26 July 2011

Pete Wishart's British nationalist logic...

Kenny Farquharson's column in the Scotland on Sunday a few weekends back, "Britishness is about pop and fish and chips", sent a small disputatious eddy through the puddle of the Scottish blogosphere. On Twitter, Kenny told us that he'd been contacted by an SNP MSP from one of Holyrood's past sessions - identity discreetly undisclosed - whose crisp response to his argument was "A first rate column. Hits it on the head." The essence of Kenny's argument is that...

"The emotional power of this alternative definition of Britishness is a problem for the SNP. Because the Nationalists now make a very strict distinction between the 'social' Union (a good thing) and the 'political' Union (a bad thing). Increasingly, the fight for Scottish independence rests on the SNP's ability to drive a wedge between these two aspects of Britishness, to persuade Scots they can have the social Union in all its warmth and richness, and still live in an politically independent Scotland. That's a tall order, because the referendum on independence is not going to be a coldly analytical argument about constitutions - it will be a tug-of-war of emotions, identities and loyalties. And the SNP cannot bring innate Scots patriotism into play without also allowing the innate sense of British belonging. Here's to a fascinating voyage of self-discovery."

I'd guess that this piece from SNP MP Pete Wishart, writing for Better Nation, "Proud to be British in an independent Scotland" , was at least half provoked by the Scotland on Sunday article. Wishart notes...

"Probably one of the most passionate debates we’re going to have in the run up to the referendum will be around the whole idea of identity and Britishness. Like many proud nationalists I have struggled with the idea of being British and have never described myself as such. But what will happen to the whole concept as Scotland moves towards independence and can the idea make a comeback and even become respectable in nationalist circles?"

Pete's piece has prompted a further response from David Torrance at the same site. I wanted briefly to pick up an aspect none of these pieces explicitly addresses, but which finds resonances in all three. The question: nationalism, so what? Kenny is undoubtedly correct that how the debate on any independence referendum is framed will be terrifically important. In his way, he contributes one version. To distil the view articulated...

Britishness is about inchoate togetherness, in a complex composite identity. While the contents of Britishness may be contested, and even less than programmatically articulated and imagined, the link is the thing. It is no answer to someone voting against independence on the grounds of British affinities, to demand a fulsome definition of their Britishness from them, and to crow when they stammer and struggle to articulate a developed account of their identities. Critically, for those who feel this soft solidarity, and who would vote to retain the Union, (1) these British nationalist sensibilities are taken necessarily to entail (2) participation in the political structures of the British State. Coupled nation (Britishness)-state (UK) relations are presupposed.

One of the fascinating aspects of this sort of position is the deep affinity it has with certain modes of Scottish nationalist argument - and its deep paradoxes in the context of Britain. A familiar Scottish nationalist contention is that the "natural" state of nations is self-government, and that Scotland is in some respect malformed or unnaturally decapitated, a nation without a nation's lineaments, and half mad from the lack of them.  Premised on this general theory of nationalism, many nationalists simply see themselves agents working to escape the paradoxes of Scotland's "stateless nation". By their political endeavours, and by dissolving the Union, Nationalists are striving to suspend Scotland's place on the eccentric periphery of nation-states (particularly European nation-states) and by achieving a general alignment: Scottish nation-Scottish state. Folk who think along these lines tend to have an interest in other nations, contemporary and historical, and their parallel attempts to join the society of states recognised by international law.

If nationalism should entail an integration of nation and state, as this version of Scottish nationalism wants to argue, what to make of Britain? One immediate, easy and very unconvincing answer to this would be to say that Britishness is not a national identity at all, ergo it entails nothing in terms of political configurations. On this view, my Scottish nationalism simply entails that we should be independent; your commitment to ideas of Britishness entails nothing at all.  It is at best false consciousness, a historical distortion or similar ideological villainy. The immediate question is, why not? What distinguishes apprehensions of Britishness and Scottishness so strongly, that one is the "natural" foundation for separate sovereignty, and the other can be so handily and casually dismissed?

Answering this question isn't immediately straightforward, however, it does move us toward the question I posed at the outset: nationalism, so what? One of the big problems is that Nationalist folk minded to make this sort of argument tend to subjectively disavow or reject British identities themselves. They are simply reporting their own indifference to its claims and their incomprehension about how and why others feel moved by concepts associated with Britishness. For some, this shades into outright hostility. I can sympathise with this view myself. For me, Britishness is a concept from which I've never been able to extract much juice. It has never really had any substantial affective content for me and, living in England as I do, I have never found the want of it to be any barrier to warm and convivial relations with the locals.  However, I know a number of Scots who feel differently and who find Britishness not only to be meaningful, but who are skeptical of independence and whose political practice is eminently likely to be informed by the sort of argument adduced by Kenny in the Scotland on Sunday.

