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If there is no alternative, we will soon have to choose one nationalism or the other

In the world in 2012 only democratic nation states have the capacity to challenge global financial power. Which means that we will eventual have to choose between the two nationalisms available to us (Scottish and British) on the basis of a careful assessment on whether they are different or not.

The weekend (and some different tweets in response to yesterday’s blog) pose a simple question about which some balanced intelligent conversation would be nice: is Scotland a variation on England or is it something different? There are three important important issues lying underneath this question and they deserve a better exploration than so far they have had – from all sides of the constitutional debate. The issues are (lazily named) nation, power and class. Let’s have a look at them in order.

The first question is about nation, and here I want to tackle head on a simple false dichotomy in the current debate in Scotland. The debate is very much not about nationalism or not-nationalism, it’s simply a question of which nationalism we wish to choose. No-one is proposing the dissolution of all of the UK as a nation state. The idea that even a slightly greater federalised system in Europe might include the UK is a non-starter given UK politics. In fact, Britain is one of the most avowedly nationalist nations in Europe and defines itself in opposition to other nations more resolutely than most of the nations I am familiar with. To cover my back at this point I just want to make clear that I oppose the neoliberal arguments for independence as much as the neoliberal arguments for the union. That caveat in place, the neoliberal arguments for ‘the UK’ currently running around have a degree of hollowness precisely because they stop precisely at London. So if Scotland is so much better able to shelter from the global financial storm because Britain is big, should the same arguments not extend to the abolition of Britain itself in favour of the power of a larger transnational political institution? The question is unthinkable for one reason – nationalism. The Daily Mail would never accept any threat to British nationalism for a second and no mainstream political party would touch the idea (there’s a whole party set up purely to oppose any imagined threat to Britain’s nationalism). In Scotland we’ve come to define ‘nationalism’ as ‘any form of national identify other than identity with the British nation state’. That might be a fine starting point for political argy-bargy but it is is simply an inaccurate starting point for proper analysis.

So the question isn’t ‘nationalism or not-nationalism’ but ‘which nationalism?’. I have no problem with this. All societies are based on some sort of framework of identity – with the village elder, the magic woman, the king, the bishop or the flag. People worry about identity politics but that’s like worrying about gravity – philosophy and identity are closely linked. National identity got a bit of a hard time for a while because it was seen as a source of conflict. I think this is over played. In fact, in cases like the former Yugoslavia national identity played a crucial role in suppressing a more malign ethnic identity. Most nationalism nowadays is pretty benign and inclusive pointing to its failures is a little unfair. Equally, lauding alternative identity systems needs some thought. We probably accept that ethnically- or religiously-based systems for organising society are much worse than the more inclusive nationalist ones. But some on the left assume that a class-based system would be better still. Well, perhaps, but there needs to be a degree of honesty about the implications – working class movements have not always been a friend to the minorities (especially ethnic minorities). All systems define ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the advantage with national identity is that it is geographically based. This makes it inclusive on a day-to-day basis for the vast majority of people.

In fact, it is more important to consider the relationship between identity and power than it is to dwell on the relationship between people and identity. In a super-crude formulation, social identity either moderates or reinforces power structures. At the time of the reformation, catholic identity acted to reinforce the power of the Vatican while protestant identity acted to moderate the power of the Vatican (in favour of greater power for the princes and kingdoms). This is where we find some real issues about Britain – British identity (as we had just seen) has largely been used to shore up existing power structures. One is social class and social stratification as we have just seen in spade-loads. Right now there is barely a popular sentiment visible in British identity (at least that I can identify) which is of the ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ sort. Britain still expects us to know our place. The other is the economic elite, seamlessly integrated into British identity via ‘The City’. So when Cameron strikes a blow for ‘British independence’ in Europe, the only beneficiaries are big financial interests, but the masses cheer nonetheless.

