Scottish nationalism: turning neighbours into foreigners





From the Spectator 16 September 2014


Nationalists build walls to keep their people in and the rest out. They create ‘us’ and ‘them’. Friends and enemies. If you disagree, if you say they have no right to speak for you because not all Scots/Serbs/Germans/Russians/Israelis think the same or recognise their lines of the map, you become a traitor to the collective. The fashionable phrase ‘the other’ is one of the few pieces of sociological jargon that enriches thought. All enforcers of political, religious and nationalist taboos need an ‘other’ to define themselves against, and keep the tribe in line.

The process of separation and vilification is depressing to watch but familiar enough. Scottish nationalists are preparing a rarer trick, last seen in the dying days of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. They are trying to break up an existing multi-national state and turn neighbours into foreigners. They want people, who have lived together, worked together, loved each other, had children together, moved into each other countries and out again, to be packaged and bound up in hermetically sealed boxes labelled ‘Scots’ and ‘English’.

The notion that Scottish nationalism is always cosy and ‘civic’ has flourished without challenge. Alex Salmond’s greatest propaganda success has been to limit debate. If you are outside Scotland, and disagree with him, you have no right to comment on its internal affairs. If you are inside, you are ‘talking down Scotland’; showing yourself to be a self-hating Scot unfit to serve on  ‘Team Scotland’.

The nationalists have bullied too many into silence. People who know better have not spelt out the costs of separatism, or said clearly that progressive forces will suffer most.

How can they not? Nationalism will allow capital to remain global, while forcing arbitrary local divisions on labour. Brian Souter and Rupert Murdoch have flirted with Salmond because they can sniff a small state coming that must, whatever its currency turns out to be, run surpluses and build reserves to please the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and, above all, a market that will punish the tiniest step away from neo-liberal orthodoxy. The currency question has no answer except deeper and wider austerity. That people who think of themselves as left wing can brush it aside and pretend that working and middle-class Scots won’t suffer is a self-deception so extreme it borders on religious fantasy.

To be fair, most of the leaders of the labour movement understand the need for solidarity. For how can a union official call for English workers to support Scottish workers if England and Scotland are separate countries? Beyond a few warm words, they will have no more to offer them than English taxpayers will have to offer Scottish welfare recipients, which is to say, nothing.

If the concept of solidarity smells dusty to you – and one reason why nationalism is thriving is that it does to many – consider the work of charities, which for want of a better word you can call “progressive”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to take one example, protects ospreys in the Highlands, peatlands near Thurso and breeding colonies in the Hebrides. Its members are happy to fund them, but the funds come overwhelming from England. In private, RSPB managers are terrified that the money will stop with independence. Maybe environmentalists should not care about borders. In practice, they are far more willing to protect wildlife and landscapes in their own country than someone else’s. The RSPB, like so many others, plays the cautious coward in public. It stays silent for fear of seeming ‘political’. But the independence referendum goes beyond conventional politics. Every organisation which transfers wealth around these islands has a duty to say what it thinks will happen if Britain breaks up. I don’t think voters will thank them for their silence when the bill arrives.

Beyond mere money lie the affections and identities of millions of people. When and if Scotland breaks away, the first victims will be those who voted No. They will be the doubters, the naysayers, maybe even the traitors, who did not join Salmond’s ‘Team Scotland’ when their captain called, and tried to prevent the glorious rebirth of the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Scots meanwhile live in the rest of the UK and hundreds of thousands of English, Welsh and Irish people live in Scotland. They could become foreigners in their own country. Don’t pretend that their lives won’t change. Don’t say, as so many say to me, that it does not matter what nation you live in. If nationality does not matter, where’s the need for Scottish nationalism?

I concede that the EU allows freedom of movement, and assume that one day Scotland will be readmitted one way or another. But modern Europe’s liberalism is not as permissive as it seems. There are many posts foreigners struggle to fill. After separation, Scots defending the United Kingdom will have a harder time working in the armed, security and police forces and vice versa. The state charges them with protecting their country, but Britain will no longer be their country. The same applies to firms receiving public money – most obviously Scottish defence contractors – politicians,  the civil service, particularly at a senior level, and journalism and the arts, which claim to speak to and for the nation.

Meanwhile frantic charities, businesses and voluntary organisations will have to create separate Scottish offices for the new Scottish state. They will fill them with Scotsmen and women, for Scots are most likely to get a hearing from the new order. Back south, the same nationalist discrimination will apply in reverse. It will feel more natural to exclude Scots. I am not saying that an Englishman could not be a general in a Scottish army or a Scotswoman could not be a presenter on the BBC. People in jobs will stay in their jobs as the walls go up and the shutters come down. But when they retire, they will not be replaced. Nationalism excludes and narrows. It shrivels opportunities and limits horizons. Everyone from workers looking for new jobs to students looking for a university place will feel less inclined to look beyond the new borders.

With the partial exception of Ireland – Britain’s first colony and greatest shame – everyone has benefited from the dual identity Britishness allows. You can be Scottish and British. English and British, Welsh and British, black and British. We have lived with dual identities for so long, we take their benefits for granted. But consider how  precious they are. On the radio at the moment, a Scot is presenting a programme in London, and no one apart from English nationalist fanatics doubts his right to do so.  That amicable tolerance and easy rubbing along will decline; not vanish in a big bang but fade as Britain contracts. Scottish nationalism is already pushing it towards its grave and if readers north of the border don’t think that English nationalism will not rise and define itself in opposition to Scotland they are deluding themselves

Sometimes foreigners see us with a clarity we lack. Britishness was immensely useful to immigrants and ethnic minorities. It gave them a space where racists could not reach them. No one could say that they were not ‘really’ British, because in multinational, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Britain the ‘real’ Briton did not exist.

Last week The Times published a letter from a Jewish refugee from Hitler, who made my point for me. More by luck that anything else, she saved her life by receiving citizenship in 1939. When she applied for her first job, her employer asked her nationality.

‘English,’ she said as she embraced her new land.

‘No you’re British,’ he replied. ‘You will never be truly English.’

The best reason for voting “No” has nothing to do with pounds and oil. If Salmond wins, the people who want to check accents and bloodlines will everywhere be strengthened. Britain has had few successes recently but one has been pushing to the margins the small-minded obsessives who want to ask whether you are ‘really’ English or ‘truly’ Scottish. The margins are the best place for them. Let’s keep them there.