Saturday 15 March 2014

Is civic nationalism consistent with independence?

Some years ago a rather nasty campaign developed in Aberdeenshire. It was called something like Settler Watch. The members of this group complained about people from other parts of the UK coming to Aberdeenshire, buying land, taking up school places and taking jobs away from locals. Some signs were nailed to telegraph poles, some angry words were said at public meeting and there was some low level harassment of incomers. The person who did most to stop this nonsense was the local MP, Alex Salmond. He made it absolutely clear that both he and his party were completely opposed to such ideas and that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of prejudice or xenophobia. It was immensely to his credit that he intervened in this way. Settler Watch soon died out. Ever since then, even if I have disagreed with him politically, I’ve retained a lot of respect for Mr Salmond. Anecdotally I’ve heard the odd story from people who’ve met him in the shops or who’ve had the sort of problem you go to your MP for. The stories are of someone who is pleasant and helpful and who couldn’t care less about origins or accents. For this reason the caricature put forward by some people in the press and by some supporters of the UK has always struck me as false. It is based on a misunderstanding of the ideological foundations of the SNP, which is something called civic nationalism.

Civic nationalism was developed by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Ernest Renan in the 19th century. It is fundamentally liberal and non-xenophobic. In this respect it contrasts with ethnic nationalism which defines nationality in terms of ethnicity, race and ancestry. For civic nationalists everyone living in Scotland is a Scot. It doesn’t matter if you were born and bred here and can trace your ancestry back to Robert the Bruce or if you or your parents arrived in Scotland more recently. Every citizen living here permanently is equally a Scot. There is no question of one person being more of a Scot than another. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Scottish accent or if you don’t know a word of Scots. Your surname does not matter in the least, nor does your race or your ethnicity. It is precisely because the SNP has consistently put forward this sort of civic nationalism that it has been able to attract support from people who cannot trace their ancestry to Scotland. People who have moved here from England, Pakistan or Poland may well support the SNP or Scottish independence. The reason for this is that these people are Scots by virtue of the fact that their home is in Scotland. They would be treated as Scots and would be citizens if Scotland became independent.

It’s a very good thing that the SNP are civic nationalists for the alternative is rather unpleasant. If nationality were to be determined by ancestry and race, what nationality would a recent immigrant to Scotland have after independence? If such a person were not a Scot what would he be? Would he have to remain a citizen of the UK? But what if he lacked that citizenship? Would he have to go back to where he came from? It’s pretty obvious where this leads. It leads back to Settler Watch. Under these circumstances few people who were not born and bred in Scotland would support independence. So it’s a very good thing indeed that the SNP would treat everyone living here equally.

But let’s look at the implications of civic nationalism with regard to the debate about Scottish independence. Being a Scot becomes something rather accidental. Someone’s father may have moved to Aberdeen from London because he found a job there, while his uncle might have found a job in York. Two brothers from Pakistan might have tossed a coin about which of them took a job in Manchester and which in Edinburgh. A Polish person might have had more friends in Glasgow, but his sister might have had more friends in Birmingham and for this reason they ended up in these cities. Those who ended up in Scotland would become Scots in the event of Scottish independence. But why put a boundary between people who are the same? Anyone can become a Scot, simply by moving here. Indeed after a Yes vote people from all over the UK may rush here to take advantage of Scottish citizenship and share in all the good things that will fall to us Scots. But if anyone can be a Scot, the logical reason for distinguishing Scotland from elsewhere ceases. Civic nationalism should lead to the bringing down of borders not to the erecting of new ones.

Independence supporters frequently argue that Scots are different. But wherein lies the difference if anyone from anywhere can be a Scot? The difference is said to lie in the fact that we vote differently from the other parts of the UK. But is there really a distinction between the Labour voting North of England and the Labour voting Central Belt of Scotland. Why not campaign for independence for the Northern part of Britain? Wherein lies the distinction between a Geordie and a Scot if the Geordie would immediately become a Scot if he moved to Edinburgh? But if there is no real distinction between these people, why strive to put them in different countries? The only way to make a real distinction is to fall back on the sorts of standards of Scottishness that civic nationalism does not recognise, things like ancestry, accent, family and so on. But it’s already been made clear where this path leads.