What strikes me as entertaining, and paradoxical in its way, is that Kenny's Straw Briton and the Straw Nationalist I'm imagining actually share a basic proposition: the respective nationalisms they articulate have straightforward implications for statehood. If I enjoy a fish supper, and it resonates as a greasy symbol of British solidarity, I'm bound to support the continued jurisdiction of Westminster. As James Kelly notes in a brief but interesting aside...

"I'm not surprised Pete Wishart's article on how Britishness may well survive and flourish after Scottish independence has provoked such an instant reaction. After all, it strikes at the very heart of one of the articles of faith of unionism, namely that while a dual Scottish/British identity is possible within the context of union, somehow the prospect of independence forces people to choose."

However, this is a particularly strange proposition baldly to advance in the context of the United Kingdom today. One of the key grounding logics of the contemporary British state is that different national identities need not, per se, furnish the foundation of the state. English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish - the British contention must be that these national identities need not and should not determine the political structures we adopt. State need not align with nation. Paradoxically, the key appeal of Kenny's mushy pea British nationalism is the belief that the emotional power of British identities should entail an alignment between nation (in this case, Britain, a non-exclusive meta-nationality encompassing England, Scotland etcetera) and the state (the United Kingdom). The irony of this is that Britain is itself basically predicated on abnegating just such a general alignment. For the United Kingdom to flourish as a political unit, national identities within Britain resolutely must not entail a political alignment between nation and state.

This approach isn't abstract or eccentric. It is still alive and well, its central assumptions eminently detectable in current day political debates on Scotland's future. Contemporary mainstream Unionism does not deny Scottish nationhood and Scots rights to self-determination as a "people" are very broadly recognised in UK politics, even by the inveterately hostile. However, Unionists are apt at this point to refer you to beneficial outcomes and securities they attribute to membership of the Union, including militarily, financial, "influence in the world" - and so on.  Calculations about utility maximisation, access to funds, management of risk - are set beside these admitted national identities and collective affinities, presented as commingling reasons to consider maintaining our curious separation between nations and state.  The central contention rebutted by all of this is that nationhood must entail statehood. It need not, say the Unionists. And as a matter of contingent historical fact, they must be right.

In some respects, we can see Pete Wishart's argument as an extension of this to the nationalist side, a parallel move applying a little British logic to Kenny Farquharson's fizzy Brit pop. As I noted above, many nationalists find Britishness a very problematic - and even unattractive - concept. Scottish nationalism, for those minded that way, is about escaping Britishness and the British state as much as anything else. However, I have no reserve in recognising that for most of the Scots population, Britishness is not invested with such negativity - and for many, it may be positive if vague in its connotations.  Wishart's point, as I understand him, is precisely that the SNP's case is for a very British decoupling of nation-state identities. At present, Unionists can say, certainly you are Scots, but why not continue to participate in the state of the United Kingdom for reasons x, y and z? Wishart's corresponding proposition is absolutely, you may feel British, but why should that determine the shape of our political institutions and their ability to decide x, y and z for ourselves? Iain Gray might find the structure of this argument "bizarre", but curiously, it really is not so different to the arguments articulated by his fellow Unionists, against the idea that Scottish nationalism unerringly commits you to a distinct Scottish nation-state.


  1. An Duine Gruamach26 July 2011 at 13:25

    Pretty much spot in, I think. The idea that Scottish identity can exist within the Union quite well, but that some people's British identity would be negated in an independent Scotland seems a bit odd to me.

    I can well imagine that a body along the lines of the Nordic Council might well be set up post-independence, recognising cultural, linguistic etc. links.

  2. I am not sure what to make of this. It's one of these fuzzy logic arguments which tend to lead one down all sort of bizaare little emotional mazes and dead-ends which tend to dump you right were you started.

    What is Britishness to me? It existed, but not as a true national identity. It was simply an idea, a concept that emerged over time, a cross pollination of certain ideas if you will. Institutions like monarchy, and Empire helped root it in communities lending a sense of identity and purpose. A sense that while being Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English...you were part of something bigger than the sum of its parts. That it drew on all these different cultures and from this frothing stew, Britishness emerged...as the lion rampant striding the globe or whatever suitably patriotic image you wish to insert here.

    But it has been in decline for some time and the actions of politicians (largely from the unionist camps) have done a lot of damage to it in pursuit of other goals and ideas. So what is left is the strawman arguments as put foward by Kenny Farquharson & Peter Wishart. They are largely meaningless and intellectually its like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog.

