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The Case for Scottish Nationalism.

Every revolutionary movement has to come to terms with the nation. Whenever revolutionaries appeal to electorates, they are always national electorates; and until very recently such appeals were always made through the national newspapers and literature which, as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson famously theorised in 1983, “imagine” the national community and chronicle its passage “calendrically through homogenous, empty time.” However transformative the benefits which a revolutionary idea might bring to the whole of humanity, it will be usually advanced first and foremost to the random geopolitical unit in which its exponents had happened to be born.

The nation is the one clause of our destiny to remain exempt from revolutionary challenge. The compromise which has to be brokered with nationalism is exactly the same today as it was for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when they were composing the Communist Manifesto in 1847. They saw that nations were only “lumped together” in the first place to serve the capitalist system, and that these communities would be obsolete once capitalism was gone. Nonetheless, whilst not a worthy end in itself, the nation could at times provide a valuable means; and in later years Marx’s patience with a particular nation was conditional upon its usefulness to the class struggle. An independent Poland would get a qualified thumbs up, for impeding “Asiatic barbarism,” and the American Confederacy a thumbs down, for being on the wrong side of what Marx had identified as a revolutionary war. Today it is evident that nationalism did indeed play a progressive role in defeating European and Soviet imperialism, and that nation-states remain greatly more credible than less democratic alternatives such as the European Union.

Marx and Engels conceded that the class struggle “is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” Yet the place for card-carrying Communists was always outside of these struggles. Their role was to “point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.” Nationalism could only ever be a junior partner because it remained within the historical experience, whilst Marxism was supposed to stand outside of it. After 1917 the Bolsheviks had no option but to reconcile Marxism with the national state institutions from which they derived their newfound power. Contrary to the Bolsheviks’ expectations, however, the nation-state transformed them into its own image.

If Marxists always fudge the issue of nationalism, they are hardly alone in this. The nation, as Marx and Engels saw in 1847, can prove just as advantageous for capitalists as for their Marxist adversaries, and just as expendable:

National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.

The prospect of national “differences and antagonism… vanishing” may appear fanciful in 2014, when Scottish voters are due to decide whether to add their own to the world’s collection of nations. Admittedly, the debate over Scottish independence seems to be almost comically measured and protracted when compared to the urgency with which new nations had peeled away from the British Empire and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Perhaps at some level many Scots still admire their ancestors for adopting an unsentimental, functionalist stance towards their own nation. Indeed, the sacrifice of “national differences and antagonism” to “freedom of commerce” which had so impressed Marx and Engels might be plausibly traced back to the sale of Scottish sovereignty in 1707: a deal which was struck without democratic consent, but never until now subjected to popular challenge. The traditional romance and sentimentality of Scottish nationalism no doubt compensates for a more realistic popular conviction that the nation has been hitherto sold at the right price.

The Union, deindustrialised and demoralised, no longer provides so vivid a future for its subscribers. Yet the UK’s distress does not automatically confer credibility upon the alternatives, and doubly so if there is only one, officially sanctioned alternative. Scotland is currently required to choose between a clapped-out Union and a nation-state which their ancestors had never bothered with as a going concern in the first place. The revolutionary does not know where to look – either option seeks solace in some depleted, history-worn institution.

Scottish nationalism is at its most attractive in its conservative, nostalgic moments, when it harks back to the supposed social-democratic certainties of a time prior to Thatcherism. It is at its ugliest when maintaining that the UK electorate is irreconcilably Thatcherite and that the UK’s democracy will be forever stacked against Scottish social democrats. The UK, it seems, is an arena in which progressives will always lose, and so they can only retreat to their own wee state, where they will be surely entitled to dominate. That there is a fund of anti-democratic feeling within Scottish nationalism should not come as any surprise: the whole movement is predicated upon a rejection of democracy on a large scale.

The Scottish independence initiative is merely the latest episode in the UK’s ongoing crisis of democratic sovereignty. Far from beginning with the 1998 Scotland Act, this crisis has been steadily deepening like a sequence of coastal shelves since the political failures of the 1970s. But before nationalism can afford a solution to this crisis, one has to overlook or to even agree to carry all of its baggage. We are here detained by two implications of nationalism: democratic sovereignty and cultural nationalism. The former is of great value, the latter is worthless. Either can exist within a nation without the other, and yet there is no nation which presents a purely contractual democracy with negligible cultural exclusivity.

