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Friday, 7 December 2012

Do Scots Have An Identity And Is It Important?

In October I wrote a blog entitled "I Am Not A Nationalist - But" and did not expect to return to the topic so quickly, but Nicola Sturgeon's recent lecture, "Building a Better Nation" caused me to criticise her argument that, "the fact of  nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motor force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desireable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity." I disagree with her, said so and provoked a reaction from several SNP supporters, leading eventually to the usual accusations that my opposition to SNP policies is based solely on my animosity to the party per se. It is worthwhile re-examining the arguments because Nicola's speech has also been criticised by others, not least Brian Wilson, long-time opponent of Scottish Nationalism, although like so many others of a Unionist bent, a strong advocate of British Nationalism.

I made my position clear in October, not for the first time, but it will do no harm to do so again. I am a hard line, uncompromising Scottish Nationalist, who supports independence for its own sake. No matter how much I criticise the SNP policies, some of which I believe undermine independence, no matter what line is taken by pro-independence parties and the Yes Campaign, nothing will stop me voting Yes in the referendum. In his column in The Scotsman, the day following Nicola Sturgeon's speech, Brian Wilson wrote, "There are plenty who believe fairly and squarely in the cause of Scottish independence, without worrying about whether it is going to mean being better or worse off....the Ex-Faction want independence come hell or high water, for better or worse, richer or poorer. That is an honest and selfless political outlook" Of much more importance, it is a political stance for which the Unionists have no answer. When a Unionist tells me, "You will be worse off" and my response is, "So what, we can make it better," where do they go next?

Nicola claimed Neil MacCormick had divided Nationalists into two camps, the Existensialists and the Utilitarianists, the former in favour of independence for its own sake, while the latter favoured independence as a tool to create a better country. Nicola put herself in the Utilitarian section stating, "My conviction that Scotland should be independent, stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice." She went on to say, "I take it for granted  as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination". Most Unionists would also accept that as a matter of fact and the only difference between those on the self-styled Left in the Unionist camp and the Utilitarian strand of Scottish Nationalism, is that the Unionists see the best chance of Scotland becoming a "more prosperous and fairer country" is in being a part of the UK. They both have the same aim - a fair society - and neither acknowledges Scottish identity as being a factor in the creation of that society.

If, like Nicola Sturgeon and the leadership of the SNP, the reason for pursuing independence is based on the  belief that an independent Scotland has a better chance of being a better, fairer more prosperous country; that identity and nationality has nothing to do with it, it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask that, if the kind of country they seek could be achieved by continuing as a part of the UK, would they still be in favour of independence? It is also fair to ask, as I did and as Wilson did in his Scotsman piece, why stop at Scotland, why strive for fairness in just Scotland, when it might be achieved in the UK? Wilson put it slightly differently but was effectively asking the same question when he wrote, "I doubt if most Scots want to turn our backs on the needs of our counterparts in Newcastle or Liverpool, Corby or Cardiff." Those who responded to my tweet, asking that question, came up with some curious answers, more of which below.

In 1990, during the debates in the SNP about membership of the EEC, as it was then, my objections to membership were on the grounds of loss of sovereignty and my objections have not changed as the centralisation of power in the EU has increased greatly since 1990. In 1990 I wrote, "Sovereignty is a legal as well as a philisophical way of describing the right of a people to govern itself, to determine its own priorities within the constraints imposed by its external environment. Increased interdependence may change the balance of advantage and disadvantage in any "self-determined" act, but it cannot make the principle of self-determination or self-government superfluous. At any level of integration or interdependence, a community of people must ask itself how important it is to retain the right to make its own choices between the options with which they are faced." Since its commitment to the EU, the SNP has never asked the question.

