Robin McAlpine: Nationalism – a trade union for the people

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says the Ruth Davidson brand of nationalism needs closer scrutiny

I'VE argued a couple of times recently that while I recognise Ruth Davidson's skills, I'm also very conscious of what seem to me to be her limitations. This week, as she took a shot at intellectualism, she clearly reached those limitations.

I don't want to argue that she was wrong or silly because that's been done. I want to argue that it is for the independence movement to challenge her "thinking" (quote marks very much needed) by giving stronger and more coherent meaning to the philosophy of our cause.

Let me start with her arguments. She works from the wearisome unionist argument that supporting existing nation states is not nationalism but supporting new nation states is. 

Read more – "Doublethink" Davidson lambasted for accusing SNP of "Orwellian" nationalism

Demonstrating how silly this is requires only a photograph of her sitting with the gun of a tank poking through her legs, a union flag waving behind her and a caption below saying 'Davidson rejects nationalism'.

Had Davidson considered doing a little light reading in preparation for her talk she might have come across the core academic theories of nationalism. Probably the three most important are Ernst Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn (though there are more recent theories, too).

Very loosely, Gellner sees nationalism as when political administration and cultural-linguistic identity cover the same space – and he sees it as a direct outcome of modernity. When you get to complex modern society, the management of those societies is more stable when the politics and the 'people' overlap, unlike, for example, in an empire.

Nairn, too, sees nationalism as a kind of response to imperialism in which people respond to external political rule by emphasising cultural signals that they are more than just a bureaucratic outpost of someone else's empire.

Anderson has perhaps the best known theory in 'imagined communities' – the idea that what nations really are is a group of people who are only loosely connected, 'imagining' themselves to be in an extended community held together by culture and symbolism.

The reason that British nationalists (like Ruth Davidson) get away with the abuse of the language of nationalism is largely because the British media has bought into the myth of 'non-nationalist' Britain as much as anyone.

You can read loads more about all of this – but as far as I can tell if you've got this far you've already read more than Davidson.

Here's the crucial point – while all writers on the subject identify many kinds and variations of nationalism, the British unionist theory that only 'secession nationalism' (non-nations that want to be nations) is nationalism and that already-existing nationalism is actually patriotism is supported by no serious theorist that I know of.

This is even harder to sustain when Britain is undergoing a process of largely culturally-driven secession (from the European Union). When Ruth Davidson proposes a European government with standardised public holidays, laws, regulations, school curriculums and so on, when she calls for the abolition of a national army and the union flag and an end to the word 'British', then she can lecture Scots about her commitment to battling nationalism.

Because here's the thing – there is more or less no person in the world who is not wholly reliant on and deeply committed to the nation state system. I get deeply irritated by the 'citizen of the world' crowd who, hypocritically, expect someone else's nation state to provide the police to protect their MacBooks as they check into a hotel in someone else's country using someone else's roads paid for by someone else's nation state raising taxes on their population.

If you are a fascist, an anarcho-syndicalist, a theocrat or a believer in undemocratic kingdoms or empires, or of a single world government, then you have taken a legitimate position from which to attack nationalism. Everyone else is some kind of nationalist.

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Now there are many kinds of nationalism which can be grouped roughly into three categories (though there is crossover). Civic nationalism is best understood as 'territorial democracy' – here's a territory, here's who lives in it, they all get to chose how it is governed.

Cultural nationalism is based on history, culture, language, art and symbolism. In differing ways it sees a historical and cultural difference between one place and another and in differing ways wants to celebrate and protect that difference.

Ethnic nationalism sees the nation state as the expression of genetic determinism linked to geographical destiny – the 'blood and soil' model.

In theory, this is a spectrum from 'totally inclusive' to 'totally exclusive', but in reality Britain's 'civic nationalism' could easily be seen to be more exclusionary than the Republic of Ireland's 'cultural nationalism'. Then again, the point of an 'imagined community' is that you're free to imagine that you are whatever you want to be.

This is why Britain – one of the most nationalist countries in Europe – is allowed to imagine itself to be not nationalist at all. That is one of its nationalist myths.

Let me define my nationalism and make a plea that the independence movement has the courage and vision to debate its nationalism (while pressing the unionists to define theirs).

This stuff is all endlessly complicated and permanently negotiable. For example, I'm pretty sure there are some of you who think my typification of Britain as civic and Ireland as cultural is wrong, while others will agree.