Cultural nationalism is always sinister when encountered in a political context. The Scottish nationalism of such writers as Tom Nairn and the late Stephen Maxwell lacks the straightforwardness of a bald demand for more democracy. It will not suffice to say that these thinkers are simply democrats – they are nationalists, and their nationalism entails something more rounded and existentially cumbersome than just the terms of the contract between a citizen and a certain state. They have taken the liberty of importing nationalism from the civic sphere into your very identity.

Do you want it woven into your human fibre, this most banal and vacuous of all ideologies? Cultural nationalism privileges the supposed cultural properties of a nation, however unremarkable or inauthentic, simply because they are national. It concocts a “national character” out of those attitudes and prejudices which are designated, for whatever spurious reason, “national characteristics.” The gigantic question of why we cannot live happily without this existential clutter is answered with eternal, ringing silence.

Tom Nairn is famed for scoffing at “the great tartan monster,” but this is only because it represents a “popular sub-romanticism” rather than a “vital national culture.” At times, however, he proceeds beyond calling for national cultural fulfilment or rejuvenation. In his introduction to Faces of Nationalism (1997), we find Nairn hoping to “transcend materialism and idealism, in the encrusted traditional sense,” through the establishment of “a more plausible link between biology and kinship on the one hand, and the world of politics, nation states and resurgent nationality on the other.”

Nairn quotes a connection made by the geneticist Steve Jones: “The term “nature” itself derives from the Latin natus, that which is born, “nation” from the same root.” He appeals for further study of “the pre-history and evolution of the kinship (literal and metaphorical) which effectively links natus to nation and then, under modernity’s impact, to nationalism.” Nairn has emigrated far from his native Marxism, which had contended that rather than having their political identity determined by “kinship,” frozen in Latin, or crushed by the weight of tradition as it bears down “like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” human beings should take control of their own destiny. The theory of nationalism represents Nairn’s great historical failure.

Scottish nationalism acquires momentum once it is rinsed of culture, and instead advertises itself as a means of delivering greater democracy to anybody who happens to be wandering past. In this model, the purely contractual relationship between a nation and its citizens leaves the former looking rather like a bank: an organisation to which adults subscribe in order to further their own interests. You do not, unless you are extremely odd indeed, sing stirring songs about your bank or ceremonially commemorate events from its history. You do not, in other words, look to it for culture.

Yet even here Scottish nationalism is at best a force which reacts to events, and at worst one which exploits them to mercenary advantage. I know that it will not do to classify Scottish nationalists as vultures who are gleefully descending upon the carcass of the British state, but a lurid, parasitical strain runs through the entire ideology. The Scottish state will have to be restocked and enriched with new ministries and embassies; Scottish nationalism at times resembles a gigantic job creation scheme. The heart of this movement is not really sincere about reclaiming sovereignty, for along with its insistence that nothing will change other than the seat of government is an implication that the electorate will remain passive, distant supervisors of the new state.

A state’s sovereignty is rather like a human shadow – it can never be left behind – and as Neil MacCormick has reasoned, “states themselves are the origins of the ties that bind them… this is precisely why they are binding.” One might even argue, as Geoffrey Howe did with reference to the EU in 1990, that “sovereignty is not virginity, something you either have or you don’t; a nation can add to its own strength… by distributing it to a wider and more authoritative entity.” What has been “surrendered” as of late, however, is popular or democratic sovereignty.

The scholar Quentin Skinner has traced the “momentous” beginnings of popular sovereignty to a mere “linguistic slippage.” Once they were schooled in Machiavelli, seventeenth century lawyers stopped “focusing on the need for rulers to maintain their own status or state… [and] began to speak of their obligation to maintain the states over which they ruled.” A revolution was contained in this change from his state to the state, and the world was put on a road which would end with the third article of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

Naturally, the counter-revolution would be led by lawyers. Sovereignty is by definition illegal, since, like God, no system of justice or regulatory power can exist above it. To establish a new state, even one with a pre-existing legal system, is an act which defies all known legality. A sovereign state can incur debts and observe the provisions of treaties, but these are in reality political promises, not legal requirements. By the twentieth century, however, states were suddenly conspiring with the fiction that they were the subjects of a brand new phenomenon called “international law.” Alas, international law was always the will of one or more sovereign states and usually the USA. As Skinner has observed, “the ideal of humanitarian intervention has yet to be invoked in such a way as to challenge the sovereignty of any major state.” The law professor Anthony Carty dismisses legal sovereignty as “a mechanism whereby states can invoke the language of interest and security under a cloak of legality.”

