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.  


  1. Nicely put Effie

    Just as we have the West Lothian question, I propose we refer to the Civic Nationalism, 'location vs ancestry' logical fallacy, as the Effie Deans question.



  2. Thanks Longshanker.

    I first learned the phrase "civic nationalism" from having discussions with independence supporters. These people were often highly educated, left of centre voters. It always struck me as ringing false however, as a sort of ready made excuse. If you really believed in civic nationalism I can't see why you would want to erect borders at all.


  3. Sadly, civic nationalism may be the stated ideal for Alex Salmond but his drive for independence has brought along some rather unpleasant elements. If independence were to happen I fear that these elements may become more strident in their claims and more demanding in their aims.

    Nice piece though.


  4. It sometimes seems to me that the official civic nationalism of some SNP supporters is only on the surface. The trouble, I believe, is that all forms of nationalism appeal to something instinctual and rather buried in the human psyche, tribalism. It's not difficult for this to break out even if the intention is that it should not. The history of the last 30 years in Europe is a sort of warning of what happens when you play the nationalist card. The results are often unpredictable and unpleasant for all concerned.

    However, in order to engage with an opponent it is I believe necessary to accept some of his assumptions. There's little point in debating with a Marxist if I begin by simply denying the truth of Marxism. He will simply reject my argument out of hand. If on the other hand I can accept his assumptions and point out internal difficulties with his point of view, it is possible that our debate will be both more interesting and more useful for all concerned.

  5. You are, of course, entirely correct that a debate can only happen between parties that acknowledge the standpoint of the other and are willing to listen and consider - you may have seen the Monty Python Argument Clinic, which nicely demonstrates the alternative.
    The problem I have been seeing is there is an increasing lack of this willingness to listen, on both sides . I'm not sure how large the 'undecided' contingent is but I haven't met or spoken to many of them.
    On one side the FM and his Party are self-serving buffoons who will not give a straight answer whilst the other side are self-important toffs who's sole aim is to prove that England is more important than Scotland.
    The intent of both sides is perceived as trying to con the Scottish people and prevent a fair vote.
    I would like to see a televised debate where the moderator can force the parties to give a straight answer but it won't happen for the reason above.
    Alex Salmond has spent so much time and effort insisting that he must debate David Cameron that to debate Darling or anyone else now would mean a terrible loss of face. The exact same reason applies to why Cameron cannot concede ground either.
    We are stuck. I doubt their will be much of a swing in the numbers from now until September, no matter what the two sides claim - in fact I suspect the numbers will probably be exactly what they were a year ago.

  6. There are some reasonable independence supporters and I've had some good debates them. But we still rapidly reach an impasse usually regarding a fact or a view of the future. It's extraordinary to me that there is so little common ground between the opposing sides, just a shouting match over currency union, EU etc. I can't abide how the nationalists try to use language to confuse the issue. We wouldn't be "foreign", we'd still be "British" even that there'd still be a "United Kingdom". This is sinister.

    The worst aspect of the campaign for me is that it has caused friction between Scotland and the other parts of the UK and also caused friction within Scotland. The goal of independence just isn't worth all this grief. The fact that Cameron and Osborne have posh backgrounds has not helped them get their message across in Scotland. And yet I believe they were speaking the truth with regard to currency union. People here might not have liked the message, but I suspect they believed it.

    Any debates should be between Scots. It's our decision after all. But I doubt anything will change things much in the coming months. Most people I suspect would like it all to be over with so that we can get on with our lives.

  7. You are right that there is little common ground and it strikes me as rather a sad indictment of the society we live in that no-one believes any of the information provided by our elected officials and government organisations.
    Oil tax revenues, public spending, advice from the Bank of England, advice from outside notable, everyone just chooses to believe it is either invented, distorted or just plain wrong if it isn't what they want to hear.

  8. I like this piece - it sets out the background, ethos and approach of civic nationalism nicely, along with why it is so very different from the more inward-looking, potentially xenophobic ethnic nationalism. However, in characterising the definition of 'Scottish' as purely an accident, it rather misses the point that people who end up here (and are welcomed for doing so) have *chosen* to be here. It's not like evacuees who just end up wherever they happen to have been sent.

