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.


  1. Certainly an excellent argument for global free movement and that social injustices and racisms are built into any immigration controls at all. You would think the multinational friend and family ties of a globalised economy and the web would make this more popular, instead of less as is happening now. The more it comes to be spoken of simultaneously in many countries, the closer to it happening.

    1. I think you may have misunderstood the argument. There is a distinction between nation states based on citizenship. I can't see this being abolished in the near future. My argument is that within presently existing nation states there is no reason to have a political party which bases itself on making distinctions between people who are the same.

      I take the point that what I am saying tends towards internationalism and this is a good direction to go. But we're not there yet, nor likely to arrive at that point for the foreseeable future.

  2. You could have saved a lot of time by simply posting the sentence:

    "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."

    It also shows your fundamental misunderstanding of those Scots who disagree with your point of view. I suspect that even may Scots who agree with you politically would find your insistence that there are no distinguishing qualities somewhat overblown. It simply doesn't bear even cursory analysis. Opponents of independence seem hung up on the claimed "ethnic nationalism/ancestry" angle to paint the SNP in particular and the Scottish independence movement in particular, in the worst possible light.

    There is no confusion, only misdirection on the part of dyed in the wool opponents of independence. Just as many people feel as you do, you must accept that many of us never have and never will feel or identify as British. The criteria for being a Scottish citizen in the event of independence are quite clear; if you'd rather remain a British citizen and keep a British passport, the option to do so remains open to you.

    You say there is nothing progressive about this: one might equally say there is nothing progressive remaining British rather than Scottish. Like hundreds of thousands of others I've been converted from a broadly pro-devolution outlook to a pro-independence activist by the conviction that ONLY independence can bring about the progressive change our society and country badly needs.

    The only evidence of prejudice I can see in this article is in your ideologically based opposition to independence, and your willingness (eagerness?) to other those you disagree with as prejudiced or discriminatory. I suspect your intellectual cowardice won't allow you to post this, as your habit of blocking people on twitter amply demonstrates. The divisions in our society are simply amplified by your unwillingness to debate in good faith.

    Andy Ellis

    1. You haven't pointed out the in what respect a Scottish person differs from one from the rest of the UK. The rest is noise.

      I block those on twitter who I find annoying or who argue in an insulting way. It always has to get personal doesn't it Andy. It's not how I was taught to argue.

  3. It seems to me that it's more of a case of not wanting to justify your positions Effie? I'm quite willing to accept that people have different opinions, what I find more difficult to accept is the passive aggressive tone adopted by so many on the No side. The slightest disagreement, however politely expressed is caricatured as vile abuse. It's only personal in as much as one must respond personally to the one making the claims (as you do above) that independence is regressive, prejudiced, arbitrary etc. with no real evidence or analysis.

    The "rest" may be noise to you, but the result of the referendum, the rise in SNP membership and current polls demonstrate that Scots in general DO feel themselves to be different. Of course we have commonalities with others both in the UK and further afield, but your instinctive unionism seems to have led you to an entirely unjustified conclusion that there are no differences.

    If that were true, how do you explain not just recent political developments, but centuries of Scottish history during which Scotland retained a separate and distinct identity. That's the reason why independence for Scotland is a realistic prospect, whilst no such appetite exists in say Yorkshire or Bavaria.

    Like you I have family all over the UK. My paternal grandmother was from Sunderland but spent her adult life in Scotland. She considered herself Scottish first by the end of her life. My daughter was born in Aberdeen but has lived her life in England. My English wife has lived in both England and Scotland, as have I. How we self-identify is the result of lots of factors. Simplistic caricatures like yours damning independence supporters for supporting something you regard as subjective don't get us very far.

    I realise the "Duncan Hothersall" argument that we are all in this together, and there are no real substantive differences within the UK has wide currency in unionist circles, but please at least have the good grace to realise that many of us just don't accept it. My concern doesn't stop at Dover either. I've lived in England for over 20 years, and I'm more than ever convinced that the best option for Scotland is to go it alone and create a fairer, more equal society in Scotland, not wait for the unlikely achievement of results on a UK basis. That doesn't mean I care less for the poor in Liverpool than in Lisbon or Luanda, it just means I favour making a start where I think we CAN have an impact.