International law is essentially a rather merry sort of fraud: a framework in which weak states give up their sovereignty whilst the sovereignty of the strong remains in operation. Within domestic politics, the same resort to legality may disguise a similar imposition upon the weak: the removal of the levers of power from democratic control. The UK submits the supreme example of this, in trading in enough sovereignty to take the danger out of its democracy.

It is dazzling. If you want to use the power of the state to prop up calamitous banks or to intervene in the private lives of ordinary people, then the system is your servant. At the other end, if you want to vote for the government which makes decisions about your life, then the system is suddenly complicated and your choices constrained. Scotland is now governed by three parliaments: Holyrood, Westminster, and Brussels, which between them form an echo chamber in which the clear voice of the people becomes a pathetic blurred moan. The parliaments dance before your eyes: Holyrood claims to be transferring sovereignty from Westminster, only to promptly pass it on to Brussels; Westminster entertains the prospect of reclaiming sovereignty from Brussels, whilst promising to cede more powers to Holyrood.

Sovereignty originally possessed a regulative function, in providing a means of identifying which authority took precedence, and the EU and devolution seem to be wilfully returning us to a practically medieval chaos. Within the Scottish independence campaign, the obfuscation of popular sovereignty leads both sides to a sort of synchronised hypocrisy. Excruciatingly, Alex Salmond demands Scottish independence out of one side of his face and maintains that Scottish sovereignty should be devolved to the EU out of the other. Unionists insist that Scotland will have greater power by pooling its sovereignty within the UK, whilst they are simultaneously aghast at what has already happened to their sovereignty within the EU.

The American political system readily demonstrates the perils of percolating sovereignty through too many tiers of government and of, even worse, forcing it to obey the law. The American state can only act to any effect when there is consensus throughout the political and legal system. Historically, the UK executive has been able to make and unmake any law it wants, but the 1990 Factortame case, which established that the 1972 European Communities Act must take precedence over every subsequent act, essentially suspended the exercise of UK sovereignty. The EU appears to constrain UK sovereignty in ways strikingly similar to that of the Constitution within American politics, but the same sovereignty lives on through both the brute facts of power and the UK’s continuing right to leave the EU. The 1972 Act ultimately made every piece of European legislation an expression of British sovereignty.

The UK electorate therefore finds that the sovereignty available to it in day-to-day politics appears only in the act of disappearing. The Westminster government behaves as if it is powerless, but the distant sovereignty on show at Brussels remains, in fact, a property of Westminster. Scotland, however, is granted the opposite: a superficially more powerful government, which is underwritten by no real sovereignty at all. Murky decisions about finance and foreign policy are consigned to a remote and suddenly far more alien government at Westminster.

Scottish voters can hardly reject their new sovereignty as fake and demand that it be put back in the bottle, but their state has yet to acquire sufficient democratic legitimacy. The turnout for Scottish parliamentary elections has never reached sixty per cent and in 2011 it had fallen to 50.4% (the Scottish turnout in the last Westminster election was 63.8%). For all the current talk of Scottish nationalism being fuelled by anti-Tory spite, more Scots have voted in an election which produced a Tory-led coalition than in any won by Alex Salmond.

Only one option in the Scottish independence referendum represents a vote for sovereignty. Scottish nationalism provides an opportunity to edit the current political system down to a single state apparatus in which democratic sovereignty would be absolute and indivisible (albeit with delegated European supervision and a foreign monarch). But supposing that even such a pure manifestation of the Scottish nation contained flaws, and supposing that these flaws were not peculiar to Scotland, but shared in common with every other nation in the world. In the long term, the nation could be ultimately destroyed by its sheer, gaping inferiority as an economic unit.

[The successive instalments are provisionally entitled: (2) The Case for the City State; (3) The Case for the City; (4) The Case for the Nation as a City; and (5) The Case for Edinburgh as a City of the Future.]