National disgrace

This is a week when it’s hard not to think about nationalism and identity. I’m going to join in the chorus.

English nationalism has mostly been a bundle of contradictions, an incoherent mishmash of arrogance and self-doubt. In the 19th century a sense of entitlement, superiority and greed fired the expansion of an unprecedented empire, feelings which linger today. At the same time it’s pretty normal for English people to refer their own identities wherever possible to some Celtic or Gaelic forebear.

For my part I’ve always felt that growing up as a Catholic in England puts you inevitably outside the mainstream of any English identity. If like me your Catholicism is rooted in Ireland you are likely to have strong family connections back to “the mother country”. You are likely to have had Irish people around you much of the time in your childhood, in schools and at church, or in the social life attached to the church. You learn a different version of history, in which Elizabeth I is an arrant tyrant (not much gets said about her sister), in which you will be sensitized to the acts of atrocity by the British in Ireland, to the point where you are likely to want to disown any trace of English identity.

This isn’t just my imagination. Protestantism has been one of the defining features of the English, and indeed the British psyche. If you’ve grown up in a different tradition, even in a society where Christian practice in almost any denomination has all but disappeared, you will feel that exclusion.

Being neither one thing nor the other I’ve never identified with any nation. It’s true that in the rugby season I would feel vaguely pleased when English and Irish national teams are playing well, but I never feel elated or depressed by match outcomes. Feeling proud of the country you live in or happened to be born in seems to me more or less insane, unless you’re prepared to take on its failures as well as its successes; in truth neither have anything to do with you as an individual.

I understand of course this need to project ourselves onto a bigger canvas, to feel these tribal allegiances, understand that this has at some level been important to human anthropology, in the same way that wolves are pack animals. But since we have developed the power of reflection we don’t need to be ruled by these impulses. In this area at least we can make saner judgements, and live by them.

It was only when I went to the US for the first time that I discovered I did have a sense of geographic identity, but it turned out to be a broad cultural identity. America after all was apparently familiar from TV and film. It spoke more or less the same language. But America felt more alien than any place I’d ever been, and I understood how European I was, how comfortable I felt as I moved around France or Italy, despite the obvious differences in custom and lifestyle

I’m not suggesting that I have no sense of a relationship between my identity and the place where I live. It’s just that any sense of this identity has nothing to do with the abstract fiction that is nationalism. I live in a part of England which through most of the first half of the last millennium had a distinctly contractual relationship with the English crown: in return for the provision of ships to the royal navy the Cinque Ports were allowed to trade freely across England without further taxes or duties. For most people living down here London must have been little more than a story.

Allegiances are understandably local, to the people you know, to the land that feeds you. These things are no longer bound by geography, and the nationalist movements that in part defined the politics of the 19th century in Europe and elsewhere are giving way to other allegiances. For my generation, untouched by the Second World War but growing up in its shadow (and at a time when it seemed quite possible that it would all blow up again, this time with nuclear weapons) the most important political achievement of our lifetime has been the development of the European Union, which has made war between its member states seems practically unthinkable.

The EU at the moment has fallen into a pretty shabby state, reflecting the sclerosis that has gripped its major governments, certainly since the banking crisis of 2008, and probably rooted in the contradictions and inadequacy of the neoliberal ideologies dominating political action for the last 30 years. And it’s here I think that the possibility Scotland might break its 300 year old union with England becomes interesting.

Anti-nationalist that I am I have no sympathy with the SNP. They seem shaped by the Westminster political platitudes they are pretending to reject. Their economic ideas seem dubious, if no more dubious than the politically-driven claims of certain business leaders about the problems of “uncertainty” in an independent Scotland, or the plainly specious claims about increased costs of distribution or marketing (last time I looked Scotland wasn’t planning on moving, or changing its language, or even its currency, despite the huffing and puffing of the London Treasury).

Nor do I believe the unprecedented rise in anti-union feeling reflects a surge in some kind of Braveheart nationalism. It is more a crisis in democratic legitimacy. With just five million people, and a persisting strong sense of its own identity, Scotland has found itself politically irrelevant to Westminster. That doesn’t mean it gains nothing from the union, but there’s no particular need for London politicians to attend to its interests, let alone its divergent political culture.

Scotland is not alone in feeling politicians are playing a cynical game with the system, while serving only the interests of a detached plutocracy and the discredited neoliberalism that has been so good for them (while tearing to shreds the social fabric of the postwar settlement). It’s just that the rest of us have no prospect of change from any of the mainstream parties, while Scotland, through what is more or less a political accident, suddenly has the opportunity to put a real spanner in the dysfunctional works.

None of the arguments being put forward on either side make much sense, and that’s not the point. There’s a strong feeling in England as well as Scotland that we need real change, and no matter how destructive, this is the only apparent way to make it happen.

If I had to bet on the result I’d say there will be a narrow majority against independence, though I could easily lose that bet. But the genie is out of the bottle. David Cameron may have agreed to the poll in the expectation that the independence argument would be soundly defeated, ending that argument for a generation. This seems unlikely to happen now, because what it’s exposed, both in the UK and across Europe, is the increasing inadequacy of 19th century national structures in the more complex and interconnected world of the 21st century.

In this light, part of the problem with the conduct of the current argument is that it should be about independence, which in itself is a 19th century kind of concept. What Scotland needs, as do we all, is a better political model for a world of interdependence, where regional identity and governance can function effectively within transnational frameworks that are themselves properly accountable. The political structures of the UK and the EU are in this respect seriously inadequate. If Scotland does vote to break the union with England politicians both in Westminster and across Europe are going to have to start addressing these questions. Even if it does not, the questions will not go away.


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