    That isn't prejudice or regressive politics; it's pragmatism and realism in the face of a UK system I can't see being rendered fit for purpose in any reasonable timescale.

    Andy Ellis

    1. Andy, why is that ONLY independence can bring about a fairer society? Is it so the SNP can operate all those 'levers' they constantly talk about - an image that never fails, sadly, to bring to mind Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times'?

      The SNP have been hunting around for decades to get the right answer for why indpendence is justified. It appears they've currently got the most traction by appealing to 'progressives' like yourself. In reality, a good proportion of nationalists would grab onto any reason for independence, no matter how odious, if they thought it would make independence happen. What would happen afterwards, fairer society or not, is of much lower importance.

      If you think I'm only talking about the heirs to Arthur Donaldson, you're wrong - you only have to watch the current nationalist obsession with not-so-secretly wishing a UKIP/Tory coalition which may lead to a Europe referendum, which may lead to the UK leaving Europe, which may lead to Scotland having another independence referendum, which may lead to independence, to see it in action.

      Such a scenario would be a disaster for everyone in the British Isles - no currency union, borders at Gretna etc. (and I would argue, Scotland being forced out of the EU anyway as it's trade with the UK is much larger than the EU), but hey, it's a price worth paying if independence is the answer to every problem, isn't it?

      Personally, I'm rather sick of nationalist politics wrapped up in a thin veneer of left-wing solidarity. You are currently partly responsible for looking after the poor of Liverpool (through your votes and taxes), you say you care for the poor of Liverpool, but you wish to be not at all responsible for the poor of Liverpool...well, on behalf of the people of Liverpool..."with friends like you..."

    2. Martin,

      I didn't say, and don't believe, that a fairer society is ONLY achievable via independence. I do think that the chances are it will happen faster in an independent Scotland, because I don't see any realistic prospect of the kind of constitutional, political and socio-economic changes I believe are necessary happening within the UK.

      Of course most nationalists see independence as the most important thing. Some of them may even have odious motives, but given some of the negative aspects of the No campaign, it would be difficult to say there are no british nationalists with odious motives. Few of us will forget the scenes in George Square post referendum with loyalist scum causing disturbances and giving Hitler salutes in a hurry.

      I don't recognise your caricature of nationalists wishing for a Tory/UKIP coalition. Most sane people I know on either side of the border would hate it, not that it's very likely given current polling and betting odds. What IS likely is another hung parliament, probably with a large SNP bloc due to the collapse of Scottish Labour support. If you're pro-Europe, the only way of guaranteeing no referendum is to hope for an outright Labour victory (which few believe will happen) or a Lab/SNP coalition or confidence & supply agreement, which IS pretty likely.

      Obviously as a British nationalist you have an interest in predicting the sky will fall in the event of independence. Fair enough; it's well worn territory, and I doubt we'll convince each other our respective positions are "right".

      Again you caricature the position of pro-independence folk being that independence is the answer to every problem. It's just that kind of grotesque "othering" which has done so much to divide people into mutually exclusive tribal groups. There are fringe nutters on both sides. Most of us know there are no silver bullets or easy answers.

      Fair enough, you are sick of aspects of nationalist politics. I'm just as sick of aspects of british nationalist politics; their inertia, lack of a progressive impulse, inability to promote social cohesion and greater equality, failure to deliver electoral reform, House of Lords reform etc., etc. None of these are impossible within the UK, I just don't see them happening anytime soon.

      You're parting shot regarding Liverpool is a cheap one, but as I argued above a pretty common line of argument from britnats. Why I am obliged to be more concerned about the poor of Liverpool than those anywhere else? It will be up to voters in the rest of the UK to solve their problems, and to set their priorities, just as will be the case in Scotland. These priorities may not necessarily be the same. You may think that makes me "unfriendly'....but what does telling the 1 in 4 Scots kids who live in poverty that they have to sacrifice progress in the name of policies of a government they didn't vote for, reflecting values most Scots don't share, make you I wonder?

