The importance of being Scottish
The rise of national sentiment in Scotland is the clearest expression
of public alienation from the British political system, argues Kirk Williams
Living in Scotland today seems like living in two different worlds. First
there is mediaworld, as seen on TV and in the daily newspapers. Here Scotland
is in the throes of political upheaval and cultural revolution as the rise
of nationalism turns the Scottish question into the most controversial issue
in the British general election.
Mediaworld is an exciting place where big things happen on a daily basis.
If it's not an opinion poll showing widespread support for the idea of Scotland
leaving the UK, it's a press conference with Deacon Blue to launch Artists
for an Independent Scotland. In mediaworld the debate about Scotland's future
goes heatedly back and forth, and Glasgow and Edinburgh are in a state of
Then there is the real world, which you enter as soon as you leave the artists'
press conference in central Glasgow. Walking down Argyle Street a leaflet
was thrust into my hand: 'This year, a Labour government.... Next year,
a Scottish parliament'. A wet and tired young man was posing in front of
a hired video camera, trying to get people to take leaflets adorned with
Labour's big celebrity supporter, comedian Robbie Coltrane. He was being
drowned out by both the buskers and the soap box Christians, and whipping
up about as much public enthusiasm as the bag ladies.
In the real world the dominant mood among Scottish people is one of apathy
and cynicism. There is no large-scale active campaigning on any important
social issue, from the closure of Ravenscraig steel works to the poll tax.
The image of an excited and optimistic Scotland depicted in mediaworld is
a long way from the reality of a dead-end society in which youth drug abuse
is on the rise. In Glasgow alone, 24 people died of drug overdoses in the
first few weeks of this year, compared to 11 deaths in the previous 11 months.
A Glasgow University survey makes clear the pessimism of young Scots, who
no longer see education as a means of escape from poverty, but as a 'brief
interlude from the dole'.
As for a Scottish cultural revolution, there is certainly considerable support
among the youth for bands with a Scottish identity. But musically much of
the Glasgow scene seems to have more in common with Manchester or Liverpool
than Edinburgh or Inverness. A group of young voters interviewed by the
Scotsman were highly cynical about the political pretensions of local
pop groups. One suggested that a politician offering free raves would sway
more youth votes (28 February).
There is no real interest or enthusiasm for any of the Westminster parties.
The Tories are bitterly resented and blamed for the further economic deterioration
of Scotland. The party that won more than half of Scottish votes back in
the fifties now has only nine seats in Scotland, and is panicking about
the prospect of winning even fewer in the election.
The Tory leadership's response has been to raise the stakes by polarising
the debate between unconditional support for the Union and Scottish independence.
It is a high-risk strategy, and it is unclear what the consequences will
be for the Tories or for the British constitution. But one thing it has
achieved is to put the squeeze on an already unpopular Labour Party.
Labour is the traditional recipient of the emotional and political opposition
to the Tories in Scotland. Today Labour's inability to make exciting promises,
never mind lead effective opposition, has left it unappealing, especially
to the young. There are now fewer than 300 members of the Labour Party under
25 in Scotland.
The prospect of hearing George Galloway MP speak at Glasgow University in
his Hillhead constituency recently appealed to 12 souls. This university
has produced many past and present leaders of the party, including Scottish
spokesman Donald Dewar and shadow chancellor John Smith. No doubt Labour
is unappealing to young people across Britain. But for an entire generation
to turn its back on Labour in Scotland could have especially serious consequences.
This is the downbeat background against which to understand the rise of
support for Scottish independence (and to a lesser extent for the Scottish
National Party) in the opinion polls. What we are witnessing is not an upsurge
of popular nationalism, but a passive rejection of the old failed parties
and institutions which many Scots identify with the United Kingdom.
People's alienation from and disaffection with the present political arrangements
in Britain is taking the form of a culturally based sense of difference,
of being Scottish. Far from indicating positive support for an exciting
alternative, the raised profile of the outlook of 'Scottishness' reflects
the lowering of horizons among many cynical Scots today.
British society is in crisis, and there is no major party or movement that
can offer an effective solution to social problems. When there is nothing
to enthuse about in the outside world, people seeking refuge will tend to
turn inwards on themselves. All sorts of narrow sentiments can be strengthened
in these circumstances, from family values to regional parochialism. The
renewed strength of 'Scottishness' fits into the same pattern.
