Allan Massie: Ethical behaviour not ethnic division

Alex Salmond is too smart to suggest that Scottish unionists are only 'supposed Scots'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond is too smart to suggest that Scottish unionists are only 'supposed Scots'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The temptation to create a criteria for Scottishness is something to be resisted at all costs, writes Allan Massie

The Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, born on Islay and MP for Orkney & Shetland, was not happy when an SNP councillor in Fife called him “a supposed Scot” just because he supports the Union and is opposed to independence.

Given that the SNP has for long spoken of “civic nationalism” and to its credit has steered clear of the “ethnic nationalism”, which can so easily descend into xenophobia and racism, it is clear that the Fife councillor was out-of-line, and certainly wasn’t speaking for his party. One may charitably assume that the words just jumped out of his mouth; even more charitably that he regrets them. If he doesn’t, would he, I wonder, have dismissed Donald Dewar, who believed that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament would make for “the better governance of Scotland and the United Kingdom”, as “a supposed Scot”?

Alex Salmond has never to my knowledge suggested that Scottish unionists are only “supposed Scots”; he has too much sense, for he knows and accepts that his political opponents are as Scottish as he is himself. He would never deny the sincerity of their attachment to the Union, or be so foolish and ungenerous as to claim that those of us who oppose independence are for that reason un-Scottish.

The independence debate has not been inspiring. It may be evidence of political apathy. On the other hand it may be interpreted differently, as evidence of political maturity, a sign that the decision on how to vote may be determined by reason rather than emotion. As I’ve remarked in these columns before, we are all going to have to continue to live together whatever the result. So it is desirable that the debate be conducted with tolerance and decency. So far it has been, for the most part anyway.

In a speech which he is giving in Inverness today, Mr Carmichael will say that “once you start mixing up politics and patriotism, you can quickly get into dangerous territory”. I would be surprised if the First Minister would dispute this assertion. The truth is that both sides in the debate want to secure the best possible future for Scotland; they simply have different ideas as to what this might be. Unionists value the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it; nationalists don’t. This is what we are arguing about.

The question of nationality is complicated. It always has been, partly because the frontiers of nation states have often been determined by the chance of war; think of Berwick-on-Tweed, or indeed of the Anglo-Scottish Border. In Macbeth the Scottish king Duncan makes his son Malcolm Prince of Cumberland, which since then has long been in England. Wales is part of the United Kingdom because it was conquered by a French-speaking English king; Scotland part of it though never conquered.

For some, heredity determines their national attachment. I have friends living in England who still call themselves Scots, though they have never lived here and their forebears left the country a generation or two ago. Conversely there are those of English heredity who, domiciled here, have come to regard themselves as Scots. And the SNP has wisely welcomed Scots Asians and Scots of Italian or Polish descent.

Are you less Scots because you think of yourself as being British also? For some, this is a test case, and they answer that you are. But what if you regard yourself as European as well as Scots? In the eyes of the SNP, this is fine. It’s a bit like the chant in Animal Farm: “Four legs good, two legs bad”.

Now, it is arguable that Scottish interests might be better served if Scotland was a member-state of the EU rather than part of the UK, though there are arguments on the other side too. Yet, the implication that Scotland is European but not British seems a bit odd to many of us – even to those of us who are lifelong believers in the desirability of a United Europe.

The SNP has been wise to speak of civic nationalism, because ethnic nationalism makes very little sense today, in a world where there is free and frequent movement of people and where we belong to a global economy, and, increasingly, to a global culture. Even within the confines of the United Kingdom we are a mixed-up lot, mongrels indeed. This is very evident in sport where a single grandparent or a rather short period of residency may determine eligibility to represent a country. And being mongrels, or inhabiting a country where there are many immigrants, we should recognise that old national differences are being smoothed away, and may even in time disappear.

It is a common observation that the upsurge of nationalist feeling in Scotland has come about not because Scotland and England are drifting apart and becoming more different from each other, but as a reaction to the realisation that the two countries, and their cultures, are less distinguishable from each other than was the case a 100, or even 50, years ago.

Because we are more alike, some find it necessary or desirable to assert that we are different, or more different than is in reality the case.

You might argue – some nationalists do argue – that this process of assimilation is undesirable and should be arrested. If you believe that this can, and should, be done, you have a good reason to vote for independence.

Conversely you may believe that devolution, with perhaps a further extension of the powers and responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, is sufficient to preserve whatever is distinctively Scottish. This, I take it, would have been Donald Dewar’s position if he was still alive, as it is Alistair Carmichael’s. In which case you will vote No, in the referendum.

But, whichever camp you are in, let’s keep it decent, without name-calling or slurs. Let us rather agree that both sides have a reasonable – and indeed reasoned – case, and let them conduct the argument with tolerance and decorum.