In the late spring of 2014, in the shaded back court of a Montreal cafe, I had a long afternoon yarn with a clever, battle-weary veteran of Quebec’s neverendums.
This, over watery Canadian coffee, was one of those conversations you do not forget. Looking back, my companion – a sovereigntist, an independence campaigner – was almost telling Scotland’s fortune.
He was not predicting the outcome of the big 2014 vote, then just a few months away. No, he was forecasting – rightly as it turned out – some of the torturous thinking that would emerge from both camps as they tried to rationalise visceral stances.
His was a slightly sad story of “been there, done that”. Or deja vu as they say in Montreal and, well, everywhere else too.
But there was one prediction that really stood out: few supporters of the constitutional status quo, he foretold, would ever see, ever recognise, ever address their own nationalism, whether it was harmlessly banal or dangerously chauvinistic.
I kept being reminded of these Quebecker insights over recent weeks as first Labour and then Tory figures tried to express their thinking, or rather their feeling, about Scottish independence.
What we saw is a now routine display of unacknowledged default British state nationalism.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, vowed to “end nationalism for good”. Cue ‘Googly eyes’ emojis. Of course, Mr Ross meant the Scottish variety, not his own.
Some of his colleagues, in a new book edited by MP Andrew Bowie and published by a conservative think-tank, have tried to articulate their unionism. They ended up streaming their nationalism instead.
Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary, was the staunchest. “I am no fan of the ‘four nations’ expression, for the Union gives us one great nation,” he wrote. “Yes, we can still celebrate the differences within our borders. Of course, it is possible to be, say, a proud Scot and at the same time be a proud Briton. We can all take pleasure in the regional variations that make us different.”
In his own essay Mr Bowie made a bit more of what Mr Jack’s “regional variations”. The greatness of our country, the Aberdeenshire MP wrote, is that “we are four peoples in one”.
“The British: a hotchpotch of backgrounds and identities but with shared values,” Mr Bowie said, using more traditionally unionist language, before adding: “That is the beauty of our brilliantly confused melting pot of a country.”
There are those who dismiss this kind of patter as banal, as cringe-worthingly un-selfaware. But that kind of misses the point: nationalism does not have to be clever or sophisticated to be legitimate. Mr Bowie and Mr Jack are as entitled as anyone else to express their sense of national identity and want to defend the state they believe embodies this.
Labour has been taking a different tack, trying to define itself against two rival nationalisms. It is not working.
The party’s leader Keir Starmer – a man, I think, with real hinterland – comes at the question with his British nationalism in its factory settings. I am not accusing the former prosecutor of chauvinism, just a default understanding of nation and state. A white English social-democrat, understandably, has never had to wrestle with the complexities of identity, of where he or she draw the borders of “us”. These ideas come ready fitted, as standard.
“We are greater as Britain than we would be apart,” Starmer told his conference. “As Gordon Brown said recently, when a Welsh or Scottish woman gives blood, she doesn’t demand an assurance that it must not go to an English patient.”
Writing on these pages, Brian Taylor said that this line, a clear dig at perceived blood and soil nationalism, was “gauche”. But it was more than that, it was an expression of Sir Keir’s unarticulated, unchallenged sense of nation. He referenced English patients, not Faroese or French ones.
Labour, which now accepts Brexit, a nationalistic rejection of ceding sovereignty to a supranational body, has long had a blindspot on its own far-from-malign nationalism. Sir Keir prefers to talk of patriotism, as if this were a meaningfully different thing to nationalism.
There is also a whole tradition of independence supporters who want to couch their rejection of the British state as based on democracy and not nationalism. “I just don’t think my country should get governments it did not vote for,” they will say. But the premise here, of course, is profoundly nationalist, that there should be a Scottish polity, a Scottish sovereign state, which coincides with the Scottish nation. Unionists baulk at this but is there really something ethically different between a sense of national polity that ends at the Tweed over one that finishes at the Channel? Or vice-versa?
Scotland, like Quebec before it, is up to its neck in a national question but is still not ready to think about what nationalism might actually be. So what is it?
I put this question to Ailsa Henderson. She is a professor at Edinburgh University who has studied the topic on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Nationalism is a belief that the nation is an important source of identity for individuals,” the Scots-Canadian academic said. “It connects people to a wider political or cultural community and is tied to a belief that the nation should be sustained through national institutions. Nations are constructed, and are willed into being, but nationalism’s purpose is to allow the nation to thrive. Nationalist goals can be benign and worthy, or exclusive and pernicious, or at many points in between those two poles.”
Whole books have been written about nationalism in its myriad forms. But most nationalists either support what they see as an existing nation-state or want to create a new one. Some are satisfied with sub-state national institutions, like those which exist today in places like Scotland and Quebec.
“The nation can exist at different territorial scales,” added Prof Henderson, “and two people living in the same place might draw the borders of the nation differently.”
This is exactly where we are in Scotland. Will politicians acknowledge it, even respect each other’s sense of state and nation? Not in public anyway, predicted my friend in Montreal.
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