Joyce McMillan: The two different faces of ‘nationalism’

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Virginia have been calling themselves white nationalists. Picture: AFP/Getty
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Virginia have been calling themselves white nationalists. Picture: AFP/Getty
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History shows us national movements can be either reactionary and intolerant or progressive and inclusive, says Joyce McMillan

To the Festival Theatre Studio, earlier this week, to take part in one of the fascinating series of Spirit of 47 events, being staged by the Edinburgh International Festival to mark its 70th anniversary. The subject was the exclusion, from that very first official festival in 1947, of Glasgow Unity Theatre Company, with its acclaimed production of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths; and at the core of the debate between the first festival director Rudolph Bing and Robert Mitchell of Glasgow Unity, though, there lay a subject - and a word - that has echoed around the world this week, and sparked some special anxieties here in Scotland.

Mitchell took the view that Scottish work should be represented in the Edinburgh International Festival, not least so as to forge a link with the widest possible Scottish audience; Bing said that given his experience as a member of an Austrian Jewish family forced to flee the Nazis, he would have no truck with “nationalism” of any kind, and only wanted to help heal the wounds of Europe by presenting music, dance and drama of the highest possible standard, regardless of its origin.

And there, right at the founding moment of the Edinburgh Festival, stood the debate about “nationalism” or national identity - what we mean by it, and how it relates to the wider cause of peace, freedom and justice - that still haunts the world today. This week, we have seen neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Virginia marching behind swastikas and confederate flags, and calling themselves “white nationalists”. Yet when the BBC repeated the term, some supporters of Scottish independence - who have had a bruising year, one way and another - took profound offence, declaring that even to use the term nationalist in referring to such a bunch of overt racists was to imply that all nationalism is racist and potentially fascist, and therefore to do harm to their cause.

Now at the level of theory, there should be no difficulty in sorting out the truth - more than evident from the history of the last century - that national movements, often described as “nationalist”, can be either reactionary and intolerant or progressive and inclusive, depending on the circumstances in which they are formed. It is 40 years since the great Scottish theorist of nationalism, Tom Nairn, formulated his idea of nationalism as a “Janus-faced” phenomenon, facing both forward and backward; and if we consider the great national liberation and self-determination movements of the last 120 years, from Ireland to India and every nation that gained independence from the old European empires after the Second World War, or from the Soviet empire in 1989-90, we can see those threads of progress and reaction entwined in every one, in different proportions.

Any creed that involves one identifiable group rebelling against another group is potentially tribal or exclusive, in other words; but where that rebellion is against unjust colonial or imperial rule, against the theft and exploitation of resources and the oppression and destruction of cultures, the nationalist impulse in generally seen as a progressive one, attracting great waves of new thought about freedom and democracy, and a better life for all of the people. And of course, Scotland stands at the very heart of this maelstrom of meanings, as a small nation partly colonised itself - its culture often reduced to tartan kitsch, its best and brightest invited to make their lives elsewhere - and yet also deeply complicit in, and enriched by, the colonising project of the British empire, and the profound racist assumptions it entailed. There’s no doubt that Scotland’s sense of its own identity has sometimes taken on racist and sectarian overtones in the past; and only a fool would argue that it could never do so again, or that racist attitudes do not thrive here as elsewhere. Yet the current Scottish independence movement was forged in the fire of 1980’s opposition to Thatcherism, and then later in opposition to New Labour Blairism; and so it sees itself as a movement of the social-democratic left, taking what is - by current British standards - unusual care to express all the inclusive, anti-racist and pro-European values that should imply, including a warm welcome to migrants and refugees.

And from this, there are perhaps two things to be learned. The first is that peoples who share a place and a culture have a right to self-determination, as defined in the UN Charter, and that their “nationalism” is not always worse - and sometimes better - than the casual nationalism of big existing nation-states, which is often as complacent, intolerant and culturally arrogant as it is unnamed and unacknowledged.

And the second, and by far the most important, is that movements which claim to represent a certain people, or a certain place, have finally to be judged by their actions, and not by the words they use to define themselves. That human identities exist is undeniable; people are aware of themselves as belonging to a particular city or nation, race or culture, gender, sexuality or class. And the question for every movement that seeks to represent those strands of belonging is whether it does so in a spirit of peace, progress, and social justice, or in a spirit of aggression towards others, and of implicit or explicit threat. The people who marched in Virginia last week, with their guns, swastikas and confederate flags, clearly fail that test by any measure; people who could have chosen to fight alongside others for the economic well-being many working-class white Americans feel they have lost, but instead choose to attack their black fellow-citizens.

Whether in the United States, here in the UK, or across the rest of Europe, though, it is for the rest of us to decide whether we feel the politicians and parties we vote for are passing that test, in the way they represent our nations and communities, the language they use, and the vision they propose; and to make that decision not once and for all, but again and again, each day, with the kind of civic care and vigilance that keeps minorities safe and democracy alive, and - in the end - protects our own freedoms, at the times when we need them most.