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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 political ferment.

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'.

Glasgow scene

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.

Unappealing politics

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.

Passive rejection

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 struggle today.

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.

Damning judgement

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'.

Low horizons

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 our expense.

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 rights.

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

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