General Election 2015: The perils of nationalisms

This article was published on Shifting Grounds Nationalism is not really about your own nation at all. If the world were one nation, the term would not exist. It relies on the other. It defines itself not on its own terms, but by comparing itself with the outside, with the enemy.

All nationalism is nationalism whether it is left-wing or right-wing, whether led by Hugo in Caracas, Marine in Paris, Nigel in Kent, or indeed by Nicola in Edinburgh. It relies on mythology and narrative; a semi-fictitious story to unite an imagined community, with the rough contradictory edges smoothed away. 

The SNP’s ‘narrative’ is of an oppressed Scotland governed by a malevolent, conniving, and ultimately foreign elite. ‘Westminster’ is a code word for the English establishment (Wales and Northern Ireland get rather forgotten in this) who plot to impoverish Scots. The Scottish are inherently different from their neighbours both culturally and politically.

Yet research published in the book Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box suggests the Scots hold pretty much the same views as the English when attitudes to things like welfarism and authoritarianism are measured. Even if it didn’t, the old leftist argument against nationalism remains true: there are much more material determinants to your life opportunities and outlook than whether you happened to be born north or south of an arbitrary border. To base your whole political identity around such a relative triviality is misguided.

In our hideously unequal society, nationality is a red herring. The deprived estates of Glasgow have more in common with their equivalents in Liverpool than with bankers in Edinburgh. Policies to help the Scottish poor will also help the English poor; policies which exacerbate inequality are blind to the borderline. Nationalism has always been a fantastic tool for the privileged to keep wealth and power behind a shadowy curtain of patriotism.

When nationality becomes sacred, dissent is no longer tolerated. The BBC’s political corespondent Nick Robinson has been the subject of protests and vicious online abuse for the crime of trying to get Alex Salmond to answer a question. At the SNP’s manifesto launch, supporters had to be warned not to boo journalists for asking the same type of difficult questions of Nicola Sturgeon that they would ask of any other political leader. In the independence campaign, former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars claimed businesses who warned against separation would face “a day of reckoning”.

Instead of focusing on the whole country, politicians fighting for seats from Aberdeen to Ayr must now address Scotland before anything else. The old progressive principle of allocating resources according to need is lost. Scotland comes first. When the SNP introduced a manifesto which was remarkably similar to that of Labour’s, it was remarked that this was a wasted opportunity by the Nats to distinguish themselves. Yet it is Labour who must somehow distinguish themselves now: voters in Scotland vote in droves for the Nats over Labour because, even if their policies are similar, there is only one party they trust to ‘stand up for Scotland’.

Nationalism feeds on antagonism, and the SNP has achieved its equal and opposite reaction. In the past few weeks petty, nasty English nationalism has come out into the fore. Conservative posters and statements warn voters south of the border that Alex Salmond is preparing to pick-pocket them. Theresa May claimed a British government supported by the SNP would have its legitimacy questioned. The Tories aim to imply that SNP MPs are of a lower status than others. By consequence the votes for them, and their voters, are of a lower status as well.

You can despair that a party whose ideas you detest look set to win a lot of votes, but to question their legitimacy is to question the political system you profess to believe in. If the SNP have lots of seats in Westminster, it is because Scottish voters want them there. If we still want Scottish voters to be in our Union, the SNP have just as much right to be there as anyone else. Paradoxically, the separatists must be tolerated in the political system they hope to bring down; to deny them that would be to bring about separatism of your own kind.

The irony is that the SNP have prospered by telling people the exact same thing about the Conservatives: that a Conservative-led government ruling Scotland is unfair because it is an English party without the support of Scots. They can hardly complain now.

The Conservatives and the SNP are happy to play this destructive game, feeding upon each other’s bile. Neither has much to lose: the Conservatives have long given up in Scotland; while any rhetoric which divides Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom can only help the SNP’s ultimate goal of independence.

Therefore the best result from this election for the SNP for them would be a Conservative majority won by whipping up a sense of injustice among the English. A mutual loathing between Tory England and anti-Tory Scotland, governed by the former, will dissolve further goodwill both sides of the border, and with exhaustion the pro-Union side may well slide into resignation when the next referendum comes along. The Tories are happy to go along with this game as long as it may give them a better chance to hold onto power. For all they are a unionist party, their political interests will inevitably get the better of their ideals.

The harsh responsibility of decisions deflates the biggest populism balloon. The best way to defeat the SNP is to force them to choose between supporting a Labour government or letting a Tory one in. The best way to preserve the Union is to get the Tories out of government.

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