About last night.
Last night I read Claire Heuchan’s piece in The Guardian and I was pretty incensed. The premise of the article being that Sadiq Khan had highlighted what he saw as parallels between Scottish nationalism and the politics of race and identity, and that Heuchan backed this assertion. The fact that she was campaigning for Better Together in 2012 was not mentioned at any point in the article, or as a footnote, which, to me, seems like a point of disclosure worth including.
You’ll have probably witnessed it for yourself — the collective apoplexy that infects the metropolitan media every time the subject is raised — and raised it is, ad nauseum, in the age of clickbait and post-factual reporting, where the lines between opinion and factual reporting have been blurred to the point where the boundaries no longer exist.
The below-the-line comments sections of pro-union articles published by the aforementioned assembled media (with all too few exceptions) can become some of the fiercest and most invective-laden places on the internet. I’ve seen independence supporters compared to everything from Nazis, to Communists (of both the Stalinist and Maoist varieties), and pretty much every unpopular regime in-between. Now, above the line, we’re no better than racists.
What is it about the fact that some people want Scottish independence that is so anger-inducing among certain sections of the population? There are myriad reasons, some with merit, some without, but the root of the matter is in the misunderstanding of the reasons for wanting independence, and further misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) of what drives the want for Scottish independence.
Part of the reason that the discussion always gets dragged back to the accusation that latent anti-English racism is at the heart of any pro-independence sentiment is that it is very easy to attack notions of inherent superiority, or inherent positive characteristics in general, because they are patent nonsense, and, it could be said, have clear racist overtones. To drag the conversation there is just one tactic for framing the debate within those bounds, which the Unionist-inclined feel more comfortable debating because they are, like most, familiar with the arguments and counter-arguments involved.
What is harder to attack is the notion that it has more to do with ‘us’ than ‘them’. It’s about ‘us’, as in, everyone who lives here. If ‘they’ (ie. those who do not live here) want to be a part of it, all ‘they’ need to do is move here to become part of ‘us’. That’s it. It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. It is specifically a rejection of ‘blood and soil’ ethnic nationalism — the kind that Better Together rubbed shoulders with during the IndyRef campaign in 2014, and that prominent commentators and MPs were happy to indulge in, with all of the talk of us ‘becoming foreigners’ if we left.
English people can move to Scotland and, to those of us who subscribe to the notion of civic nationalism (no matter how much I, as a socialist and internationalist, take issue with the ‘nationalist’ tag), they’re as Scottish as anyone else, and are as welcome as anyone else here to feel themselves a part of what makes Scotland.
The concept of “a fairer Scotland” seems to be much maligned and misunderstood also:
“The SNP is fond of talking about “a fairer Scotland”, playing on the popular notion that Scotland is by nature more egalitarian than England. But this raises one unavoidable question: fairer than what? England, of course.”
In this clear leap, Heuchan again paints it as a one sided pissing contest with Scottish nationalists wanting to best England’s efforts. Curiously, NI and Wales rarely seem to get a look-in when this argument is employed, because there’s no established trope of Scots being anti-Welsh or anti-Northern Irish to wheel out. The idea that wanting a fairer Scotland, than it is now, is divisive and borderline racist is particularly offensive in and of itself.
“And Scottish exceptionalism is buoyed by white progressives even when they are not Scottish nationalists. Trade unionist Clare Hepworth tweeted that: “I have MANY SNP followers & friends. I have NEVER heard or read a racist comment from any of them!””
“White SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism. Khan, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant, has. And so there is a certain irony to white people with progressive politics rubbishing what an Asian man has to say about racism.”
Implying that people can not have an opinion because the person they disagree with is of a different race seems to me to be a form of the exact kind of divisive exceptionalism Heuchan is, apparently, concerned about. While I think there’s merit in discussing people’s experience in context, it’s hard to believe that shutting people out of the discussion based on their own skin-tone or background lends to better understanding. Also, if we were to take Heuchan’s premise as given, could the same argument not be used against Khan, the Mayor of London, for making a connection between the two that he has not experienced through living in Scotland?
I’m a ‘person of colour’ myself — although I have real problems with the term, and feel it has much the same connotation as the antiquated and now entirely non-PC ‘coloured’ — I find it particularly galling that voices like mine are whitewashed and ignored by those who insist on Scottish nationalism’s bigotry. I’ve never been racially abused by someone who explicitly supports Scottish independence (of course racists exist within the SNP and wider independence movement, as they do everywhere, but they are a tiny and insignificant minority), but I’ve been racially abused, threatened and even beaten up by people who wrap themselves in the Union Jack. I feel it particularly irritating that someone with connections to a campaign that was supported by the Orange Order, the Scottish National Front, the Scottish Defence League, the Britannica Party, the British National Party, and other fringe hate groups, can lecture people I know as allies and comrades about knowing their place in the debate.
And, of course, there’s the matter of bringing the broader matter of support for Scottish independence into the much narrower scope of it being all about the SNP. This is a regularly-employed rhetorical device which seeks, again, to rob the conversation of nuance and make it all about an easily identifiable ‘other’ (within the context of the UK) to froth against — a tactic employed by the Tories during the campaign for the last general election no less. Scottish independence is not the SNP, and the Yes campaign was not the SNP’s campaign. Some of us may have chosen to support the SNP simply because we see it as a vehicle for achieving independence, but once that has been achieved, people like me will be looking for another political home. Personally, I’m much further left and would probably end up with the Greens, the SSP or no party at all.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that nuance is good. The more we examine things in detail rather than resorting to carefully crafted soundbites that fit a particular viewpoint, the better. The less we paint everyone who believes in ‘x’ to be ‘y’, the better. There has been a developing tendency in the age of social media, character limits and self-curated echo chambers to give in to the sort of reductionism that forbids debate of ideas and allows for more black-and-white thinking, which, I think, was evident in Heuchan’s piece. Was there malice and mischief in what she wrote? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but like many passionate political commentators, maybe her article just fell victim to the kind of reductionist thinking that abounds across our news media and commentary these days, from liberal broadsheet to right-wing tabloid, to the blogosphere and every iteration of communication technology in between.
It’s no wonder people are divided in this dialogue among the deaf, but we can do something about it, no matter what side of the debate we’re on, and that’s by not only shouting our opinions at the top of our lungs, but by accepting that those who disagree on certain points are individuals, not types, and that deciding someone’s opinion before you’ve heard it, be it based on race, religion, colour, creed or any other label or identifier is not conducive to cohesion or a healthy debate. If you want less division, stop telling others what they believe before you know it. I think all of us could do better in that regard.