Ross Ahlfeld: What pro-EU Scotland can learn from Charles de Gaulle in its quest for indy

CommonSpace columnist Ross Ahlfeld explores how historic French leader Charles de Gaulle may provide guidance for Scotland's pro-EU indy movement

THE imposing Cross of Lorraine Free French Memorial (pictured above), stands atop the Lyle Hill in Greenock, looming large over the Firth of Clyde just as the Free French Navy’s wartime presence in the area looms large in the memory of all Inverclyders. 

The Cross of Lorraine as the symbol of the Free French Forces was suggested by the great Thierry d'Argenlieu, who picked the symbol to invoke the memory of St Joan of Arc, and in 1942 the Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle, paid a surprise visit to Greenock - a visit still remembered in Greenock even now.

Today, the importance of General de Gaulle persists not just in Greenock, but in France itself. The influence of de Gaulle towers over the politics of France just as the Cross of Lorraine looks down on Inverclyde.

The influence of de Gaulle towers over the politics of France just as the Cross of Lorraine looks down on Inverclyde.

For example, during the recent French presidential election, it seemed that the four main candidates had absolutely nothing in common. Yet, on closer inspection, the catholic centrist François Fillon, the leftwing radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon, eventual winner Emmanuel Macron (the liberal), and even the far right (eventual runner up) Marine Le Pen all shared one thing in common: each candidate sought to project themselves as the heir to General de Gaulle and Gaullism.

For me, the appeal of de Gaulle may offer at least some lessons on how the pro-EU Scottish independence movement might better articulate its aspiration to restore Scotland’s post-Brexit membership of the EU

For instance, one of the criticisms often thrown at the pro-EU/independence movement is that it is seeking sovereignty by breaking free from Westminster while surrendering our sovereignty to Brussels. In doing so, it is claimed that the pro-EU/indy movement aligns with the so-called liberal elite 'remoaners' who care nothing for national identity.

Yet, Gaullism offers a retort to this accusation. For example, Charles de Gaulle often expressed opinions which sounded somewhat similar to part of the rhetoric we now hear coming from the Brexiteers. The general spoke strongly in defence of French sovereignty and with equal firmness against unelected, faceless burecrats in Brussels. Yet, it would be incorrect to say that President de Gaulle did not believe in the European Community (EC), and neither did he ever seek to remove France from the EC. 

Rather, he sought to be part of a Europe of nation states all with their own laws, traditions and values; a community of nations that all worked alongside each other rather instead of trying to dominate and control all the nations involved under one set of laws and customs.

The appeal of de Gaulle may offer at least some lessons on how the pro-EU Scottish independence movement might better articulate its aspiration to restore Scotland’s post-Brexit membership of the EU.

At no point did de Gaulle ever envision a European superstate based on the free movement of labour and capital at the expense of community, localism, culture, tradition and the very idea of place. Therefore, Gaullism stands for being in Europe while retaining national sovereignty and it is exactly this credible position which the nationalist, pro-EU movement would do well to embrace.

In other words, the assumption that Remainers are surrendering our sovereignty is negated by Gaullism's middle way. Similarly, associating EU membership with political liberalism is also rejected by the robust nationalism of the Gaullist ideology and its emphasis on a reformed EU restored to what it was originally supposed to be.

However, for many on the indy left, ideas such as the inclusion of social conservatives and an even stronger sense of national unity might seem unpalatable, but as I've stated on numerous occasions, a mass movement must transcend left and right and it must be broad and populist if it is to succeed.

De Gaulle managed to create an alliance which included conservative catholics as well as the leftwing Gaullists of the Democratic Union of Labour. At the same time, the president and his party began to nationalise banks and other industries as well as developing the welfare state, thus creating political and social unity through a strong state.

It's also worth pointing out that since the collapse of Labour in Scotland, both SNP first ministers have been frequently criticised by unionist parties for behaving in a presidential manner as to advance the role of FM and raise the profile of Scotland on the world stage. 

At no point did de Gaulle ever envision a European superstate based on the free movement of labour and capital at the expense of community, localism, culture, tradition and the very idea of place.

Yet, within the Gaullist ideology, the centrality of a strong president as a symbol of national unity is a positive, not a negative, as it is here in the UK with its hereditary monarch as head of state. 

Alex Salmond, for example, was very statesmanlike and, like de Gaulle, Salmond was a populist who managed to find a good balance between left and right, secular and religious, and state and market.

More so, you might recall that Salmond was quite open about his Christian faith and even once said that he "prefers people of faith". Yet, at no point was it ever felt that Salmond was anything other than a secular and tolerant first minister. 

In the same way, de Gaulle was a devout Catholic but he was not a Christian democrat like his counterparts in Italy and Germany. Eventually, Christian democracy collapsed after the Second Vatican Council, when the Vatican undertook reconciliation with the modern liberal state. 

This was then followed by the EU replacing the Christian democratic 'moralised market' of Schuman, de Gasperi and Adenauer with the Anglo-Saxon 'dog-eat- dog' model. 

Therefore, Gaullism stands for being in Europe while retaining national sovereignty and it is exactly this credible position which the nationalist, pro-EU movement would do well to embrace.

Gaullism took another road altogether by forging a fifth republic where faith communities felt safe and protected alongside everyone else. Again, it is this inclusive aspect from Gaullist thought which Scotland would do well to follow.

Finally, a majority of people in European countries have expressed support for an independent Scotland joining the European Union, including a majority of French citizens. 

Perhaps de Gaulle's words to us during his visit to Scotland back in 1942 still ring true today: de Gaulle ended his speech in Edinburgh by quoting the old motto of the Garde Écossaise as to articulate the French people’s feelings of solidarity and affection for Scots - "omni modo fidelis": "faithful in every way".

In reality, we cannot really know what President de Gaulle’s thoughts would have been on the prospect of an independent Scotland seeking to join the EU. We can, however, say with certainty that de Gaulle once deliberately encouraged a small nation to free itself from a British Crown Commonwealth nation with his controversial "vive le Québec libre" (long live free Quebec!) remark in Canada in 1967. 

And so, perhaps embracing some elements of Gaullism into our movement will allow us to say with confidence: "The first republic of Scotland, out of Britain and into Europe!"

Picture courtesy of Kenny Campbell

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.