  4. Hi Andy

    "create a fairer, more equal society in Scotland"

    That is what the marketing department claimed!

    "ONLY independence can bring about the progressive change our society and country badly needs"

    If it is all about achieving change for a population and the changes that are promised are so good, then why would they not play just as well on the UK stage? Why must a pair of scissors be taken to a map for them to become a reality?

    If we are all in the UK so much alike (as you say we are) then there is no reason they would receive widespread support. The change would reach a far greater number of people, and it would not be encumbered by questions of currency, funding, and so on.

    1. Bucks boy,

      It would be good to think such changes would play well in the UK generally, but evidence suggests that isn't the case, as the rise of UKIP tends to suggest. If I honestly thought the changes I'd like to see were going to happen within the UK were going to happen, I'd probably still support devolution/federalism.... but realistically that isn't going to happen either, because English voters simply won't wear it. They rather LIKE the status quo.

      We may be alike, just as we share many commonalities with people in the USA, Canada, Oz...Europe. It doesn't mean the only or even best solution is to be in a political union. I don't accept that we should reject independence because it's all too difficult and we should bother to be "encumbered" by questions of currency, funding etc. You really think that's a convincing argument against self determination...?! Why are Scots in your view uniquely unsuited or incapable of dealing with such "encumbrances"?

      I simply don't accept the argument that we have an obligation to accept the status quo to share the goodies around more thinly, reaching a far greater amount of people. Why should the same logic not apply to helping out the Greeks now, or the folk in West Africa struggling to deal with ebola.

      Let's start by making a difference in Scotland, according to our priorities. If English voters have the same priorities, they should vote for them!

    2. Hi Andy

      "You really think that's a convincing argument against self determination...?!"

      Like it or not this is a factor.

      Most will spend a good proportion of their lives productively (all who are able and willing). It is an investment of time and once spent cannot be re-spent. It is unfair to expect a person to jeopardise this by taking on a level of risk they are unhappy with. That is not their problem, that is the problem of those offering the prospectus for change.

      "Why are Scots in your view uniquely unsuited or incapable of dealing with such "encumbrances"? "

      People the world over will cope and manage any situation to their best. Most decided how things are organised at present is adequate for the present.

      "Why should the same logic not apply to helping out the Greeks now, or the folk in West Africa struggling to deal with ebola."

      I believe it should, and it is. The world is becoming better at sharing. It will become better still (that is my hope). I do not believe this process is helped by finer grained division (that is mankind's past not its future). I would go the opposite way, and ask how populations can achieve further integration.

      "Let's start by making a difference in Scotland"

      Making a difference is not enabled or inhibited by the creation or otherwise of new borders and works strongest when at an individual level IMO. State sponsored change is by and large in my view treated with scepticism by most (the world over). Greenpeace on the other hand was started by individuals not nation states (I know, it is far from perfect!).

    3. Of course uncertainty is a factor; it's been a factor no doubt in every decision whether to become independent. Of course there are some who would say they would favour independence even if it made them worse off; there are also those who would say they would oppose independence for Scotland even if it could be proven to make Scots better off.

      You are of course correct that on 18/09 most Scots did decide things were adequate at present; given the relative closeness of the result however it was hardly a heartfelt endorsement of the status quo, was it? All the evidence shows the majority would have voted for devomax, meaning REAL home rule with responsibility for everything apart from defence and foreign affairs.

      You may see independence as a retrograde step, and against the tide of history. I disagree, obviously; it amuses me that so many staunch unionists insist on the benefits of the UK, whilst simultaneously being stridently anti-EU.

      For an increasing number of Scots, only indy seems to offer a chance of providing the kind of society we want; we've given up on the UK project because it isn't fit for purpose, nor can it be rendered so. Let's see what happens after the GE in 100 days - it doesn't seem the indyref victory has really helped save the UK project at all.

    4. "given the relative closeness of the result however it was hardly a heartfelt endorsement of the status quo, was it?"

