Wednesday, July 04, 2012

On Scottish nationalism and the perils of political prophecy

Something one should learn from history is that human beings cannot predict the future. Throughout the ages soothsayers, prophets, sages, seers of various kinds - and more recently social scientists - have a long record of getting it spectacularly wrong about most of the things that matter. I studied for my degree during a time when an entire field of intellectual enquiry that was based on the assumption that human behaviour was at least in some way predictable had to come to terms with the largely unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union.

More recently it has been the banking crisis that has put the nails in the coffin of the secular prophets. Against this background, only a fool would attempt to predict the future but as regular readers will know, that is exactly what I am so I'm going to do it anyway and make the following prognosis. If a week is a long time in politics, how long is two years? Nevertheless, the cause of Scottish independence is already lost and everything that follows from this point in time is essentially a nationalist damage-limitation exercise.

It's difficult to be precise about the moment when this realisation came. There was the failure to capture Glasgow at the recent council elections. Described as the Nationalists' Stalingrad by one disgruntled Nationalist blogger, which is a little hyperbolic for my taste but there was a sense of a turning point nonetheless.

But it has more to do with the way it has been dawning on the SNP that they have quite simply misinterpreted their admittedly stunning victory in the Holyrood election. This was not a vote for independence but an anti-establishment Labour and even more so, a vote against the pro-austerity, pro-Coalition Liberal Democrats.

Alex Salmond, for whatever else he might be, is not a stupid man and understands this perfectly well, which is why he has been selling a version of 'independence' that would have been unrecognisable to nationalists of the 19th century. It's nationalism-lite - no new head of state, or currency and by extension monetary policy, a reluctance to disentangle the armed forces, and no-one seriously imagines that after 2014 we will need a passport to visit our English family or friends. It is for these reasons I make the above prediction with such confidence: if the there is a 'yes' vote in 2014 it will be because what has been offered is not national independence in the sense that the term has been understood historically.

The curious question is why? States and nations have grown independently of each other and while at least some nationalists know enough about history to understand this, they still take the view that the state and the nation are destined for each other - and the occasions where this doesn't occur are considered tragic. I'm wondering if it isn't this, the assumption that what is in reality historically unusual to be the norm that has something to do with the Nationalist undoing? This is why they argue the burden of evidence falls on us, rather than the other way around. But since you ask, some of us like being part of Britain - a polity that is based on civility rather than ethnicity, that evokes an sense of belonging born of a shared history that extends to this blogger's very DNA. I am half-Scottish, quarter English and quarter Welsh: it is for you to give a compelling reason why I should regret the Union that made me like this.
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