This is the second point – our only existing option outside the politics of nationalism is what has lazily been called ‘globalisation’. This is presented as an issue of global trade but it is really an issue of global government – the IMF is a right-wing coup being perpetrated on anyone the overall system can make sufficiently vulnerable to be susceptible to its far-right policy programme. The story is that the IMF is saving the Greeks and the Spaniards from themselves. In fact, global finance did everything it could to get them as indebted as it could because that’s how the current system works. Then it stepped in to take possession of what it had destroyed. The only mode that we have now to moderate power is democracy, and that only where there is a sufficient moderating identity system (voting for MEPs has no impact whatsoever on the agenda of the central bankers). The nation right now is the best and most powerful institution we have to protect ourselves from attack by global capital. It is perfectly possible to use the nation to do the opposite – to reinforce the power of global capital – but right now there is no existing or imaginable alternative moderating force, and those who would like to believe that a global working-class revolution not based on the nation state is round the corner seem to me to be kidding themselves on. The relationship between nation and global power is the only big game left.

In turn, this means the fight is about nation state and class. Concepts such as ‘workers of the world’ are very problematically, because they place hope in institutions that do not exist. And increasingly, it seems to me that any imaginable timescale for a global class-based response to global finance which does not use the nation state as its vehicle can be imagined only in a timescale which increasingly seems to me to be impossible. By the time such a system exists there will be too little left to reclaim; global capital will have destroyed too much of our environmental and social capital to leave open any great hope of real recovery.

So what are the options for a class-based nation-state? This is the big question in Scotland. It is a very reasonable argument to make that the UK nation state as a strong moderating force for people against global power would be a powerful tool. It is also reasonable to argue that by comparison a Scottish nation state could moderate the power for Scots but would have much less ability to challenge the heart of the global system. This is where we reach the important question: but is either possible? Is Scotland sufficiently different that we can achieve here what can’t be achieved in the UK as a whole?

And so all the way back to the simple opening question but with no answer. However, there are answers. A token one but an important one is identity with power. It is important to accept some subtlety in identity politics – it is not about what people say they think but what they say they feel. People tend (on both sides of the UK border) to broadly accept the monarchy as an institution. But where 80 per cent of the English claim to be ‘proud’ of the monarchy, only 40 per cent of Scots do. This is more than passably significant – any interpretation of this data implies a fundamental difference in how people perceive their relationship with the monarchy on either side of the border. There are different possible interpretations, but the difference is there. So we need to start to think unflinchingly about what it means.

Which is where my final point on class comes through – and it is dripping with irony, because the people who interpret our identity for us are generally those least familiar with it. So anyone in Edinburgh’s chattering classes will tell you that Scotland is quietly ashamed of the clunking national sentiment of Braveheart. But I don’t really hang around with the Edinburgh chattering classes and in the pubs where I drink that is not the national sentiment at all (for good or ill). And we can have all the academics we want looking at indicators of social attitudes and concluding what we think as a result, but like all social anthropology it is always interpreted from the viewpoint of the observer. And they are generally very distant indeed from the people being examined. Again, I hear a stream of commentators tell me Scotland is just not more socially progressive than England and they and all their friends agree. But it has consistently offered an insufficient explanation of political differences. This, I think, is because it defines the debate in its terms – in terms of how people say they do or do not agree with specific institutional policies, not about how they identify or otherwise with the systems of power that sustain these institutions. That is where we find whether there is difference or not.

So I pose this as an open question and will post on the Scrutiny pages responses from anyone adding something to this discussion (while trying hard not to be repetitive…). It seems to me that right now there is a strong difference in identification across the UK – not universal in any individual case but consistent enough in a single direction to be undoubtedly significant. There seems to me to be a different relation to the UK as a military power, a different relation to the City of London and to the institutions such as monarchy all of which have traditionally reinforced existing power relationships. And it seems to me this gap is widening.

This would mean that Scotland is different and wants different things than (aggregate) England. If the north of England wants to be different then it must find its own identity and means for expressing it. Because, once again, we are not being offered a limitless range of identities with which to fight back against the abuse of power in the world. In fact, for the foreseeable future we have two identity options for challenging power – Scottish nationalism and British nationalism. Right now everything else is imaginary, and over this weekend I have come to be increasingly convinced that there is a marked difference between these two identities.

This, one way or another, is what we on the left have to resolve. Denying the question or implying an undefined ‘third option’ does not seem to me to move us towards a resolution.

Robin McAlpine