3 December 2012

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. "Speak to me..."

I confess, Nicola Sturgeon has never before struck me as a likely devotee of Thomas Stearns Eliot, but I'm always happy to be surprised. Subverting the tyranny of Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan in the First Minister's book of quotations, his Deputy today opened a speech at the University of Strathclyde, with an epigram or two culled from the poet's Little Gidding:

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time..."
Her topic was, unsurprisingly, Scottish independence, and Sturgeon's title "Building a Better Nation".  I dare say a scrap or two of her remarks might find their way into the Scottish press, or be briefly recounted in the sagging corner of a Scottish edition here or there, but they are unlikely to impinge on the consciousness of a UK audience, one way or the other.  On one level, this is perfectly creditable omission on their part, and it would be a surprise if Nicola's thoughts were to invade kitchens across Britain, to be consumed avidly  alongside a gulp of coffee or hasty crumb of toast. On another level, however, that Telegraph or Mail readers will not encounter the sort of nationalistic case Nicola is articulating, is a pity. 

One may wonder what impact, if any, Ed Miliband's "Defending the Union in England" speech over the summer made on the public consciousness.  His remarks were, however, interesting and important in another respect: they attempted to frame understandings and the debate about Scottish nationalism in England in a very particular way. Around half-way through, the Labour leader made the following observation.  He said...

"Why does this matter to the debate about the United Kingdom? In my view, it is absolutely central.  Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism. But even though they often don’t admit it, the logic of the nationalists’ case goes beyond politics and the economy. It insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity with our country a whole. After all, they want to force people to choose. To be Scottish or British. I say you can be both."

"Clean-up in aisle five. The stuffing has fallen out of Mr Miliband's straw man." That "of course", dispensing with economic and political reasons for independence, is doing an awful lot of work, and the general gist of Ed's argument seems pretty plain. For Ed, the resolution of the national question in Scotland ought to turn, finally, on the question of identity. His formulation is simple: if you feel British - even a smidgeon, a smudge, a frisson, a flutter - vote no.  That's some heavy-duty gloss he's applied to the "really-existing Scottish nationalism" whose constitutional hopes Miliband hopes to extinguish. The devil of it is that this highly misleading account of the character of contemporary Scottish nationalism is arguably the dominant understanding of the phenomenon which you meet here in England.

As those of you who regularly follow our For A' That podcast series will know, the state of the Scottish independence debate across the UK is a well-worn hobby horse of mine.  There are several reasons for my interest, not least that I have lived in England since the autumn of 2009, while retaining a strong interest (often via this site and the conversations it has sparked) in what has been going on in Scotland. Squinting north from the lee side of Hadrian's wall affords a certain perspective, and chatting to people in England about the prospect of independence, you come to a view about the sorts of images and accounts of Scottish nationalism which are gaining purchase among thoughtful, inquiring people. They're generally unrecognisable to me, or sketchy beyond measure. If you accept the Miliband model, Scottish nationalists are pre-eminently seen as a rather suspect, bamboozling, ragbag, potentially even slightly sinister, band united around the lurid tat of tartan kitsch and howling Braveheartism.  "I say, old chap. Steady on."   

Let's bring Nicola back in here, and consider the following section from her lecture today...

"One of the great intellectuals of the nationalist movement - and someone we all miss dearly – the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, distinguished between what he called the existentialist and the utilitarian strands of the nationalist movement. The former described those who thought Scotland was entitled to be independent simply because we are a nation, the latter that independence was a tool to deliver a better society.

While I recognise the distinction Neil drew and realise that there are some in our national movement who base their political beliefs more on the fact of nationhood, I would suggest that today most SNP members are an amalgam of these two strands.

For my part, and I believe for my generation, I have never doubted that Scotland is a nation. And while I might not go on about a thousand years of history and that sort of thing I take it for granted as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination.

But for me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.

My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice."

On twitter, the journalist David Torrance described the speech as a whole as "the most lucid statement of modern Nationalist thinking [he'd] seen". And with due credit to Nicola, I'd concur with that assessment. The frustration, however, is that this lucid account will - inevitably - struggle to dent the accumulated woad-smacked, plaid-bound banalities which thrive in the images of Scottish nationalism cultivated by the UK media.  It is significant, too, I think, that not only is Sturgeon's logic lucid - it is also representative of the thinking which underpins a much wider, popular nationalist analysis: if independence is the answer, what is the question that it answers?

At the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow two Saturdays back, a couple of features of the debate were particularly striking. Firstly, the broad gamut of speakers were absolutely united by their fatalism about their ability to realise anything like the sort of politics they wanted within the confines of the British state. More significantly, perhaps, was the mostly unarticulated, undebated, taken-for-granted proposition that an independent Scotland would be better placed to begin realising delegates' left-leaning goals. This found expression in simple, but I think telling ways.  The big crowd-pleaser in plenary and workshop sessions was not independence, per se. The ideas which merited spontaneous cheers and applause included the collective ownership of renewable energies generation, opposition to austerity and welfare cuts and to Nato and to nuclear weapons. 

