Saturday 31 January 2015

The SNP is based on a distinction without difference

In what respect does David Cameron differ from Nicola Sturgeon? Obviously, one is a man, the other is a woman, one is leader of the Conservatives, the other of the SNP. But, perhaps, the most important distinction is that Cameron describes himself as English, while Sturgeon describes herself as Scottish. But what is it that makes them so? What is it about each of them that makes this distinction? Here we come up with an interesting problem for it is not at all clear what quality Sturgeon has that Cameron lacks and vice versa.

Why does Sturgeon describe herself as Scottish? I have no idea about her ancestry, but I’ve never come across a Sturgeon tartan. I know, on the other hand, that Cameron’s father came from Huntly and his name could hardly be more Scottish. Many people around the world with a name like Cameron, especially with a father born in Scotland would unquestionably describe themselves as Scottish. They would be invited to a homecoming every few years.  

I sometimes get asked online where I was born.  As it happens I was born here, but I have relations from all over the UK and a grandfather who was born in Dublin. I am not unusual in this respect. But even if I were not born here and none of my relations were born here, would it matter? This is our problem, because the mere fact that I am so frequently asked shows that it does sort of matter. So is the difference between Sturgeon and Cameron that she was born in Scotland while he was not? This becomes problematic for a number of reasons. I have a colleague whose children were born in Bristol, because she happened to be working there. But are these children then Scottish because she was born in Scotland and her father was, too? But what of someone who moved to Scotland aged three and knows no other country? Should this person be denied the quality of Scottishness because of where his parents come from? It’s not difficult to see where this sort of thinking leads.

The trouble though is that any quality that is mentioned that might determine someone as Scottish may be lacking in someone whom every reasonable politician in Scotland wants to describe as Scottish. Unless we wish to base Scottishness on ancestry, someone can be Scottish no matter what his accent, no matter what his culture, even no matter what his language. A Scottish person may just have arrived from Poland or Pakistan. He may not even know that he is Scottish. What determines someone as Scottish is simply that he lives here and has the right to live here permanently. Everyone who voted in the referendum is equally Scottish. The question where you were born thus becomes offensive, for it attempts to make the distinction between first class Scots who were born here and others who were not.

The issue is that the SNP are basing their ideology on a quality Scotishness that can very easily be won. Any UK citizen, indeed, any EU citizen can gain it remarkably easily. They just have to move here and live here permanently. My Russian husband by virtue of marrying me will in time become Scottish. But why should this quality of living in Scotland matter so much ideologically as opposed to living in, say, Aberdeenshire. It would be wrong to distinguish between someone from Ayrshire and someone from Fife. But why is it correct to found a party that wishes to distinguish between someone from Newcastle and someone from Edinburgh? The act of discrimination is not grounded in any real quality, so why discriminate at all? The SNP are founded on the idea of gaining special treatment for Scots, but this, in the end, is as unfair as if I set up the Aberdeenshire National Party founded on the basis of gaining special treatment for people from Aberdeenshire.

The quality of being Scottish in the end amounts to no more than living within the boundaries of a place that used to be independent called Scotland. But if we look at the map of Europe there are hundreds of places that used to be independent. Almost no-one in a country like Germany would think there is a real distinction between someone who lives within the borders of what used to be Prussia and someone who lives within the borders of what used to be Saxony. There would be unfortunate consequences of such a view as it would mean lots of Poles and Russians would turn out really to be Prussians. To found a party based on a border that ceased to exist in reality in 1707 is just as ludicrous as to found one on a border that ceased to exist in 1871 and 1945.

There is no distinction between the citizens of a nation state, no more than there is between the citizens of bordering counties like Lancashire and Yorkshire. They may have a rivalry, but to found a party on the basis that once the Yorkists fought the Lancstrians would be considered quaint. Yet, in the end, there is no more difference between an English person and a Scottish person than between a Tyke and a Lancastrian. This is not least the case because anyone from the UK can choose to live anywhere. There is no Scottish people for which a nationalist party is required, because any person who lives here can be Scottish simply by virtue of living here. A people that has no quality that distinguishes it from  anyone in the world seems simply confused in voting in such numbers for nationalists. Of course, perhaps, in reality these people, or at least some of them, do think there is a distinction, but then that obviously is to fall back on ancestry.

Are there any differences though between people the world over? The answer to this, of course, is yes. A British person differs from a French person because of citizenship.  This is a real distinction. Germany will not bail out Greeks, because Greeks are not German citizens. We have a special duty to our fellow citizens that we do not have to everyone else in the world. If this were not so, there would be no nation states.

But there is only one citizenship in the UK. If a person from the UK is asked about his citizenship, the only correct answer is that he is British. This is a real quality that everyone in the UK has had since 1707. It is the quality that distinguishes us from everyone else in the world. It is the foundation of our nation state.

The SNP would like to treat British citizens differently on the basis of a quality that is entirely arbitrary, i.e. residence, while at the same time discriminating against other British citizens who have a quality, i.e. citizenship that is quite real. There is nothing progressive about this. Rather it looks like an odd prejudice based on too much concern about border that disappeared long ago. 

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.