Still independence supporters may argue that it would be economically advantageous for us Scots to erect a border. But why discriminate against someone who at present lives in England, who would immediately become a Scot if he happened to move here? Why discriminate against those who have the misfortune not to share in our riches? What indeed does this border running between Berwick and Carlisle have to do with us modern Scots? After all the border was established by our ancestors. But what has ancestry to do with civic nationalism which does not base Scottishness on ancestry? If there is nothing that distinguishes a Scot from a Geordie, because each could swap places, then establishing a boundary between them is clearly arbitrary and unfair. Why should a line established by long ago battles between ancestors interest a modern Scot who could come from anywhere? Moreover if it is justified to create an arbitrary boundary between a Scot and a Geordie for the sake of economic advantage, why would it not be justified to establish a border within Scotland between say a Glaswegian and an Aberdonian. Well perhaps the Scottish nationalist would argue that Scotland once was an independent country, while places like Aberdeenshire were not. For this reason Scotland is a nation while Aberdeenshire is not. But this is to fall back on a standard of nationalism based on ancestry. It is to argue that Aberdeenshire cannot secede from Scotland because of the common ancestry between the people of Aberdeenshire and Strathclyde descending from the country that was independent until 1707. But this sort of argument is hardly compatible with the civic side of nationalism. Wherein lies the difference between Aberdeenshire’s relationship to Scotland and Scotland’s relationship to the UK if civic nationalism is not interested in ancestry? If arbitrary boundaries can be made between Newcastle and Edinburgh, they can equally be made between Aberdeen and Dundee.

The SNP are a liberal party because they are civic nationalists. But the logic of civic nationalism is that the Scottish people in no fundamental or special way is different from the English people, the Polish people or the Pakistani people. Someone from each of these places could be a Scot. But then all this talk of peoples is really just lies and nonsense. The logic of civic nationalism is that we are all just people, human beings. But if that is the case, then there is no reason to have independence at all, for there is no reason to establish boundaries between those who are really the same.  

Saturday 8 March 2014

Independence and the meaning of the word "foreign"

It’s easy to jeer at Mr Salmond’s “Dark Star” speech, but it should be seen as part of the SNP’s long term and very clever strategy of achieving Scottish independence even though only around a third of the Scottish population are consistently committed to the idea of Scotland being an independent nation state. I suspect someone thought about this rather hard some years ago and then disseminated the strategy to SNP supporters with guidance on how to implement it. I’ve met the same sort of arguments endlessly in conversation and online, for which reason its hard to believe that it is simply a matter of chance. The nationalist’s task is to persuade Scots, who in many if not most respects like living in the UK, to vote for independence. Well what if you could persuade them that they could both live in an independent Scotland and remain part of the UK? That would seem to be an impossibility, but if you emphasise how lite independence would be. If you emphasise how so much of what Scots like about the UK would continue. If finally you say that Scots would still be British and the English would not be foreign, even that the UK would continue as the union of the crowns. Well what’s stopping even the most ardent unionist voting for that? Someone should set up a Rangers for indy group complete with a banner depicting Ulster’s red hand, the SNP thistle and the Union Jack.

The cleverness of the SNP strategy is that it depends on the ambiguity of words. It’s precisely for this reason that it can be difficult to argue against. For in one sense what they say is correct. The thing is that we use words like “country”, “nation” and “foreign” in a variety of senses. Mr Salmond said in his speech:

Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be foreign countries to Scotland.

Now in one sense this seems sensible enough. Scotland already is a country and a nation, but we don’t think of England, Wales or Northern Ireland as foreign countries. What about the Republic of Ireland? Mr Salmond has cleverly and subtly lumped the Republic in with the other parts of the UK. But of course the Republic is no longer part of the UK. It is independent. Do we think of Dublin as a city in a foreign country? Well at times Mr Salmond is correct. I remember when Ireland were in the World Cup people in all parts of the UK cheered them on as if they were one of us. Irish people can even vote in UK elections and don’t even need to show their passports at the border. There is a special relationship between the UK and the Republic whereby the UK treats everyone in Ireland as if they were still a citizen of Britain, while the Republic treats everyone in Northern Ireland as if they were a citizen of the Republic. A similar if not even closer relationship obtains between the UK and people from the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles. These places are self-governing and have a kind of independence, but the people living there are not foreign. They are British citizens in much the same way as the rest of us.