The sense of what you already are - in this case, Scottish - can become more
important in conditions where it seems impossible to create something new
and better in society. It is a negative rejection of what passes for political
Looking at the question of Scottishness in this way helps to explain why
there can be a growing desire for Scottish independence among young people,
but no mass movement of any kind demanding it. It also helps to explain
why support for the policies of the SNP, the one party in Scotland committed
to independence, is still considerably lower than paper support for the
general idea of independence.
In all the discussion of electoral arithmetic, it is worth remembering that
while the SNP may reap some advantage from current developments, it is not
responsible for them. It is benefiting from the combination of low expectations
and political alienation now influencing wide layers of Scottish society.
Although there is no upsurge of popular enthusiasm for SNP policies, nationalist
feeling may remain high as what British society has to offer becomes less
and less appealing. The existing political and economic system has failed
Scots so badly already, and offers so bleak a future, that frustrated young
people can even find the petty, inward-looking celebration of simply being
Scottish attractive by comparison. That seems a damning judgement on the
decay of British democracy.
Why I'm not a nationalist
Helene Gold puts the case against celebrating 'Scottishness'
Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party boasts that 'a mood of Scottishness
is sweeping across our country'. But to talk of 'Scottishness' as a political
identification seems absurd. 'Being Scottish' is basically about being born
north of Hadrian's Wall. We had no say in the matter and can do nothing
to change it.
To suggest that we should celebrate where we were born is like asking redheads
to celebrate the fact that they were born with ginger hair, and to assume
a political identity on that basis. Our birthplace, like our chromosomal
make-up, is a biological accident produced in the past. Why make a virtue
of it? Nationalism is about defending and celebrating what once was and
what now is, instead of addressing the question of what is to be. It is
the future, which we have the power to change, that we must look to rather
than the past, which is outside of our control.
All together now?
Nationalism is also dangerous, as it can only benefit those at the top of
Scottish society. Do we really share common interests with everybody who
happens to have been born within the same borders as ourselves? Such a notion
of Scottishness is never taken seriously by Scottish businessmen. The Confederation
of British Industry (Scotland) and Business Says Yes may have hedged their
bets on devolution. But this is not out of any compassion for 'the Scottish
people'; it is, as they admit, out of a concern to provide a stable and
profitable environment for Scottish business. In pursuit of those same aims,
the employers will not hesitate to cut the jobs and living standards of
their 'fellow Scots'.
Some of Scotland's top-paid company directors - Gus Macdonald of Scottish
Television, Alick Rankin of Scottish and Newcastle, and Charles Winter of
the Royal Bank of Scotland - have been at the forefront of implementing the
wave of recent redundancies, 1000 at the Royal alone. They do not allow
their 'Scottishness' to interfere with the ruthless pursuit of profit at
In courting Scottish businessmen, the SNP reveals its priorities. Alex Salmond
might promise hairdressers an extra £2.40 a week in an independent
Scotland. But as he says, independence will not establish an instant utopia.
Sacrifices will have to be made to put Scottish business back on its feet.
I wonder who will make these sacrifices? And I can assure you it would take
more than a few more redundancies and a few more pounds out of our wage
packets to make Scottish business internationally competitive.
I am not a nationalist, because nationalism is exclusive and inward-looking.
It is neces-sarily a chauvinist and narrow-minded creed which promotes one
nation as better than others. The SNP of course argues that the Scottish
version is different. It uses the Scandinavian countries as its model for
a more outward-looking, relaxed, non-exclusive and more cosmopolitan style
of nationalism. I wonder if they have asked the Iraqis, Turks, Vietnamese
and Latin Americans now being booted out of these countries what they think
of the 'non-exclusive' Scandinavian model of nationalism?
No Scottish solution
Nor should we forget all of the backward ideas that are buried inside the
traditions of Scottishness - the religious sectarianism, the anti-Irish bigotry,
the racism towards Asian immigrants, the opposition to women's abortion
The nationalist outlook feeds off the conservative, pessimistic mood of
our times. It also reinforces that pessimism by reducing the possibilities
of changing the world to a debate about how to tinker with borders and parliaments.
The grey discussions on constitutional change, and the retreat into an inward-looking
Scottish identity, provide no solutions to our problems. Trying to create
a better future for ourselves must be a better bet than celebrating the
historical accident of having been born in Scotland.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992