Scottish Nationalism: A Familiar Pattern?

October 17th, 1970. The police have just discovered the body of a 49 year old man in the boot of a car. He had been kidnapped, then strangled. His name was Pierre Laporte and he was a prominent politician whose cause was the unity of his country. His killer was evidently a separatist, fired up by the revolutionary politics of the 60's, and perhaps a few careless words from Charles de Gaulle. Canada seemed on the brink. Perhaps this is a bad analogy. Scottish Nationalism is not violent. Nor is the SNP an armed Marxist revolutionary movement. But still. The prospect of violence probably seemed unthinkable in post-imperial Canada as well. And there is no overlooking the unease that people are beginning to feel about the breakdown of civility, the casual abuse, the routine vandalism that now characterises Scottish politics.

Is it really so unthinkable that someone will not get hurt, even killed at some point? As much by accident as design. I would have ruled it out a year ago, or thought it a serious exaggeration. Is it still?


The truth is, I have always considered the notion of ‘Civic Nationalism’, in which the SNP place such advertised store, as ultimately bogus, at least in Scotland’s case. For Civic Nationalism is something that only emerges when a country is at ease with itself, it is not an aspiration to be written into a constitution. Most of all, it is not a declaration of intent but something that is demonstrated ‘in the breach’ so to speak. It is not to be found in the origins of a nation, but in its maturity. Indeed Michael Ignatieff’s key example of Civic Nationalism is — ironically enough — the UK, suggesting that if Scotland breaks away, it is not for want of ‘civicness’.

It is difficult to discuss Nationalism without an ‘other’. A constitutive externality that binds a nation in unity, either through repression or defeat. Historically, the first ‘nation’ was really England. A fragile collection of ecclesiastical and royal claims put to the sword by Viking conquest found unity in resistance and reconstruction. Conquered again and tempered by Norman and Plantagenet fire, the nation emerged, powerful, and with a clear sense of itself as itself, at a time when Scotland was still feuding clans.

So who is Scotland’s other? It was always England in the distant past, but that won’t work today. Too many Scots just don’t see things that way, Britishness having intervened to bridge that divide. But there is something. Something about the discourse of Scottish politics. Some claim about what Scotland is not. And once one has conceded that Scotland is not ‘Toary’, then it becomes up to England to prove that it is not Tory either, else Scotland must be different, and England — or rather ‘Toary England’ — becomes the ‘other’. Sympathy for Newcastle and Liverpool, but the ‘Toaries’ are your problem, not ours, says modern Scotland’s balladeer, Irvine Welsh.


There is a German political theorist with a controversial reputation who thought long and hard about what is essential to ‘the political’ as he called it. He watched as Weimar Germany, proclaiming the liberal universalism of the interwar years, slowly ate itself and delivered up the bastard child of racial supremacy and rational universalism. His formula was simple: What is specific to ‘the political’ is the distinction between ‘friend and enemy’. Where aesthetics concerns the distinction between beautiful and ugly, ethics, between good and evil, politics is about enmity because it is about ‘us’, as opposed to ‘them’. In today’s political climate, this is not controversial, but Carl Schmitt’s formula went a little further by suggesting that this distinction between ‘friend and enemy’ was ultimately delimited by violence.

Schmitt believed violence to be ‘constitutive’, in that no collective identity could properly exist at the political level without having some overarching conditions of membership; you either belong or you don’t belong. And that belonging must, while not being necessarily expressed by violence, rely ultimately upon its possibility. The distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ comes before all other things, in his view. And strange as this sounds to ears used to the discourse of liberal reason, Scottish nationalism bears at least some of the the hallmarks of the Schmittian ‘friend enemy’ distinction. It might become ‘Civic’ in time, but it hasn’t exactly started out that way.

Schmitt goes on to suggest that ‘the political’ as a category of human interaction is unique in not reducing to any particular substance, but residing only in the question of intensity. If a dispute of any kind, religious, economic or just broadly cultural becomes violent, then it is transformed into a new relation with a fundamentally political character, and cannot simply revert to its former character. In other words, once a dispute over liturgy or resource distribution becomes violent, then you find yourself in a world of sects or class. And to find accomodation between sects is not — as we surely know — a question of doctrinal research.

Sounds like a recipe for division. And it is. It is a formula for understanding how violence inscribes international order, and how a monopoly of violence can be sustained normatively, rather than materially. Once you establish an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, then your separatism has boundaries, spiritual or temporal. At a grander level, your nation has loyalties, sides, shibboleths and code words.

It is also a recipe for union, in that two tribes might occasionally need to find a common purpose in facing a common threat, fight on the same side, and see themselves as one. Which is both a lesson, and an argument for the actual Union between Scotland and England, surely? But the point goes wider. All nations, all states, are amalgamations of previously competing groups. Their success depends upon — at some level — the pooling of interests and the recognition of common bonds. The English against the Viking raiders, for example.


Let’s be frank. Scottish history is a history of division and defeat. It was always a small, divided and poor country. Once, they got the better of their larger neighbour and carved out a small space, and they’ve never let anyone forget about it. Eventually though, even Scots wanted out of the dreadful parochialism that produced. Hence Union. Who am I to ‘denigrate Scots’? Well, the descendant of many of them, including Robert the Bruce and the mighty Isles warlord, Somerled. I can feel the pride rising when the military honours are read out. When I read the great deeds of the explorers that opened up Canada, and of those hard-nosed professionals who put down the Indian mutiny, or faced down the Russians in Crimea. I live in Hong Kong, and cannot but take a small, guilty pride in the energy and enterprise of those piratical Scottish traders that came East.