The fact is that for the most part we tend to only use the word “foreign” for people who speak a different language from us. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition of foreigner:

A person born in a foreign country; one from abroad or of another nation; an alien.
In ordinary use chiefly applied to those who speak a foreign language as their native tongue; thus in England the term is not commonly understood to include Americans.

So in one sense Mr Salmond is right. If even Americans are not foreigners how could the English be described so. The same is true no doubt in other languages, each with its own ambiguities. In Russian the word for foreigner tends not to be used for people who speak Russian even if they they now live in places which are no longer part of Russia. Thus someone from Kazakhstan, whose origin is Russian, would not normally be described as a Kazakh, but as a Russian. But the most important point is that Kazakhstan, having become independent when the Soviet Union broke up, is a foreign power. This makes rather a big difference as we have been learning in the past week. In 1954 Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Imagine if in 1975 Brezhnev had decided to give it back. Would it have caused any fuss in the West? I doubt if it would even have made the papers. Why should Crimea be causing such a fuss today? Because Ukraine is now a foreign power. Ukraine is a different nation state to Russia and even if Russians do not think of Russians living in Crimea as foreigners, Crimea is part of a foreign land. If that were not so, then there could be no question of invasion or of seizing someone else’s land.

We may use the words “foreign” and “foreigner” in a loose way, but the underlying reality is clear. At present we all live in a nation state called the UK. Nation states are called countries. But parts of nation states are sometimes called countries too. Thus the OED defines country as:

The territory or land of a nation; usually an independent state, or a region once independent and still distinct in race, language, institutions, or historical memories, as England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the United Kingdom, etc.

So Scotland is a country and also part of a country, the UK. Scotland however, while being a nation is not a nation state. What independence supporters want is that Scotland should become an independent nation state. You clearly can not become what you already are. But independence supporters frequently beg the question: 

Should Scotland be an independent country? Well, yes, of course it should. All countries, surely, should be independent. Otherwise they're provinces, not countries.

This argument depends on the conflation of the two meanings of country. It’s like arguing all independent states should be independent states. But this is frequently what nationalists do. They take the fact that Scotland is a country because it once was independent to justify that it ought to be independent. But this is to use one sense of the word “country” to justify the other, which it could only do by conflating the meanings, a clear instance of a circular argument. Moreover this sort of argument could equally well be used for any place that once was independent, e.g. Bavaria, Lombardy Mercia or even Aberdeenshire.

Through the ambiguity of words the SNP are deliberately attempting to make what should be clear hazy. The United Kingdom is a nation state; people from that nation state are called British rather than United Kingdomers. If asked my citizenship the only correct answer is British. If Scotland becomes independent Scottish people, unless they maintained dual nationality, would cease to be British in the sense of nationality. There is another sense in which Scottish citizens could maintain that they would be British. That is the sense in which they are from the island of Great Britain. But this is not the sense of citizenship. When someone from Northern Ireland says he’s British, he clearly does not mean that he is from the island of Great Britain he’s talking about his citizenship. People from the Republic on the other hand refuse to use the geographical term British Isles and it is therefore highly unlikely that Scots post independence would describe themselves as British. This is just their attempt to cloud the issue. How many nationalists do you know who think of themselves as British? A similar attempt at causing confusing is sometimes made with regard to the union of the crowns. Even if the Queen still was still queen of Scotland and there was in some sense a continuing “United Kingdom” Scotland would not be part of the nation state called the United Kingdom.

What this means can be illustrated by an example. Imagine if at the conclusion of the First World War, Lloyd George had decided to give Berwick back to Scotland as a reward for Scotland’s contribution and in recognition of the wrongness of it being seized in the 1482. No one in the rest of the world would have taken much notice of this as nation states can rearrange their boundaries as they please. But if Scotland were an independent nation state and chose to seize Berwick, this would cause an international incident even if the majority of the citizens of Berwick felt Scottish and wanted to return. The reason for this is that Scotland would be a foreign power and relations between Scotland and the UK would be international relations. If Scotland were not a foreign power, there would be nothing to prevent the UK from holding a plebiscite in Orkney and Shetland giving them the chance to to choose to leave Scotland and join the UK.

