Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Against the politics of certainty

Whenever I am asked why I'm voting no, I usually say, "Because I don't believe in nationalism".  This is partly because that's what I think, partly because it is surprisingly effective.  It closes down conversations with boring people who just want to recite a load of SNP slogans to you - and those conversations that do continue start from a point that gets to the heart of the issue of what this referendum is about.  It is surprising how many people respond - I'd even say recoil a little - and insist, "Ah, but I'm not a nationalist either but I'm voting for independence".

Allow me to demur.  Political nationalism is the idea that the boundaries of the state should be congruent with the nation, the latter defined in various ways but has conventionally been understood to be a people who share a common culture.  The problem with this as far as I am concerned is that while culture and organisations are human universals, nations and states have not been.  It is a supremely important fact yet nationalists almost always argue as if the marriage between the two is the unquestionable natural order of things and any deviation from this is something that is impossible to justify.  This, I think, explains the utter incomprehension of nationalists when confronted with an alternative view; they don't treat it as a position to argue against but rather as a symptom of mental disorder - hence what is for me easily the most tiresome rhetorical phrases in this neverendum: nationalists endlessly repeating the line, "What are you afraid of?" to anyone who has the temerity to disagree with them.  This incomprehension is also what is behind the notion that any opposition can only be another form of nationalism; that some of us like Britain the way it is partly because it is not a nation-state has not occurred to them - but even if it had, they would not be able to understand it.

The answer, then, to the question, "What are you afraid of?" is exactly this - this politics of certainty, of blind faith, which always and everywhere treats dissent as deviance and heresy.  It is this that is always behind any of the economic arguments that we are told will decide this debate.  That might be true of the undecided but it is not what animates the foot-soldiers that are doorstepping for the Yes campaign.  They might sincerely believe Scotland would flourish after independence but in the way that an abused child would if they were released blinking in the sunlight after some kind of subterranean incarceration.  Might take them some considerable time to function properly but the escape is the overwhelming imperative.  I appreciate some might find this extreme but it is, I think, the base belief among the hardcore of the nationalist movement.  Economic prosperity will follow independence, most of them believe, but even if it didn't, they would still prefer relative poverty to what they see as servitude.

My concern is this is not well-understood.  Certainly not by the waverers who might be persuaded by the frustratingly vague promises of jam tomorrow and also not by the 'non-nationalists' for independence.  Most of these are socialists and greens.  They argue that independence is not a political expression of national identity but rather a means to achieve the sort of policies that are frustrated by membership of the Union.  But at the heart of this is a belief in Scottish exceptionalism: Scots are just so social democratic but will never be able to realise this whilst locked into a Union with these cold-hearted, foreigner-bating southerners.  In other words, this is a national political culture that makes a separate state essential, which brings it full-circle to the original definition.  I'm of a pessimistic disposition so I would argue that the best one could expect is perhaps some mild improvements but without any fundamental shift in Scotland's long-term growth rate.  And I wouldn't expect any Scottish government of whatever party to be that different in their attitude to the power of business and the press.  It certainly wouldn't be with Alex Salmond at the helm.  Whatever happens, it would be accompanied with a heavy dose of disillusion among those on the left, once they realise that the reason we don't have the sort of socialist policies they want to see is because people don't vote for them and not because we're part of the Union.

What the Euro elections showed, ironically, is that Scotland is not that much different from any other European country and what we are experiencing here is part of a wider nationalistic trend in politics.  You do not need to think it will end in catastrophe to worry where this fundamental misdiagnosis of our problems might take our country or the rest of Europe.  It is frankly absurd to believe, as some seem to, that nothing but good can come of all this flag-waving nationalism and if saying so is a tenet of what the more unthinking nationalists like to call 'project fear' then sign me up.  I'm saying no to nationalism.


1 comment:

Aveek said...

Interesting and thought provoking post. Particularly the question of whether essentialism about political culture shades into nationalism. For me, as an anti-nationalist, siding with one nationalism or other, either Scottish or British is inevitable. The question is which is least obnoxious. I set out a few thoughts on why secessionism isn't necessarily contradictory to anti-nationalism in a post I wrote a couple of months ago:

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