It was the heroic First World War nurse, humanitarian and spy Edith Cavell who famously said – on the eve of her execution by German forces in 1915 – that “patriotism is not enough”; and it’s tempting to imagine that if everyone who has since heard of her words had taken them to heart, then the history of the last century would have been very different. Patriotic sentiment exists, of course; most of us love our country one way or the other, even if that love often only expresses itself in a helpless attachment to the national sporting teams.
We also know that under political pressure, that patriotic feeling can sometimes develop into a full-blown nationalist movement; a need to claim sovereignty, to act together as a self-determining community, and to carve a distinctive place in the world. And we know, courtesy of thinkers like the great Tom Nairn, that national movements must be handled with care; that historically, they have taken both progressive and reactionary forms, sometimes signalling a great post-imperial leap forward for human freedom and democracy, at other times leading downwards into the most horrific acts of barbarism and genocide.
It’s therefore our duty, as citizens, to ask of every nationalist movement what kind of project it has to offer, beyond the basic patriotic presumption that every nation, however defined, should be able to make its own decisions. Each movement, of course, will have its minority of absolute diehards, those who say that they only have one national identity, that it trumps all other political considerations, and that any movement to give that nation complete independence will have their support, regardless.
The vast majority of us, though, have more complicated priorities than that. Most Scots, for example, recognise in themselves layers of allegiance to Scotland, Britain, Europe and many other types of identity; and through the 312-year history of the Union, the approach to it of most Scots has been pragmatic, with its popularity increasing at times when it seemed like a successful and forward-looking enterprise. The same also goes for the European Union; it’s not that people in Scotland have no feelings about Britain or Europe, or about Scotland, but that patriotic emotion, at any level, should be balanced against more practical considerations to do with welfare, prosperity, freedom, human rights, and the building of a credible future.
So how does that acquired wisdom about nationalist movements play out in Britain’s current Brexit crisis? Within the UK, at the moment, there are at least four and possibly five national movements in action, ranging from the fierce resurgent mainly English nationalism of the no-deal Brexit campaign, through the familiar “constitutional nationalism” of the SNP and the similar if more culturally driven movement in Wales, to the competing British and Irish nationalisms of the two communities in Northern Ireland, now placed in tension once more by Theresa May’s reckless decision to make her Government dependent on the votes of the loyalist DUP.
That all of these are nationalist movements is disputed only by those who cannot see the elephant of diehard British-English nationalism even when it is taking up 90 per cent of the room, and shaping the policies of a hugely influential group of Conservative MPs who have made it increasingly clear that they do not care how much damage they inflict on Britain, so long as they can celebrate the fantasy “clean break” Brexit of their dreams.
What is not true, though, is that because all of these movements are nationalist, they are all equally reactionary, and equally useless. On the contrary, they differ hugely in the character of the projects they offer. To put it bluntly, the Brexit movement has led an entire nation into an ill-prepared dead end of reactionary fantasy about stopping immigration and “walking away” from our European partners; and thence to the near-certainty that most of Britain’s people will suffer decades of austerity and declining public standards, as we scrabble for new trade deals outside the EU.
The modern national movements of Scotland and Wales, by contrast, and the modern government of Ireland, all offer – to anyone who pays attention to their actual policies – the prospect of a much more promising future, based on an active commitment to international co-operation through the EU and other bodies, on world-leading policies in terms of personal human rights, and on strong public commitments to tackle climate change and create sustainable low-carbon economies while protecting basic social-democratic values – commitments that matter as a baseline and reference-point for rational 21st century politics, even if they are often compromised in practice.
It would therefore be helpful, at this stage of the Brexit debate, if we could hear a little less from those who try to equate the long-standing independence movement in Scotland with the hate-mongering nonsense of the 2016 Leave campaign, and the political meltdown to which it has, almost inevitably, led. That there are fantasists and extremists in the outer reaches of Scotland’s national movement is perhaps inevitable, although many have long since been stripped of their SNP membership; but the idea that the party now led by Nicola Sturgeon, which has been in Government in Scotland for the last 12 years, is anything kin to the opportunistic right-wing shambles of Britain’s Brexit leadership is ill-informed and fantastical to the point of absurdity.
It remains possible to argue, of course, about which national identity people living in Scotland should prioritise today; and there will always be those who simply refuse to support any party which wears overt national colours. The time has come, though, to accept the truth of the proposition that national movements come in all political shades; and to acknowledge that we now have, in these islands, several national movements that embody the potential for a new confederal, progressive, co-operative and outward-looking future for all our peoples – and just one that, with its DUP allies, promises us nothing but pain, in its insistence on an unquestioning British patriotism that was never enough, and now seems little more than a cover-story for a project as reactionary as it is damaging, to all the people of these islands.