    Britishness was more than the sum of its parts once. But if the best you can come up with is to define it as fish & chips, pop music and long queues in the rain, then you are in big trouble.

    But the unionists and to a degree the nationalists, have somewhat missed the point. The point is that Scotland turned on the union because of the actions of a conservative Government, that was percieved rightly or wrongly, to have acted in a way that was harmful and detrimental to the Scots own sense of worth, and their hopes for the future. The move to independence from Westminster was not sought because we found Britishness distasteful. It is simply that after a ruinous spell under the conservatives we no longer wished to be ruled over by any entity that we had not voted for. I didn't turn on the Union, I didn't turn on the conservatives because of their Britishness or that they were English. I turned on them because I did not trust them to Govern fairly or responsibly or to listen to the concerns of the Scottish people. I still don't trust them...period. I stopped voting Labour for exactly the same reason. Britishness for most of these politicians is something convienient to use, like a rogue wrapping himself up in a flag while waffling on about being as british as fish and chips (which was introduced to Britain by Italian immigrants as far as I am aware) or something else nebulous and ill defined while intending to do great mischief in the name of some free market idealology.

    Cultural identity has to have more substance to it, than mawkish sentiment or a flag lapel pin. So the idea that we will be cast adrift of identity if we break away from the Union is absurd. The inference that we'll have to find our own cultural identity because we won't able to use theirs anymore is mind boggling...are they trying to assert that somehow our sense of identity is part of the block grant, and therefore subsidised by the English?

    Is this the best "positive" spin they can put on the continuation of the Union? We already have our own cultural identity, as do the Irish, the Welsh, and the English. We brought it with us and it went on to form the idea of a seperate British identity. And if we leave the union we take that culture with us.

    I may have already said this here before on another post, but the Unionists seriously need to raise their game. If they keep on this course they will lose by default.

  3. I disagree that this debate will play any big part in the referendum campaign. "Incohate togetherness" is just too vague a concept. Most voters would just go: "eh?" Possibly even scratching their heads at the same time.

    I think it is a debate which absorbs a fair few of what used to be known as the chattering classes on both the nationalist and unionist side but leaves most people stone cold, as most people quite sensibly do not go in for the kind of self-analysis which demands a great deal of thinking about whether one is Scottish or British in the first place.

    That is not to say that people do not feel strongly about their British heritage or that there is no connection between a British sense of identity and political beliefs. In my opinion British institutions like the NHS and the welfare state mean a great deal to Scottish people. But remaining in the Union by no means guarantees a healthy future for those institutions and the ideals they embody - indeed the reverse is possibly true. Independence is arguably necessary to protect them.

    I find it fascinating how the counter-independence argument online is shifting about. A few months ago the unionists were demanding that we explain exactly what independence means in the modern world. Now, despite the fact that the SNP has failed to issue A Definitive Guide To What Independence For Scotland Would Mean In Every Last Detail, they seem to have moved onto completely different ground.

    Although I also think that the arguments we are hearing on the surface are masking a level of realisation among some Labour party activists that the gap between the SNP's view of independence and the Devo Max option is not that huge. Some radical thoughts are possibly being thunk.

    The ex-SNP MSP was almost certainly Andrew Wilson by the way, who took a delight in winding up the more atereotypical type of nationalist by posing next to a Union Jack and suggesting that we should all rally round the English football team. All good clean fun.

  4. I enjoy linguistic semantics - however since the concept of Britannia had only mythical purpose I give it the same credence as the Pope being a shepherd.

  5. Pete Wishart has really beeb British all the time means...

    ...please vote dev max in our upcoming referendum...

  6. @RAP, "I enjoy linguistic semantics - however since the concept of Britannia had only mythical purpose I give it the same credence as the Pope being a shepherd."

    And the concept of "Caledonia" is...?

    ...or is the Pope really a shephard after all?

  7. British = a Scottish sportsman who's doing well.
    Except Stephen Hendry. Who kept on thrashing the South Eastern English.

  8. The Nordic council is mentioned - we already have the Council of the Isles set up under the Good Friday Agreement which brings together the British and Irish governments, the devolved Assemblies / Parliaments of Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, the Manx government and the Channel Isles governments. A federal system has always been the way forward.

  9. hector mcglashan27 July 2011 at 16:28


    This seems to be a perverse inversion of Neil Davidson's idea that the notion of Scottishness only came about as a result of the Union.

    Not surprisingly Wishart's case lacks the intellectual credibility of Davidson's.

    I've always thought that the SNP had more faces than the town hall clock as this is just another example.