But I take a greater pride in the setting aside of differences. In the collective achievements of the 20th Century, in decolonisation and in the ongoing reimagining of what it means to be British. Scottish Nationalism interferes with that. Which is why I resent it. When Irvine Welsh condemns the ‘English’ turn to ‘neo-liberalism’ and the elite ‘plundering’ of Britain’s resources, I am left cold. It is a story, from a story-teller, whose use of quasi academic jargon hints that he hasn’t quite persuaded himself, yet. But it is a convenient story, one with a villain and a victim, and a happy ending, so far deferred.

Hence the need to build up the villain. The other. The enemy.


More and more we hear the language of Frantz Fanon. Of the need to decolonise the Scottish mind, to draw distinctions, to habituate the culture of differentiation, to stress the kilt and sporran, to strike a Scottish pose. And more and more we feel the rhythm of Carl Schmitt, to identify the friend over the enemy, to denounce criticism solely because it is criticism. Because fundamentally, Schmitt’s view of ‘the political’ places limits on the exercise of reason. Limits that are now widespread.

Witness the language. Witness the death threats, the contempt, the vile abuse thrown at ‘Toaries’, or even now ‘Red Toaries!’ in Scotland, and see the beginnings of something dangerous. It is not a foregone conclusion, yet. But if Scotland is ever to be whole again, at peace again, it will need to make its peace with those some claim to be ‘not Scottish’. If Civic Nationalism means anything, ‘not Scottish’ must never be heard again. Indeed, if Scotland is to be a nation, it will not be exclusive values that sustain it, but common bonds that can overcome differences of opinion. That’s civic nationalism.

For my part, I’d like to see Nationalism fade. I’d like to see the real ‘Civic Nationalism’ that has flourished in the UK, now shorn of empire, take deeper root. Just as Canada has — so far — overcome Quebec’s separatism to offer a bigger notion of what it means to be Canadian, so I would like to see the fever break, for the committed to wake up and smell the haggis. For all the talk of the ‘Butcher’s apron’ to cease and to see that the Saltire long found its place within it. We walk together now in peace. Better with Scotland than without.

If it really is too late to reassess, then I don’t see how Scotland wins. They’ll be alone, but no doubt party to the same reparations claims for empire and slavery that the UK faces now. England didn’t force Scotland to take part, y’know.

But really, what I want is for the reason within reasonable people to wake up and take hold again. There may be a case for independence. There may come a time when all parts of the Union decide to just let it go, to pursue their separate paths, within the EU or without. But if that time comes, let it be an honest time, let it be without rancour, and let it be amicable. We have done much — good and bad — together, let us see ourselves for what we are. I have no fear of English nationalism, nor — ultimately — separation, but I am revolted by the tone all nationalisms adopt.

Scottish Nationalism does not cultivate hope, and the experience of the last two years gives me no confidence that it ever will. It is all about ‘liars’ and ‘greed’ and ‘Westmonster’, and ultimately, the ‘better country’ they will become if only they can break the chains of Union. In its current guise, it is a fraud. Built upon a tide of emotion, on a sandbank of economic falsehood. Scots are all proud, it’s the cliche you learn to tolerate, but that pride is now being called upon to abase itself in support of a hopeless fantasy. No doubt Scotland will survive independence. Of course they will. And for my part I will wish them well despite themselves. But they will be the poorer for it, and they will — perhaps they already have ?— poke English nationalism into life.

But more than this, without the unifying tale of their oppression by the English, will Scotland simply return to the divided, rancourous, sectarian country they were? Does the question beg an exaggeration? Well, this was the context from which my ancestors emerged. Union — in their view — was the making of Scotland. Perhaps it’s all different now, perhaps there is only sweetness and light when the SNP achieves its goal. Perhaps. But the omens are not good, or at the very least depend upon the extraordinary forbearance of those who continue to be derided as ‘quislings’ for the temerity to think that Britain isn’t so bad.


It should be clear by now that nationalism needs an enemy. For all the talk of ‘civic nationalism’ on the part of the SNP leadership, there remains one glaring weakness in their case, and that is their own behaviour. They clutch at any English doubt, and call it contempt or derision. They hold themselves in the highest regard, and see themselves as ‘everymen’, going to ‘Westmonster’ to hold those ‘Toaries’ to account. And in this — I hope — to see their downfall. For when they arrive in Westminster in such unprecedented numbers, perhaps some of them will see the truth in Nicola Sturgeon’s words, that ‘Scotland is best served by sending a strong contingent to Westminster’. And perhaps they will then see that Scotland’s problem has always been the sclerotic hold that Labour have had on their politics? Perhaps they will see that a creative devolution settlement may suit them very well, along with the regions of England they disingenuously claim to speak for.

Or perhaps they will be blinded by their faith? If they are, then we should fear the intercession of violence. And we should not be surprised by it if it comes. For that is the direction of travel right now. And we really should think hard about the experience of Quebec back in the 1970s. Fortunately, the death of Pierre Laporte was both the first of it, and the last. But Northern Ireland offers us an example that didn’t quite work out that way. Scotland is different, more like Quebec I imagine. But there is a dark part of me that wonders whether or not there is some ground in between? And a rational part that hopes we don’t get there.

C’mon Scotland, you’re better than this!

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