The reason that British nationalists (like Ruth Davidson) get away with the abuse of the language of nationalism is largely because the British media has bought into the myth of 'non-nationalist' Britain as much as anyone. They think the massive amount of money spent on promoting the monarchy in recent years is 'just a bit of fun'.

Watch this brilliant short video. It takes audio of the BBC's coverage of a North Korean public celebration and imposes it on top of the BBC's coverage of the Queen's 90th birthday. It very elegantly exposes the British nationalist propaganda model, its hypocrisy and its patronising attitude towards others.

But it's also because the Scottish independence movement has been completely bullied out of a real debate about the nature of its own nationalism. So bullied that the current leader of the party of Scottish independence seems deeply uncomfortable with any hint that she might in fact be a nationalist.

So let me define my nationalism and make a plea that the independence movement has the courage and vision to debate its nationalism (while pressing the unionists to define theirs).

I believe that the democratic, universal nation state is the highest form of human civilisation we have ever achieved. To create a system where people who will never meet are joined in a shared project to give up their own income through tax to create a society which is good for everyone is as good as humans get in large numbers.

I believe that not every group of people will necessarily wish to pursue exactly the same collective project, so I believe that nations not only can be different but should be different.

I therefore believe that nation states should be structured such as to best give their citizens the maximum chance of achieving the kind of national project they wish to pursue, but still be of a sufficient scale to respond to the complex challenges of the modern world. Smaller nations have regularly (and predictably) been shown to achieve this better than large nations.

I will always be a critic and never a patriot. It is not nationalism but patriotism that asks me to remain silent in the face of my nation's victimisation of the citizens of other nations.

This means that I believe nationalism is a function of people – that the nation state is explicitly a contract between each of its citizens, and not a contract between individuals and 'the state'.

However, I believe that patriotism is instead a function of power and institutions. You are patriotic to an army or a Queen or a system. It is an act of subservience to power. I believe that patriotism is a force for bad, that demands unquestioning loyalty, even in the face of evil ('that's our troops in a horrific and illegal war started by us – so time to stop criticising').

I will always be a critic and never a patriot. It is not nationalism but patriotism that asks me to remain silent in the face of my nation's victimisation of the citizens of other nations. No nationalist ever asked me to be silent about the plight of other peoples; patriots do it all the time.

I reject entirely and completely any idea that a nation state is a genetic expression. It is a circle drawn consensually (hopefully...) on a map. Its 'people' is simply everyone who lives inside the circle – how they got there or their genetic (or any other) attribute is irrelevant.

But I embrace cultural nationalism. The United States of McDonalds and Apple and Google with its bland, characterless architecture and branding and styling and sound has infected the world with a regimented uniformity in a way no 'nationalist dictator' has ever managed.

I reject entirely and completely any idea that a nation state is a genetic expression. It is a circle drawn consensually (hopefully...) on a map. Its 'people' is simply everyone who lives inside the circle.

I love – really, really love – cultural difference. I go on holiday not for sun but for place. I want those places to stay as culturally distinct and unique as is possible. The best way to protect different national cultures is through cultural nationalism which need in no way be a game of 'better and worse'.

For me, nationalism is a tool to balance the overwhelming influence of the very powerful and very rich (a group now dominated by transnational corporations) with the power of citizens collectively and individually. It is like a trade union for the people in the face of the overwhelming political, social and environmental control being exerted on us by commercial interests.

Nationalism is a commitment to a place. It is a belief that the place in which you live is a place worth saving for your children. Globalisation has shown no care for the environment which for it is a consumable. Only the nation has the longitudinal desire to protect place from power. If I'm ever patriotic it is to our trees and burns and glens. They deserve to exist for longer than Google.

And I think that about covers it. I have no qualms about describing myself as a nationalist, both civic and cultural. I think it is simply an honest description of what I am. It's also the honest description of everyone else in Britain (and Europe, and the developed world).

The question isn't whether we're nationalists, but what we mean by that. Ruth Davidson's description of her nationalism is severely wanting.

The question isn't whether we're nationalists, but what we mean by that. Ruth Davidson's description of her nationalism is severely wanting. Like all the worst nationalists, she wants you to focus not on her ingroup but someone else's outgroup. If you support independence for Scotland, you're Ruth's outgroup.

If only we could show more courage in defining what our project is about at a fundamental level, it would free Ruth Davidson up to focus on her day job of driving wedges between catholics and protestants, independence supporters and unionists, children born of rape and other children, the poor and the rich, the disabled and the able bodied.

I believe that, in Scotland, a better form of nationalism than hers can bring them back together.

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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