      Fair comment. Too much of anything is a bad thing and that includes too much "status quo". Some contend nothing is broken in the UK but perhaps they are not looking hard enough or in the right places (or they don't want to look). There is a rich history of change in these islands and long may it continue. It is not right to fear change, but reasonable to be wary of the pace. The level of change proposed at the referendum was significant. Eating one piece of chocolate won't harm you but if you bite the whole bar off you may become a bit ill for a while. It would also have affected 90% of a population who had no say in the matter. The outcome was not unreasonable in this context IMO, I think everyone wants similar things just the means and the pace differ. It is unfortunate it has divided people as it has with identity and politics in the same mix.

      "it amuses me that so many staunch unionists insist on the benefits of the UK, whilst simultaneously being stridently anti-EU"

      It is odd isn't it. They may be having trouble digesting the news that the world is shrinking. I have shared awkward conversations with people who are old enough to have experienced what pre EU Europe degenerated into, so you would have thought they would know better - that's the power of rhetoric for you - and I would argue that is the danger of politicians appealing too much to a sense of identity because people naturally lower their defences. The populations within the EU are more peaceful and stable because of it, the prosperity is a work in progress but it can be made to work I think (I believe it has to work). Still plenty of wrinkles to iron out but the alternative it replaced was tried and found wanting.

  5. erratum... there is no reason they would [fail to] receive widespread support

  6. We are British Scottish, British English, British Welsh , or British Northern Irish as you say Effie those who would seperate this nation as you say try to make divisions where there are in reality none. I imagine that citizens of this country North of a certain point have a fairly similar outlook , for myself i see no difference in my own situation as a working class man in Glasgow as opposed to a working class man in Newcastle, Manchester or any other city you may add we all strive for the same things. The fact that Nationalists actively discriminate against kids from other parts of this Nation regarding University student Fee's etc just shows their hatred and desire to show we are different when we are basically the same. Civic Nationalism my posterior it is based on hatred and division. But yet again a well written blog you are a pleasure to read.

    1. Thanks Freddy. No-one yet has been able to come up with a respect in which David Cameron differs from Nicola Sturgeon, so why base your politics on it. It would be fine for Scotland to choose to raise taxes in order to have free university tuition. But what the nationalists did was to give us in Scotland free tuition paid for by people from the rest of the UK. That's like giving Scots in Edinburgh free beer paid for by English tourists. At root nationalism is founded on an unjust discrimination between people who are not different. Civic nationalism will always collapse into something less pleasant.

    2. Freddy/Effie,

      Once again we have the false caricature of nationalist "hatred" and "division". Such intemperate language has contributed much to poisoning the well of debate in Scotland; it makes you part of the problem, not part of the solution. I'm Scottish. I never have and never will self identify as anything else. My passport is British, because that's the nation-state I live in. I imagine lots of Czechs, Slovenes,Serbs etc may have felt the same before the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Being "legally" British doesn't mean one is obliged to see oneself as British first and Scottish second. If you want to, fine...but please understand that many Scots don't share your view.

      You're right, I often think I have more in common with folk in the North of England than in the South. I also often feel I have more in common with people of the same political outlook abroad than I do with staunch unionists or Tories in Scotland or living next door.

      The university tuition fees thing has already been done to death. The answer of course is for the UK government to do the right thing and abolish the fees in England too, as the German government has done. For all the gnashing of teeth and wailing about the unfairness of it all, the Scottish government are doing things with the money which are approved by the majority of Scots. Free bus passes, prescriptions and care for the elderly. If only such progressive instincts were evident south of the border!

      The tired old narrative that civic nationalism is nasty and unpleasant and must ALWAYS collapse into something less pleasant simple flies in the face of the open and inclusive campaign we just witnessed. Little better can be expected of convinced british nationalists of course; we saw from the self proclaimed "Project Fear" what the alternative to civic nationalism actually is. The avowedly negative campaign run by Better Together didn't present an attractive, forward looking, progressive alternative to civic nationalism. Rather it made Vows it couldn't keep and promised more of the same. More austerity, more cuts, billions wasted on Trident whilst privatising the NHS.

      I, and an increasing number of Scots from the evidence of current polls, find that prospect a lot less pleasant than civic nationalism. You have 100 days to convince them otherwise. Good luck with that!