One respondent to my question about creating the "fairer state" in the UK, claimed, "Who are these "Scots"? We have a diverse population", followed by, "There is no homogenous Scottish identity - countries don't have identity", then, "We have Asian Scots, Polish Scots, American Scots etc each with their own identity, but all Scots nonetheless". Just to round off the question of identity, "If folk want to keep a "British" identity then so be it. I've never felt British myself." I don't know what this kind of verbal gymnastics tells us about some of the people who will defend the SNP to the death but I have NEVER met anyone from another country, prepared to go to such lengths to deny they and their fellow nationals had an identity AND that it was important. I have discussed the politics of independence with any number of Europeans over the years and cannot imagine the Irish, Norwegians, Catalans, Basques et al claiming they had no identity and even if they did, it was not important to the question of their nation's independence. That argument would be treated with derision.

Even more ludicrous were the arguments advanced as to why the UK could not create this "fair society". The same tweeter offered this as a reason, "it is not a democratic arrangement and is corrupt beyond redemption" or alternatively, "the UK Government will never allow a fair society to exist". By far the mildest criticism of the UK was, "Scotland and the rUK have diverged socially and politically to such an extent that UK project no longer fulfils purpose." If Scotland and rUK have diverged socially and politically, might that not have something to do with the identity or character of the Scottish people? Is it just an accident that Scots place such store on equity, that the SNP's policies on free tuition fees, free prescriptions, bus passes and bridge tolls are applauded in Scotland and resented in England, where they have come under attack? At the same time, the SNP's policy of aiming to have corporation tax set at 12.5% is hardly going to create "fairness", as the Irish can testify.

Although Nicola Sturgeon's desire for independence is not driven by identity or nationality, she does acknowledge that Scots do have a distinctive identity. However, the main thrust of her argument for independence is contained in the following, "You cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the is only by bringing the powers home, by being independent, that we can build the nation we all want." I do not disagree with a word of that sentiment and it is why I am so critical of the SNP's policies on the EU and the currency. It also underlines the contradictory nature of the SNP's campaign and, Nicola's speech. One of my critics claimed, "You appear to have an "ultra" view which would reject independence other than on your own purist terms" and considers any debate on the EU, the euro or the currency as sterile, ignoring the fact that membership of the EU/Euro and retaining sterling, undermines the very independence he claims to want.

No matter how SNP supporters dress it up, membership of the EU will tie Scotland into another incorporating Union, something more and more people are coming to recognise. Just as Independence in Europe was an oxymoron, it is a nonsense to argue we should wait until we are "independent" before discussing the EU, when the SNP strains every sinew to persuade Scots they will be members of another Union, as soon as we leave the UK. When does their version of "independence" actually kick in? Similarly, retaining sterling will ensure we will not be in a position to "bring the powers home" to create the "fair society"  that is supposed to be the whole point of the independence the Utilitarians claim to pursue. By couching their stated aim of independence in terms of creating a "fair society", they leave themselves open to the kind of questions Wilson et al will continue to pose until 2014. They will have to do better than they have done to date.


  1. As one of your respondents referred to above, I thought I'd respond in a forum less limited that twitter. For the record I'm not an SNP member, or even particularly a supporter, although I do have a large measure of admiration for their track record in government.

    I also have to state up front that I consider much of the problem with current debates around "indyref", whether between pro and anti or within the Yes camp, is ensuring that the Scottish voting public is quite clear that whilst the SNP can propose with respect to what it would like to see in an independent Scotland until the cows come home, only the people of Scotland can dispose of the actual outcomes.

    In short, I think you flog the "identity" thing to death. I'd venture most Scots have a fairly advanced sense of what it means and is to be Scottish, although it's by no means uniform. In some respects I may have more in common with non-Scots, whether politically, socially or in terms of beliefs generally.... but in other respect the fellow feeling with other Scots will over-arch such differences. I imagine it must be the same thing for many people of whatever nationality.

    I've long thought that whilst I may have more in common with say an American in terms of language, history and culture, I've felt more at home amongst Europeans socially, politically and in terms of values generally.

