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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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