For me, the most frustrating aspect of the debate on Scottish independence has been the failure of the English left to recognise that there is more than one type of nationalism. People who can explain in minute detail the many forms of socialism on offer at any demo or conference seem incapable of differentiating when it comes to nationalists.
Confronted by someone recently who claimed to believe that there was no difference between the Scottish National party and the British National party, I can’t help wondering if this is wilful – like the Daily Mail’s insistence that anyone who wants to see a fairer society must be a Stalinist.
In the past months, I have found myself arguing with comrades who don’t understand how someone who wrote new lyrics to The Internationale can possibly be in favour of an independent Scotland. You’re betraying the working class of Britain they tell me. What about international solidarity?
It baffles me as to why they should feel that voting against the Westminster status quo is an act of class betrayal. People who marched for CND in the 1980s are now telling me I am wrong to support a decision that may force the UK to give up its nuclear weapons.
It seems to be a very English viewpoint.
In Scotland, Wales and Ireland nationalism is the name given to the campaign for self-determination. James Connolly gave his life for the nationalist cause; John MacLean, perhaps the greatest leftwinger that Scotland has produced, was in favour of independence and campaigned for a Scottish parliament.
Both recognised that the British state was highly resistant to reform, and that the interests of working people were best served by breaking with the United Kingdom.
England’s dominant role has meant that it has never felt the urge to be free of the British state. As a result, the nationalism that has emerged there has been ethnic, seeking to unite the indigenous population against the perceived threat of outsiders. And for all of us in Europe, ethnic nationalism casts a long shadow.
Given that dark legacy, it is unsurprising that many on the left have a knee-jerk reaction whenever they hear the word nationalism. However, close inspection of the respective manifestoes of the SNP and the BNP should give pause for thought.
The ethnic nationalism of the BNP is there for all to see – a plan for a society that excludes people on grounds of race. The programme of the SNP takes a diametrically opposite position – an inclusive society based on where you are, not where you’re from.
This is civic nationalism – the idea that all citizens should be engaged in the process of deciding where society is headed, not just getting their hands on the tiller once every four or five years. It utilises the n-word because democracy on a national level offers the best opportunity for fundamental change.
However, civic nationalism isn’t the ideology of the modern SNP, it’s the fertile ground that it grew out of, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – an alliance of community activists, politicians and civic leaders that came together in the 1980s to campaign for a Scottish parliament.
The SCC was mainly made up of the great and the good, but the current referendum on independence has inspired many different groups in Scotland to engage in debate about how their society could be better organised. Social media has changed the landscape, allowing everyone to express opinions and exchange ideas.
Pro-independence initiatives such as Common Weal, National Collective and the Radical Independence Campaign have invigorated the electorate in Scotland, pitching ideas for a fairer society with different priorities to those most commonly found at Westminster. The audiences that come to their events are not nationalists in the Nigel Farage sense, fulminating against immigrants while complaining that they’re not allowed to be Scottish any more.
They are people who are no longer comfortable with the direction that Britain is travelling in; with the extremes of poverty and wealth that go unchallenged; with the dominance of the privately educated in positions of political and economic power; with the undercurrent of xenophobia that animates the Conservative party; with a Labour party that has too few MPs from working-class backgrounds.
The people of Scotland are able to address these issues via the referendum because they have a devolved parliament elected by proportional representation, something that the English have so far been denied. Scottish independence could put devolution for England on the agenda.
Rather than dismissing the yes campaign as an insular expression of base nationalism, might it make more sense for the English left to help the Scots make the break that will force reform on the centralised British constitution?
Yes, the Scottish MPs – many of them Labour – will have to leave Westminster, but the notion that this will give the Tories an inbuilt majority is nothing but scaremongering. Only two Labour governments since 1945 have relied on Scottish votes to win a majority. When England wants to throw the Tories out, the English are quite capable of doing it themselves, thank you very much.
In the post-independence debate about how the remaining parts of the UK are governed, the elephant in the room will be devolution for England. Regional assemblies elected under a proportional system with Holyrood-style powers would offer us the opportunity to address the inequalities that have opened up between London and the rest of the country.
Support for Scottish self-determination might not fit neatly into any leftwing pigeon hole, but it does chime with an older progressive tradition that runs deep in English history – a dogged determination to hold the over-mighty to account. If, during the constitutional settlement that will follow the referendum, we in England can rediscover our Roundhead tradition, we might yet counter our historic weakness for ethnic nationalism with an outpouring of civic engagement that creates a fairer society for all.