    At base, I am an Existential nationalist; I would believe in it and advocate it even if I thought it would make Scotland worse off, on the basis that it would be better to make our own way. I realise however that such an outlook needs to be tempered for those of my fellow countryman who do not share my views, and need to be convinced that the sky won't fall. Thus I am happy to endorse the Utilitarian approach, on the basis that a large proportion of Scots will find that argument attractive; Scotland can be a progressive beacon, and can be constructed as a social democratic society on the communitarian basis they hold dear ONLY via independence.

    Your approach is flawed because your judgement is impaired by the red haze of Euroscepticism. You are as misguided in your way as the "NATO 2" are in theirs, or those who insist we must have detailed plans for a new constitution, or the monarchy, or the Euro, or the BBC etc. etc. ad nauseam. None of these issues are unimportant, but equally none of them can or should be decided before 2014. Of course people, parties and interest groups can discuss them to their hearts content... knock yourselves out in fact! But... and it's a BIG but, all of these are a distraction from winning in 2014.

    The UK as a system is irredeemably broken and institutionally and functionally corrupt that it cannot be expected to deliver the results Scots want in future. Nor is there any evidence of English voters having any appetite to render the UK fit for purpose - indeed they are on course to reject the EU, they rather prefer the first past the post system, and do not really share the social and political outlook of their Scottish neighbours.

    People like me, whether SNP supporters or not, are NOT denying a discrete and unique identity; far from it. What we are saying, as Nicola Sturgeon highlighted, is that the civic nationalism envisaged is inclusive, non-violent (we just have to see recent events in NI for examples of the kind of nationalism we can do without!!) and focused on utilitarian principles of independence being the best (in fact the ONLY) method of producing the political and social outcomes most Scottish voters want.

    1. What have you said, in any way contradicts what I have said, other than your readiness to write off the entire English nation as incapable of improving the way in which they are governed or improving the society in which they live. You state my "approach is flawed because your judgement is impaired by the red haze of Euroscepticism", without a word of explanation of what that means. What approach, that Scotland has an identity and it does play a part in determining our attitudes to fairness in society? How do you explain the differences?

      My Euroscepticism is based on the reality of what the EU intended, what it has become and where it is headed. If any state/organisation is corrupt it is the EU. Are you seriously suggesting that membership of the EU has no effect on sovereignty? Are you suggesting an "independent" Scotland, in the EU would control its economy? In what way does my opposition to EU membership make my appraoch flawed?

  2. I'm not writing off the English as a nation, I'm saying that the UK polity and it's structures, supported by the governing elite, are incapable of delivering the kind of society which I believe most Scots want. The Scots, by virtue of their small relative no. of MP's at Westminster, have no method of bringing about the kind of thorough change which would be required to make the Westminster system fit for purpose. On top of these structural factors is the underlying fact that the social and political aspirations of the peoples involved are now simply too much at odds to make the union as a project worth saving. I think this "sociological" aspect would apply even in the event rumpUK DID somehow manage to modernise itself such progress towards a more progressive society were possible.

    I'm not interested in explaining the differences; they are there, and most of us take them as read. Explaining the differences, however important in itself as an exercise or historical/sociological project, simply isn't that vital in securing a Yes vote in 2014. I'm generally a Europhile, tho' having studied the institution on some depth at university, I have a fairly well developed understanding of it's good and bad points, its history, and how it has ended up where it now finds itself. For what it is worth, I'm a lot more sceptical now that joining the EU would be the right choice for an independent Scotland given current economic conditions. Be that as it may, the EU membership issue, just like whether we would be part of NATO, or have Sterling or our own currency, or be a monarchy or a republic, or have a written constitution or not, are all matters that can be decided.

    What we do not need to do is waste time and effort trying to resolve them now, both because answering such questions is a distraction from the job at hand, but also because ALL the Scottish people should be involved in deciding them. This will only happen once (hopefully) a Yes vote succeeds in 2014. Unionists are not going to engage in discussing the minutiae of such issues (except perhaps to the extent of sitting on the sidelines throwing rocks and predicting the sky will soon fall). Further, some of these issues probably need to be decided via a newly elected parliament, or at least by the current SG along with those former opponents of indy who "come aboard" after a yes vote in 2014.

