Friday, July 29, 2011

Civic vs cultural nationalism

There was a curious article in Better Nation last week where Pete Wishart, the Nationalist MP for Perth and North Perthshire declares himself 'proud to be British' and will continue to be so even when (if) Scotland gains independence.

What he has in mind is the idea of Britain continuing as a notion of identity in much the same way Scandinavians see themselves as sharing aspects of a common culture, as well as a history and a geography, but have independent political institutions at the national level.

It's curious because this unequivocally is not what nationalism has been about historically, with Scottish nationalism being no exception. Simply put, nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy that maintains the boundaries of the nation and the state should be congruent - and that what makes a nation has a great deal to do with culture.

Scotland does not have the different language that most nations have had as central to their sense of identity, which has led Scottish nationalists to focus on other aspects of culture, such as art, religion, literature, music, customs and so on.

Now Pete Wishart deserves credit for not maintaining the absurd suggestion that Scots have a completely different culture from the English but without this, one is left wondering why he has chosen to undermine what is arguably the central tenet of the nationalist credo?

My guess is this is just Wishart's way of addressing the SNP's elephant in the living room, which is that in all probability the Union will continue in some form or other and at an institutional level, not merely a cultural one.

In any event, even if we did have the more distinct culture of the nationalists' fantasy, I would still be left with the frustration also felt by the late Ernst Gellner who pointed out that despite the fact that the homogenous 'nation-state' has been more theoretical abstraction than historical reality, nationalists take their political theory of legitimacy as a given and assume that the business of explaining one's position is the sole responsibility of the other side. Being British means different things to different people. For me, one of its benefits is that I don't feel the need to insist on this fiction.

I think it's about time the argument was shifted. It's about time nationalists made the case for the Scotland they want to see - and they might start with a definition of what independence actually means. Warm words about a brave and exciting future are simply not good enough. People are, one assumes, going to be asked to express an opinion on practical policies. It isn't difficult to see why the SNP might want to avoid this issue because when you break it down, you are very quickly confronted with the limits that 'independence' is likely to operate within.

For example, the issue of monetary policy raises an interesting paradox here. Arguably the present Euro difficulties highlight the limits of both internationalism and nationalism. The former because the strains on the Euro are exacerbated by the fact that the EU has a supranational monetary policy but with no equivalent budget to obviate the inflexibility this brings. And the reason it doesn't have a common treasury is because the electorates in member states would not support it.

But it leaves the Nationalists with a question to answer. Do they really still think it's a sensible idea to join the Euro? One would hope not. But given Scotland's size, a completely new currency would simply become a satellite of another. The most sensible thing would obviously be to maintain monetary union with the UK for the foreseeable future. But this was not what the Nats imagined they were fighting for during the long years of opposition.

We could do with some sensible answers to problems like this, rather than going on about identity. Someone suggested to me that the Nationalists are really enjoying themselves at the moment. I'm not so sure. Sometimes collectively they strike me as a bit like Robert Redford in the Candidate. Having won against the odds, they're now saying, "So what do we do now?" That they're wasting time proposing legislation on sectarianism and alcohol and discussing identity rather than answering the big questions is telling.

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As a footnote to Wishart's notion that it's now ok to acknowledge a shared British culture, I noted with amusement that as well as minor details like the Industrial Revolution, he includes cultural achievements such as "great rock and pop bands." I hope he doesn't mean Coldplay - but it raised a smile because a friend of mine was at T in the Park recently. Coldplay were described as dreadfully pretentious and anodyne, as you might expect. The band he enjoyed most were Primal Scream playing in one of the big tents. Bobby Gillespie and the boys playing pumping rock and roll like it should be played to crazy Scots, most of whom were nearly as wasted as the lead singer. You couldn't get a more typically Scottish musical experience than that but for obvious reasons the Nats have preferred to pretend they spend their time listening to Runrig. Or maybe they really do listen to Runrig, which is almost as uncool as liking Coldplay.

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