Ben Macpherson: Time to ditch over-simplistic terms such as 'unionist' and 'nationalist'
I have long taken the view that the majority of people in Scotland want less conflict and more collaboration in our political discourse. Voters want less sensationalism and more solutions to the problems we all face; less exaggerated language and more reasonable engagement; less negativity, more positivity. But I think it’s also fair to say that, too much and too often, the nature of Scotland’s political discourse does not adequately respond to these aspirations. So how do we change the style, substance and language of our politics, so that our democracy delivers more of what most people actually want?
For me, perception lies at the heart of both our difficulties and how we move forward. We should try consciously and consistently to keep in mind that we each perceive situations in different ways, based on our own perspectives, passions, principles and prejudices. Moreover, our feelings and experiences often dominate our political persuasions more than logic and reason. And while we may subscribe to a particular collective position, philosophy or party persuasion, our individual view of politics is usually still unique – we’re all different.
But, over and above our various personal stances, what is also true and reassuring is that most of us share an uplifting quality in that we are genuinely trying to do our best, often in the face of shared challenges but with differing struggles and circumstances. And, crucially, we all generally (in our different ways) want Scotland and the wider world to get better. We share in that hope, which is particularly important to keep in mind.
A very, very small minority do of course seek to cause harm on occasion, or don’t care enough about the welfare of others, but the vast majority of us share a common determination to help our society to prosper and blossom, and we should always try to remember that.
I know these may seem like obvious points but too often we do forget them, especially when we think politically and make judgements about others in political terms. One of the ways we can lose sight of the common good is in how we label and group each other, when most of us would not put ourselves in such specific tribes. I don’t wish to be overly semantic, but words do matter. In Scotland this badging is particularly true with regard to our constitutional future and the question of independence. Our collective situation is complex and our individual views are mostly nuanced – yet too often people talk about Scotland as two polarised camps of “unionists” and “nationalists”.
Of course, some people would proudly badge themselves as either “nationalists” or “unionists”, and I respect that. But, for many of us, these are overly simplistic descriptors which don’t reflect the multifaceted politics of modern Scotland, and our relationship with the rest of the UK, Europe and the wider world. Our identities are layered and complex – and that’s a good thing! We must acknowledge that we are a divided country on the constitution in various ways, but maybe not as much as we sometimes think or are told.
Because I’m an SNP MSP, I am often called a ‘”nationalist” but, since I joined the party in 2005, I have never used this term to describe my own political views. Like many other SNP members, I am an “internationalist” and I don’t think Scotland is superior to any other country – I just want it have the type of government its people vote for, the powers to make our society more socially just and prosperous, and to be recognised as an independent state in the global family of nations. However, I also believe in the European Union, so does that make me a European “unionist”? And, like many other independence supporters, I feel a sense of Britishness that is based on the bonds between the people in the British Isles, rather than any emotions towards a particular concept of the UK as a state.
Similarly, some people who believe in the UK state could be described as both “nationalists” and “unionists” in that they feel passionately and strongly proud to be British and part of the UK state – for example Gordon Brown, though I respect he would instead describe himself as a patriot and a proud Brit and Scot. Some unionists voted for Brexit, which could be described as a nationalist position. Therefore, if people describe Humza Yousaf as a nationalist then perhaps they should also call Rishi Sunak (who supports Brexit) a nationalist?
My point is that the terms nationalist and unionist are often so inadequate and unhelpful for describing who and where many of us are in Scotland when it comes to our political philosophies, preferences and identities. Most of our views are a balance between different civic nationalisms and unionisms, in an inescapably interdependent world. So rather than calling each other unionists or nationalists, why don’t we instead strive collectively to get our political discourse into a better place.
As a first step to move forwards, perhaps we could call SNP supporters exactly that – “SNP supporters” – rather than nationalist’, which as I have argued is an inaccurate general descriptor for many people who would normally vote SNP. And if the context is just the constitutional question, we could simply describe people as “independence supporters”, especially given that not all of those who support independence necessarily vote SNP (although of course I would urge them to).
Similarly, it can be unreasonable to group those parties who want Scotland to remain as part of the UK state under a single umbrella of unionists. Although they are more closely aligned on various issues than in the past, the Conservative Party, Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Party have a number of different political positions and priorities. Also, when it comes to the constitution, many voters who want to maintain UK statehood also want more independence for Scotland, in the form of further devolution or a reimagined federalist arrangement. And some people in Scotland believe
in creating a confederal United Kingdom.
We have recently entered a new era in Scottish democracy, but the language and mantras of our discourse have largely remained the same. If we want to, we can try to change that by thinking and communicating differently – with mutual respect and a shared understanding that, collectively, we are all Scottish and aspire for a better Scotland. We all live here and our well-being is interconnected.
Having experienced nearly 25 five years of the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament – and almost a quarter of the way into this century – the opportunity for a collective pivot towards a more meaningful and enriching political discourse is there for the taking, and many would argue it’s rarely been so needed. Considering the many very serious challenges that we face together, there is much to be gained by embracing collaboration where and when we can, while still engaging passionately but constructively on our different views on the best constitutional arrangement for Scotland and on other important contentious issues.
•Ben Macpherson is the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith and a former Minister for Social Security and Local Government.
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