Whether or not we describe someone as foreign depends on the fact that the word “foreign” is ambiguous and can be used in a variety of ways. But this should not be used as a means of obfuscating basic facts. The goal of independence is to create a new sovereign nation state. It is the gaining of sovereignty that would make us all live in a foreign power. Our relations with the other parts of what is now the UK would cease to be internal and would become external or international. Whether we thought of our former compatriots as foreign or not would probably depend on how we got on with them. My guess is that most Ukrainians now think of Russians as foreigners. But how people use the word “foreign” is frankly beside the point.  A nation state has a special obligation to its own citizens and generally acts in the interests of those citizens. A nation state has no particular obligations to the citizens of another nation state unless by virtue of an international agreement. Thus even if I don’t call my American cousin a foreigner I have no right to live or work there and the relationship between our states is an international relationship governed by the Foreign Office. That is the reality no matter how we try to play with words. Independence would make us a foreign land.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

To Alex Salmond on the occasion of his speech 4th March 2014 (with apologies to Mr J. Keats)

Dark star! would I weren’t foreign for a start,
Just my splendour shining in northern light.
A beacon for the English whose lids apart,
Would gaze at my wonder and my might.
These disciples going about their priestlike task,
From London flocking ever to my shores,
With rapture in their pleasant duty bask,
Of imitating me, of holding doors,
So I can walk unhindered as I tell
Of how and when to do my bidding lest
In gloom they would forever have to dwell
As if in caves of bleak and black unrest.
Still, still awaiting my every word and breath
Looking on in awe, swooning as if in death.

Saturday 1 March 2014

The independence debate and the need for good neighbours

Like many Scots on both sides of the debate I’ve found the events of the past weeks rather scary. Perhaps it is in the nature of women not to be too keen on conflict and confrontation. But I would hope that quite a few men are also getting a bit sick of all the shouting. It’s all so pointless too for no one is listening. There’s not much chance of either side being able to explain their case if this continues. How do any of us expect to persuade our opponents or those who have yet to make up their minds if we aren’t even willing to debate sensibly? One of the problems is that the debate has suddenly become really emotional and has become less and less rational. There have been threats exchanged by politicians on all sides and these have tended towards escalation. Judging from the comment sections in newspapers, there are signs that people in other parts of the UK are beginning to notice the Scottish independence referendum. Where once blogs were dominated by Scots and often by independence supporters, now people from south of the border are giving vent to their opinions. They are rarely complementary to the First Minister and frequently quite hostile to the SNP. The general mood seems to be in favour of what George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander said about currency union. The attitude to independence is frequently one of good riddance; don’t expect much cooperation from us. In the meantime there have been a number of satirical pieces about Scotland, the SNP and Mr Salmond. I doubt Mr Salmond minds very much being mocked, not least because it may well increase his popularity in Scotland. Many independence supporters have given as good as they have got and insults have been traded over the border. It’s fair to say that many people in Scotland did not appreciate what Mr Osborne did to their best laid plans. Many people have no doubt been turned into independence supporters just to show the nasty Tory what we think of his intervention. The whole debate has come to resemble a Punch and Judy show, a pantomime where one side shouts “Oh no you can’t”, and the other replies “Oh yes we can”.

I’ve long been of the view that there is a balance of advantages and disadvantages on either side of the referendum debate. I tend to the view that it is in Scotland’s long term interest to remain in the UK. I also have an emotional attachment to the UK. But I can see the other fellow’s point of view. It is perfectly possible to put forward a reasonable case for Scottish independence and the balance of advantage and disadvantage can be made to tip decisively in favour of it when a Scot already has an emotional attachment to the goal of independence. We’re all a balance of heart and head. My disagreement with independence supporters is partly because I don’t feel what they feel and partly because I disagree with them over matters of politics and economics and the direction in which I want Scotland to go. But that’s no reason for us to fall out.

If Scotland were to become independent, I confess, I’d be sad, but like everyone else I’d get on with my life. This is my home. This is where my family and work is. I’ve nowhere else to go. I would hope that everything would work out and insofar as I could help it to work out, I’d do my bit. The most important thing for me in the event of independence would be that relations with the other parts of the UK should be as friendly and cooperative as possible. In this I’m sure independence supporters agree. I’ll confess, that I also agree with my SNP friends that if we were to gain independence, I would hope that it would be as “lite” a form as possible. Therefore I agree with their hopes that we would get to keep the pound and that there would be a currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK). None of us much want our lives to be disrupted and to be honest I’m used to using pounds when I buy things. I don’t much fancy the alternative options. I suspect that most Scots on both sides of the debate feel much the same way.

