Allan Massie: Whae’s like us? More than you think

Chris Fusaro may sound Italian, but he turns out for Scotland. Picture: SNS/SRU
Chris Fusaro may sound Italian, but he turns out for Scotland. Picture: SNS/SRU
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We have more in common with our neighbours than the supporters of Scottish nationalism are ready to admit, writes Allan Massie

‘TS ELIOT – it’s a Scottish name”, wrote Hugh MacDiarmid, who was inclined to claim anyone whose work he admired for Scotland. But, though Eliot is indeed a Scottish name, more commonly spelled here as Elliot or Elliott, TS Eliot was American and his English ancestors came from somewhere in the south of England. Not that this matters much, except that it points up the often indeterminate nature of nationality. So, for instance, when Scotland play Italy a week on Saturday, you may hear the commentator say “Fusaro tackles Allan”, but the player with the Italian name will be wearing a Scottish jersey and the player with the Scottish name an Italian one.

Of course, for political and bureaucratic reasons, people do have to be ascribed a nationality and, for the purposes of our referendum in September, it has been decreed that everyone resident in Scotland and on the electoral roll here is entitled to vote, and so is in effect deemed to be Scottish, while anyone not in that position is, for the time being anyway, considered not to be Scottish and, therefore, not entitled to cast a vote.

Consequently, quite a few young men and women who represent Scotland at one sport or another will have no vote, and this will also be the case with a good many well-known Scots, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, unless they have taken the trouble to establish a domicile in Scotland in time to get on to the electoral roll. On the other hand, many who were not born Scots and may not ever have thought of themselves as Scots, will be able to vote.

For some – and not only those Scots thus disbarred – this makes no sense at all, and understandably they feel aggrieved. On the other hand, from a purely practical point of view, it was the only possible decision. How else could you determine eligibility?

Now, of course, the SNP has long proclaimed that its nationalism is a civic nationalism, not an ethnic one; and this is very much to its credit. Ethnic nationalism is not only a bit ridiculous, and even more than that in these islands and in the world today, but has the habit of turning nasty. When people express a distrust or fear of nationalism, it’s the ethnic form they have in mind, the kind of nationalism that identifies other nations as the enemy, or non-national minorities as the enemy within.

When Alex Salmond reminds us, with justifiable pride, that no-one has been killed in pursuit of the cause of Scottish independence, and when we see that the referendum debate is being conducted for the most part with decorum and tolerance of different views, we can be grateful that the SNP’s nationalism is of the civic variety.

MacDiarmid (again) may once have complained that the trouble with Scotland was that there was nobody here worth killing, but we may dismiss this happily as an expression of spleen, and be very happy that this is indeed the case. Charismatic nationalist leaders have been assassinated elsewhere, as have politicians who have opposed nationalist movements, but nobody is going to assassinate Salmond or Alistair Darling. We can surely all agree in thinking this a good thing.

Yet ethnic nationalism has at least the merit of simplicity, even if many people’s nationality may be a matter of choice. Civic nationalism is a bit more complicated, especially when it is a matter of breaking away from a state of which you have been part for centuries. The case rests on the assumption that society is very different and has different values either side of the Border between Scotland and England, or indeed, given that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, once you cross the sea between Glasgow and Belfast. And this is not evidently the case.

Certainly you may argue, with some reason, that there are significant differences of attitude and opinion between Scotland and the south-east of England. You may say that a majority of Scots distrust and dislike the dominance of the City of London, and that its values aren’t ours; yet it’s hard to believe that the values of the Scottish financial sector aren’t much the same as those of the City of London.

When Royal Bank of Scotland went on the acquisitions trail, wasn’t it every bit as aggressively capitalist as any other bank in London – or indeed New York? Then again, you might consider that distrust and dislike of the City of London are sentiments every bit as prevalent in the north of England as they may be in Scotland.

We have more in common with the other nations of the UK than the proponents of Scottish civic nationalism are always ready to admit. We share a lot – language and much public culture, obviously – and we are part of an integrated economy. We have the welfare state in common, and though parts of it have always been administered in Scotland according to what is thought best for us, the principles of the welfare state are no different either side of the Border, and the level of benefits and pensions provided is uniform.

It’s a reasonable argument to suggest that, in some respects, the welfare system might be better managed if Scotland were to choose to vote for independence. But it’s equally reasonable to argue that, on the whole, things work well enough as we are now.

In order to make the case for independence successfully on civic, rather than ethnic, nationalist grounds, you have to demonstrate that Scottish society is so different from English society that continued membership of the United Kingdom has become undesirable, even intolerable and, therefore, that it is better to separate ourselves from the other three national groups and establish an independent state. Yet there is very little evidence of such a clear difference – and that is putting it mildly.

Most surveys indicate that attitudes are much the same throughout the UK and that where there are differences, the same or similar differences may be observed within each of the four nations, too.

Civic nationalism is respectable, but any case based on the idea that we in Scotland are so different from people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that continuing in political union is intolerable, simply hasn’t been convincingly made – perhaps because this is impossible.