The critical point is this: here was an assembly of some nine hundred folk, none of whom the reader, lead by the nose by the UK press to expect romantic impractical Bravehearts, would have found remotely recognisable.  Although Sturgeon and the anarchist-marxist-feminist-socialist-environmentalist campaigner who sat in the Radisson Blu last week would likely find a great deal to disagree about politically, and how the institutions of independent Scotland ought to exercise the liberty which constitutional change would afford them, it is fascinating how far these two core assumptions about the case for Scottish independence are i) shared between mainstream and "left-radical" proponents of Scottish independence and ii) both are largely misunderstood and left out of UK press reports only occasionally dipping in to Scottish affairs.

It is a point I've made a few times before, but on a day when Sturgeon's persuasive statement of contemporary nationalism will likely find itself stoppered within the confines of Scottish commentary, it is important to understand we can already detect the straining signs of the UK's accelerating "social disunion". For those who favour the status quo, this drift must surely be concerning.  While it may seem to suit partisan anti-nationalism to see folk like Sturgeon reduced to convenient cyphers and straw (wo)men to be flattened, that the United Kingdom doesn't even appear to be interested in the possibility that all will be changed and changed utterly for it in 2014, hardly speaks to a lively social and political union of reciprocal interest and concern.  Indeed, it perhaps recalls another frustrated passage, from another, arguably more famous, Eliot poem...

'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 
'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 
'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? 
'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'


  1. A really good, well-thought-out piece. And thank you for the link to Sturgeon's fine speech. We deserve a better service from our media in Scotland.

  2. "If independence is the answer" - what are the opportunities it brings?

  3. Help! If Ampocarbuile is not being ironic, wherein is the link to Nicola's speech?

  4. Excellent article.
    Never mind the UK, how many folk in Scotland will be able to hear or read Nicolas speech?
    Very few if the MSM have anything to do with it.
    Optimism can be infectious, and we can't be having that.

  5. LPW

    Nicola maybe has a point.

    I think if the brave new would-be independent SNP state of Scotland fails Kirsty, she'll probably end up voting Tory while waiting in the queue for her dose of socially just methadone soma.

    I think Nicola's speech is fundamentally negative and reeks of the shameless scare tactic of "Vote Yes or get the Tories forever."

    Hardly inspiring stuff. More what I'd expect from the Better Together lot - though packaged differently, admittedly.

    How's about you getting elected? I'd expect you to come up with something better than Nicola's trite.


  6. @ampercuile and Juteman.
    The speech was previewed in yesterday's Herald and has half a page today..... I'd call that fair coverage, wouldn't you.

    Particularly as it was the usual Nationalists non-sense with, as LPW points out, a wee bit of added American poet.

  7. Actually,

    "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time..."

    is as much an argument against Nicola's life's work as for it....

  8. The nominal pairing of utilitarian and existentialist is quite interesting. It implies that one is rational, albeit in a restricted, instrumental sense, while other is about 'being' (or maybe becoming)and is therefore not.

    Behind it is the long debated question (which David Torrance seems not have encountered) about the tendency of liberalism to annihilate sociality & community (neo-liberalism all the more so) and the need for a countervailing force that somehow retains what we value about liberalism.

    Contemporary moral philosophers like Christine Korsgaard at Harvard show how it is possible to be liberal, rational, and existential, and how these apparent categories are not exclusive.

    Korsgaard's homepage is at:

  9. Ta for the link, orpheuslyre. As you say, the reference to MacCormick's distinction is interesting, but not, I think, unproblematic. Although Nicola explicitly avows both strands in her speech, I had an interesting chat with a reader in a pub in Oxford this week, on whether an "instrumentally" orientated Scottish nationalism isn't potentially neglecting "cultural nationalist" strands of the argument. I get the feeling these sort of themes may come up in our For A' That podcast this weekend.

  10. If I could chuck my tuppence worth in I think the cultural nationalist was much more important in the past than it is now. I joined the SNP probably around the same time as Nicola when it was seen as a fairly bonkers thing to do. At that time if you were interested in politics and of a vaguely leftish hue you joined the Labour Party. The SNP were regarded as a joke, people thought joining the SNP meant you had to wear tartan and listen to the Corries and be a Jacobite or some such nonsense.

    At that time a Scottish Parliament far less an SNP Government seemed a distant dream. In the intervening period the cultural argument for Scottish self-determination has largely been won. I know that is a sweeping statement but it is based on a simple truth that people don't laugh at us any more and the idea that Scotland is a distinct nation with a distinct political culture is pretty well accepted by all (except maybe some Labour party activists stuck in the 70s.) That is the reason we already have the basic infrastructure of a nation in place.

    It may be that people outside Scotland need to be persuaded of the cultural argument for Scottish autoonomy but I really don't think most Scots do. The argument for them does boil down in many ways to whether the benefits of independence will outweigh the hassle or whether we can actually make the UK work for us.