Bill Jamieson: A matter of identity and belonging

Michael Ignatieff's first-hand experience makes him a compelling voice on independence issue. Picture: AFP/Getty
Michael Ignatieff's first-hand experience makes him a compelling voice on independence issue. Picture: AFP/Getty
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For many Scots, this referendum is not, and cannot be, a choice between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, writes Bill Jamieson

Respected academic and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada Michael Ignatieff has tossed a grenade in our direction. He is something of a poster boy for the bien pensants of the Centre Left. So when he wrote last week of “the moral sin of separatism”, a fuse has surely been lit.

Even for those unpersuaded of the Yes campaign, his charge begs searching questions as to what this “moral sin” is exactly and how it has come to dominate our thoughts and make such headway in a country held up for so long to be progressive and left-leaning.

Ignatieff was leader of the official opposition in Canada from 2008 until 2011. He is better known here as a television and radio broadcaster and newspaper journalist (principally for the Observer) and as an acknowledged historian and senior academic at Cambridge and Oxford. His acuity, sharpened by first-hand experience of the Quebec separatist battle, makes him a compelling voice on the independence issue.

His newspaper article last Saturday was a tour de force. His starting point is that the case for independence is not, and historically never has been, one of economics or of how much better off or worse off we might be by separation. Rather, he views it – as do many in the Yes campaign – as a matter of identity and belonging.

Here is where the nationalist cause is expected to do well, and especially in the final home stretch of this long campaign – the appeal to our hearts and our deep-seated emotions of identity and belonging. Will we not see in the final weeks a surge of appeals to national pride, a call to assert our fierce Scottish sensibility and pride at this critical historical moment?

Of course we will. And many will indeed be moved by these. But I suspect this pull on the heart will be countered by an equally powerful reluctance, if not manifest aversion, not just to the politics of collective division but to the division within ourselves.

Time and again I have heard fellow Scots express discomfort about this referendum: that they do not like being obliged to choose between their Scottish loyalties and their affinities with the rest of the UK. And as the independence campaign has intensified, so, too, has this discomfort with the choice many are being forced to make: Yes or No, Us or Them – as if we have been until now separate, sealed off, self-contained entities with no recognition of that broad “interland” swathe of shared history, belief, loyalty and experience.

For many of us it is not at all, and cannot be, a choice between Us and Them, because this is to force us to choose between different aspects of ourselves. And as the referendum nears I sense this discomfort will come to intensify.

It is on this that Ignatieff comes to focus powerfully. His visceral opposition to Scottish, Catalan, Quebec and other projects of independence “is not to nationalism but to secession – to the breaking apart of political systems that, without violence, have enabled peoples to live together. For the breaking apart does not merely shatter a political union, it forces apart the shared identities that people like me carry in their souls”.

Secessionists, whether Scottish, Catalan, or Quebecois, invariably assume that a person must either be Scottish, or British, Catalan or Spanish, Quebecois or Canadian. “What about those,” he asks, “who feel they are both?”

We are not, and in the modern era have never been, a homogenous, hermetically sealed country. There are hundreds of thousands of Scots who acknowledge English, Irish, or Welsh parts of their very being. Lives and destinies are similarly intertwined in Catalonia and Spain, in Ukraine and Russia.

“The same,” he writes, “was true in the former Yugoslavia, where in the 1990s women with Croatian names and Serbian husbands used to ask me with tears in their eyes why the nationalists were forcing them to choose between parts of their being.”

“This,” he declares, “is the moral sin of separatism. Separatist politicians, desiring to be presidents or prime ministers of little countries, force their fellow citizens to make choices that they should not have to make between identities that they have combined, each in their own unique way, and now watch being ripped apart – one portion of themselves flung on one side of the border and a damaged remnant on the other. If Scotland does secede there will be many torn souls the day after.”

It is this sense of counter-belonging that finally prevailed in Quebec above the noise and clamour of separatism. The Ignatieff analysis is sure to have nationalists grinding their teeth. They would emphatically reject the description of moral sin. Two arguments can be mounted against this conclusion. The first is that SNP First Minister Alex Salmond has long insisted that he does not wish to break up the social union but to preserve it.

But those for whom the social union is part and parcel of their everyday personal and professional lives, what they also hear are proposals for separate taxation, separate regulation, separate pension arrangements and perhaps even a separate currency. On top of this has been the sustained blaming of London, Westminster and “the shackles of the UK” for all our ills, aided and supported by an appalling fusillade of vitriol and bile from pro-nationalist social networks and websites. The campaign has unleashed many reasoned tomes and analyses of the economic pros and cons. Unfortunately, it has also unleashed intimidating nationalist hostility and extremism. This may not be “moral sin” in the eyes of perpetrators, but in the eyes of its victims, close enough.

There is a more considered challenge to the Ignatieff argument: that he has been selective in the examples he chooses of the progressive nature of those multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, all-embracing supra-national constructions. Not all have been sustained, still less successful. The Austro-Hungarian empire sought to sustain a pan-national union – and infamously failed. So, too, did the former Soviet Union. Would we describe the separatism of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a “moral sin”? Liberals have a fondness for progressive, inclusive, multi-ethnic constructs that can be a triumph of hope over experience. Some can work well. Others can fail catastrophically.

However, likening the UK to such nakedly repressive constructs of the past and to regions where ethnic conflict have been so marked is a gross caricature of our situation here. For 300 years we have been in a largely amicable union and part of a country widely admired for its tolerance, diversity and success at assimilation. That is why so many Scots feel intertwined with it and are so resistant to the politics of forced choice between different aspects of themselves.

It was this complex appeal of “double belonging” that finally came to prevail in Quebec over the divisive politics of separatism, and little wonder, perhaps, that the province gave a collective shudder at the prospect of a second referendum. We may find here, too, that one referendum is enough and that the politics of identity and belonging cut both ways on 18 September.