new variety of English nationalism. The SNP will be unable to deliver anything real and will instead create an excluding, under-siege Volk-community, with marginally better crèche facilities. This would be a state viewed with repugnance by most other Europeans and would be a fantastically retrograde step, one that is being managed into being with slipshod and juvenile helplessness by the “Westminster government” almost as much as it has been whipped up by the SNP itself.
Again Winder’s imagination – so often so expansive – fails him. It is quite possible to imagine a happy Scotland and even, with only a little more effort, one offering some benefit to its citizens. It takes greater effort to imagine his besieged (by whom?) “Volk-community”.
It may be that independence would be a “fantastically retrograde step”. Many Scots certainly think so. But think is the operative word. We are capable of arguing this for ourselves and, gosh, making the decision too. For all the storm and disruption caused by the referendum campaign it remains the case that it has been conducted – for the most part – in a spirit of admirable restraint. Perhaps that will change in the final, heated, months. But, in general though with of course some wild exceptions, this is a sober, civilised debate. We will have to live with one another once the voting’s done. There are no signs we will not be able to do so.
Independence is not ipso facto an absurdity. It may be a cause sparked by emotion and identity but it is one also built on reason. This is an argument between competing but equally legitimate patriotisms in which neither side has a monopoly on either truth or virtue but in which each base their arguments, for the most part, on a sincere and peaceful different calculation of the national interest. As these things go, this one is going pretty well.
Finally, I would only observe that this hysterical – in every sense of the term – broadside against the enemy within plus the suggestion Britain has been betrayed by a decadent and feeble elite at Westminster is so infused with ressentiment that it comes closer to being authentically fascist – at least in worldview – than anything the author has found in the Scotland he so feverishly imagines exists but which bears precious little relation to the Scotland most of us actually inhabit.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.