Joyce McMillan: Is the No camp killing the Union?

In September, Better Together may pay the price for its lack of vision about Scotland’s future, writes Joyce McMillan

Everything looked much more positive at the launch of Better Together in June last year. Picture: Neil Hanna
Everything looked much more positive at the launch of Better Together in June last year. Picture: Neil Hanna

LAST NOVEMBER, I was invited to say a few words at the launch of a book by the late Stephen Maxwell, perhaps the greatest radical political thinker and writer ever to belong to the Scottish National Party. As a member – along with Alex Salmond and Margo MacDonald – of the left-wing 79 Group that was briefly expelled from the party in the early 1980s, Maxwell was never much interested in the ideology of nationalism pure and simple. He was too much of a historian to fall for the simplistic argument that nations should always be conventional sovereign states, and too much a man of the Left to be interested in any project of national independence that was not also designed to serve the higher aims of social justice and of global peace.

So when I got to my feet – in front of an overwhelmingly nationalist audience – I felt I had to make it clear that I am not a nationalist, and that I reject what Stephen Maxwell would have called “essentialist” arguments for Scottish independence: that is, that Scotland is “essentially” a nation that should be self-governing, whereas the UK is some kind of artificial construct that has no such claim to legitimacy. Anyone with access to a history book can see that nations are made, broken and remade over time, that Scotland was once made by conquest and political guile out of a series of earlier entities, and that, after 1707, the UK was similarly forged out of the four nations of these islands, quickly becoming a hugely successful Union in economic and geopolitical terms, and achieving massive political legitimacy and emotional clout in the process.

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As a child of the post-war age, I therefore used to cry a river at the Last Night Of The Proms, so proud and pleased was I to belong to this remarkable nation that had licked Hitler, built the NHS and welfare state, and was now – in the 1960s – delivering a whole new age of supercool popular culture. Yet I was always equally proud and happy to be Scottish. Like most Scots of my vintage, I had no trouble with multiple identities; in time, I also happily became a proud European. So the fundamentalist Scottish nationalist argument about true and false forms of patriotism – and the talk of unionist “quislings” that tends to come with that kind of thinking – cuts no ice with me; I reserve the right to be patriotic about any layer of identity or organisation that comes my way, provided it means something to me.

What is increasingly clear about the present referendum argument, though, is that while the SNP leadership has made huge efforts to distance itself from those fundamentalist attitudes – embracing the idea of a multicultural Scotland, and capturing our modern, multi-layered sense of identity with their fluent talk about the various kinds of social union on these islands that would survive independence – there has been no similar evolution of thought on the unionist side. On the contrary, the No camp has chosen to deal with the current situation by talking as if the SNP’s pragmatic, forward-looking and electorally popular Scottish nationalism is somehow reactionary and intolerant – even essentially “ethnic” – whereas the powerful and unexamined British nationalism often expressed by UK government ministers, and sometimes accompanied, in their case, by genuinely xenophobic policies, is somehow normal, trustworthy, and progressive.

What we are facing in this referendum campaign, in other words, is not a battle between nationalism and anti-nationalism, but a battle between two nationalisms, one primarily Scottish, the other primarily British. And in this area of the debate, as in so many others, the Yes campaign has had the better of the argument so far, mainly because it has a sophisticated political leadership which rejects the limited appeal of fundamentalist nationalism, which prefers to frame itself as a social-democratic movement, and which at least talks the talk of a modern, open, welcoming and tolerant society.

The politicians of the Union, by contrast, seem at best stuck with the unlovely task of defending a Westminster system currently mired in neoliberal dogma and right-wing reaction, and at worst, shocked into an ugly British fundamentalism of their own, unable to contain their mistrust of the very idea of a Scottish identity and culture no longer subject to Westminster control.

What the debate urgently needs now, in other words, is not more patriotic emotionalism, but a recognition that feelings of identity and belonging, while they may shift over time, are all equally legitimate to those who experience them, and are not likely to be changed by a few months of political argument. It is pointless for nationalist commentators to frame the British state as intrinsically malign – its history proves that it has not always been so – and equally pointless for Unionist commentators to frame the SNP as intrinsically intolerant and “ethnic”, since its policies demonstrate that it is nothing of the sort; in making these assumptions, they only express their own prejudices and advance the argument not a jot.

What is clear, though, is that if the No camp wants to fight back in a style worthy of the debate, it now urgently needs to sharpen and modernise its own thinking about the value of the Union, rather than merely flinging inaccurate insults at its opponents. Back in March, in a brilliant Analysis programme for Radio 4, BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor, Douglas Fraser, explored positive ideas about the future of the Union, and was forced to conclude, paradoxically, that Scotland’s nationalists had in fact thought far more deeply about the Union – its many aspects and its possible futures – than had any of the political parties who are trying to defend it.

If, by some chance, the polls continue to narrow, and the Yes vote prevails come September, it will be that indictment that will be carved on the gravestones of the current generation of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians: that in their intellectual laziness, their institutional complacency and their craven compliance with an increasingly unjust and reactionary political climate, they betrayed the finest aspects of the Union they claim to defend and helped to consign it to the dustbin of history, perhaps well before its time.