The problem is that the alternative options are not ideal. Using the pound unofficially and without a central bank is incompatible with Scotland having a financial sector as large as it is and would put all of our savings at risk in the event of another financial crisis. It may also be incompatible with the Copenhagen Criteria for joining the EU. Establishing our own currency with a Scottish central bank would be the best option, but would damage our trade with rUK in a way far more damaging to us than to them. 70% of Scottish trade is with rUK, but only 10% of their trade is with us. Every Scottish business would have to pay the cost of converting currency and that cost would be passed on to us. Following Mr Salmond’s suggestion this could be called the “Alex” tax.  Moreover the size of the Scottish banking sector could overwhelm a Scottish central bank, once more putting all of our savings at risk. In the event of independence every Scot would be well advised to move their money to a bank south of the border.

It should be clear why the issue of currency has played such an important role in the debate. It is an issue that would affect our day to day lives in the event of independence and have a big influence on our individual prosperity. But it is not, I believe, the most important issue. In the event of independence, the most important priority must be to maintain as good a relationship with rUK as possible. We cannot change our geography. Our closest neighbour will always be England. If we fall out with them, life will be worse for all of us. But given that I think that it is the most important thing that we should get on with our neighbour, I also think that it is the most important thing that we should stop threatening each other. I think that if Mr Salmond wins the independence referendum, he has a right to try to persuade rUK that a currency union would be in everyone’s interest. But we in Scotland should also be willing to respect that they may disagree. I read the report that the UK government produced on currency union. It is pretty dry stuff, but the reasoning is both detailed and logical. They do not oppose currency union because they are against the SNP or even against independence. They just don’t think it is a good idea. Politicians are also constrained by electorates. It was accepted by all sides that in order to join the Euro, the UK would need to have a referendum. But if a vote on whether to have a currency union with independent EU countries was needed, then logically a vote on whether the people of rUK wanted a currency union with an independent Scotland would also be needed. Indeed every crucial aspect of the divorce negotiations would have to be in accord with the will of the people south of the border. That’s what it means to live in a democracy. But If there were a referendum on currency union with Scotland, there is little doubt that the electorate in the rUK would vote against it. They might not, of course, and Scotland would have the right to try to persuade them, but we would have to accept as democrats that in the end just as we have a right to choose our destiny, so do they.

I’m not a lawyer and even if I were I’d probably end up disagreeing with myself, but whatever the legal situation I believe we really would have to accept under all circumstances a share of the debt that we have mutually built up over the centuries. If Scotland were to become independent, it would certainly be in our national interest to do so even if we could not obtain the currency union that we wanted. The reason for this is quite simple. We don’t want to make an enemy of our nearest neighbour. If an independent Scotland were willing to accept that we needed to establish our own currency arrangements along with a share of the national debt, a prize would await us that might otherwise forever be outwith our grasp. We could have a relationship with rUK similar to that which the Republic of Ireland enjoys at present. After a difficult divorce the Republic has become one of Britain’s closest allies and friends. I know that Mr Salmond has as his ideal a relationship between an independent Scotland and rUK probably closer and even more friendly than that between Britain and the Republic. But to be honest if he wants that sort of relationship he is going about it the wrong way.

In weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of independence one of the the most important factors must be how we would get on with our neighbours. If the price of independence is poor relations with rUK, I don’t see how it could ever be worth it. Good relations would clearly entail taking them at their word, accepting it if it turns out that are not interested in currency union, while accepting our share of the national debt regardless. If the First Minister were say something along the lines that he hoped to persuade, but would never threaten, if he were to outline alternative currency plans if his preferred currency union plan did not work out, it would not mean that I would vote for independence, but I would respect his honesty and integrity as would everyone else in Great Britain. It is really vital for Scotland that the First Minister should neither be held in contempt nor turned into a figure of fun. Some of what I read in the English papers in response to Scottish nationalism really scares me. If we became independent we would really need the help of our former countrymen. Their help would make the difference between success and struggle. But at the moment they are in no mood to help us at all. This must be regretted by both sides of the debate in Scotland for whether or not we are independent it is vital that good, friendly relations be maintained with people with whom we have lived for so long. There is only one thing more vital and that is that the divisions that have arisen in Scotland should be healed. I don’t agree with my independence supporting friends, but I respect them as fellow Scots and worthy opponents. Each side must accept the result of the referendum and from then on work together.