    So the real *difference* about the all-encompassing body of Scots-by-residence is not that they are homogenous in origin (or any other characteristic), but rather that they have chosen to be here and contribute to the future of the country. In this sense, it is kind of like a small community such as say, Findhorn, where people come together because of their shared aspirations...or to take a much bigger and better analogy, like the USA. The population of America today is a blend of numerous different immigrants from all corners of the world, and they are all proud to call themselves American and have, at least in some respects, a shared ideal. Of course I'm not suggesting that the USA is perfect, or that everyone within it is happy or successful, or that the American Dream holds true all the time - but it has still become the world's wealthiest, most successful, most influential and most inclusive society over the last couple of centuries.

    That's what makes the US 'different' from any of its contributing countries - the UK, France, the Netherlands and Spain amongst them - and that's what (at least potentially) makes the future independent Scotland 'different' from the UK as it stands at the moment.

  9. Hi Effie, liked your post a lot and it got me thinking. It also got me reading up on John Stuart Mill and Ernest Renan.

    After reading Chapter 16 of 'Consideration on Representative Government' I cannot see how Mill himself would not be a great advocate for Scottish independence.

    "A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others."

    I suppose this fits your argument a little (coal miner in Lanarkshire and a coal miner in Lancashire and all that) but,

    "Community of language and community of religion greatly contribute to it. Geographical Limits are one of its causes, but strongest of all is the possession of political antecedents, the possession of a natural history and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents of the past."

    That is a great description, and I certainly feel it fits my feelings towards Scotland far more than my feelings towards the UK.

    Later he goes on to say,

    "Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities amount a people without fellow feeling especially if they read or speak different languages the united public opinion necessary to the working of representational government cannot exist."

    So now I am thinking wait a minute Effie, you cited these people but did not read what they have actually written. For example you say.

    "Civic nationalism should lead to the bringing down of borders not to the erecting of new ones."

    I think this statement is simply untrue. Renan and Mills seem mostly occupied with what defines a nation regardless of borders ancestry, language or religion. From what I have read so far this is based mostly on a shared history or cultural memory coupled with a desire to continue together. Renan bases it on what people choose to forget i.e the bloodshed during the French Revolution. Mills is more interested in the very fact we want to be a nation is what makes us so.

    Renan mentions that some nations simply cannot be occupied and will simply revert back to what they once were. I believe Scotland is like this. Regardless of how successful or popular the Union has been the feeling amongst the majority of people who live here is that we are Scots not Brits.

    Civic Nationalism does not say 'anyone can be a Scot' but 'anyone who wants to be can be a Scot'. The 'wanting' part is essential and kills your argument flat. I doubt you could argue that Geordies would actually wish to become part of an independent Scotland. Why not - because they are proudly English and identify themselves as such.

    A quote from Renan,

    "A nation never has a veritable interest in annexing or keeping another region against the wishes of its people"

    So for me, what is important then is that we have a desire to be independent and to be represented by a government as a nation of Scotland.

    Renan defines a nation as 'a daily referendum on the will to live together'. This for me is the best quote. So I will see the September referendum as a our own decision on our will to live together. Either as a nation of the UK or as a nation of Scotland. If the outcome is a YES vote I will be very comfortable that we have expressed that will and that it is perfectly compatible with Civic Nationalism as described by Mills or Renan.

    The book is on Google Books if you are interested.

  10. Thanks for a really interesting and informed comment. While I respect civic nationalism as put forward by people like Mill, Renan and parties like the SNP, I nevertheless disagree with it. It therefore follows naturally that my arguments will at times diverge from theirs. I'm not following either Mill or Renan but disagreeing with them. In this blogpost I attempted to put forward what I considered to be the logical implications of civic nationalism. Naturally both Mill, Renan and the SNP would try to counter what I'm saying, but my point is to oppose them not to fit in with what they were saying. Naturally therefore my argument will diverge from theirs. How could it not?

    The main point though is to recognise the worth of your opponents thinking. I disagree with civic nationalism, but I fully recognise its merits as a liberal political philosophy. If Scotland votes for independence I will be saddened and disappointed, but I will be very glad that it was civic nationalism that won the day and accept that this is what my fellow Scots wanted.

    I think we could all do with more such reasoned comments as yours. It makes the whole debate much more pleasant and interesting.

    Best wishes



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