    I think your approach is flawed because you attack the SNP (from what I have read of your opinions... so if I am misinterpreting them, then due apologies of course!) for not offering "real" or "full" independence due to their desire to stay in the EUU and/or keep the pound etc. Plenty of people in Denmark, Sweden and other countries in the EU would greet your caricature of how their sovereignty isn't real with derision. As I've said before, I've had similar debates on other forums with people like exel and UpSpake on Newsnet Scotland who hold similar views, altho' their chosen hobby horse issues differ. The belief that only one "pure" type of independence is acceptable, sometimes to the extent that such people would vote No, or at least take actions which many believe harm the chances of a Yes vote and/or give comfort to unionist reactionaries (NATO2 vs the SNP anyone?).

    No one person, sectional interest group or party has the monopoly on what an independent Scotland can and should look like. the ultimate arbiters will be the Scottish people. Their settled will can only emerge when the various choices are put to them, and they elect a parliament from the various platforms and parties presented to them.

    1. Let us start with your last paragraph and that the Scottish people are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes independence. I agree, which is why I oppose the SNP's commitment to the EU and retention of sterling, as neither position would allow the Scottish people independence. You say there are Danes et al who would greet with derision my contention their "sovereignty is not real". According to opinion polls held in various member countries of the EU, there are also plenty of other Europeans - the majority in some countries - and organisations such as TEAM, who agree with me. Anyone who still claims that membership of the EU does not effect sovereignty, really is refusing to face reality. The only time members of the EU can exercise sovereignty is when they surrender it to the EU on entry AND, when they decide to leave the EU, otherwise they have given up control over agriculture, fishing, trade, industry etc. to EU institutions where they can be outvoted by QMV, sometimes to their own detriment. That is not sharing sovereignty, that is surrendering sovereignty. Scots would be outvoted to a far greater extent in the EU, than they are at Westminster. How would you suggest they counter that problem?

      There are people who believe that is better than being an independent nation state and, that is a perfectly honest opinion to hold. My problem is with those who insist it is independence when it is clearly nothing of the kind. The SNP insisted it was independence, hence "Independence in Europe", the architect of which, Jim Sillars, has since come round to my way of thinking. That is why I oppose their policies and why I criticise them. If they were prepared to tell people exactly what it would mean to be members of the EU, I would still disagree with them but would at least respect them for being honest, instead of trying to con the Scottish people into believing it would be the same as being independent.

      You say you are now more sceptical about joining the EU but for economic reasons, the obvious surrender of sovereignty apparently does not concern you and, you are entitled to that view. I believe that sovereignty and who holds it, determines every other aspect of society. Surrender sovereignty and we surrender the decision-making process and control of our own destiny.

      When they first announced they intended to retain sterling after "independence" the SNP again tried to insist it would have no effect on our independence, claiming that having a member on the MPC would ensure that. I have already covered that in another blog and intend to do another to explain the alternative of a Scottish currency even further. The SNP's position was a nonsense and thoroughly dishonest, something which has now been pointed out by several serious commentators on economics. The Scotland Institute has just published a paper advocating a Scottish currency after independence. No one with even a rudimentary knowledge of economics would argue that retaining sterling, allowing the Bank of England to control monetary policy and indirectly both Scottish fiscal policy and the Scottish economy,equates with independence. The SNP and its supporters have tried hard to do just that, completely ignoring even the possibility of a Scottish currency.

      They had argued earlier for membership of the euro, again claiming it meant "independence" and their long-term goal is still to join the euro. They have made themselves look so foolish on both the issue of the currency and the EU, that fewer people than ever, believe them when they make pronouncements. That is damaging the Yes Campaign to a far greater extent than anything I say, any criticism I make. I predicted the likely outcome of the euro, along with many other academics and European organisations over many years, and was accused by SNP supporters of exactly the same charges as you have made. The predictions were right, the SNP was wrong - and how.