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.