Scottish independence and the potency of nostalgic mythology

As an Englishman with strong Scottish connections I have watched the debate over Scottish independence with interest and no little frustration.  It has not been an edifying affair – apart from that moment of weakness from Salmond, when his utter inability to provide intelligent answers about a Scottish currency laid bare the fact that there was more to the debate than the assertion of identity, the debate has been an entrenched war of words between nationalisms, generating plenty of heat but little light.  I think the most interesting lessons from it are about the conduct of politics, the role of national mythology, and they go well beyond Scotland.

As a boy, during visits to friends and relatives in the deep Jacobite territory of the Western Highlands, my fascination for history led me to swallow the myth whole.  We stayed in Moidart, where seven trees (the perfidious English had forbidden the erection of monuments) commemorated the Seven Men who greeted Prince Charles Edward Stuart on his arrival in Scotland; we climbed the impossibly narrow steps on the monument at Glenfinnan to mark where the Jacobite standard was raised (a spot now much more famous for the railway viaduct that features in the Harry Potter films); we drove around on the roads and bridges that General Wade had built to subjugate the rebellious Scots after the first Jacobite rebellion. I drank in the Jacobite mythology.  Scottish Nationalism, enjoying its 1970s renaissance, was everywhere.  And perhaps understanding that Scottish Nationalism was the creature of the landowners of the East coast manoeuvering for a share of the predicted North Sea Oil bonanza; that the SNP had eagerly embraced the sectarianism that had long disfigured Scottish politics, was part of the process of coming to political maturity.  Above all, the understanding that, far from being the romantic figure of mythology, Bonnie Prince Charlie was a dissolute wastrel who held Scotland in contempt and saw it as no more than a means to his pretence to the English throne, was a powerful corrective to the influence of mythology.

A brilliant blog post by Gerry Hassan last week opened up the debate about Scottish mythology and self-image as it affects the independence referendum, but its implications go much wider than that.  Hassan argues that much of the independence narrative is founded in a more-or-less explicit political nostalgia:

The independence debate offers two clear roads. One stresses that we should tell ourselves comforting stories which say that everything is alright north of the border, and will be even more alright if we become formally independent. The other entails looking at our myths and recognising them for what they are, examining the details and then discussing whether we can and want to collectively mobilise the resources of our nation to do something about them.

So far the dominant narrative of the SNP and most of the independence movement has been to choose the former. This is a ‘Back to the Future’ outlook grounded on the allure of the supposed ‘golden age’ of Britain 1945-75 and dream of a ‘New Jerusalem’ Scottish vision.

This is the mindset of Tom Devine, Joyce McMillan and Iain Macwhirter and large parts of ‘civic Scotland’ who are pro-independence or supportive. It is a yearning for a simpler, less complex world, one where change and its pace are less frenetic, and society and life is more ordered, tidy and frankly, hierarchical. There is in this an elegiac quality and even a palpable feeling of loss, bewilderment and anger at how the modern world has turned out.

It’s an obvious reaction to a political and economic system in deep crisis. But it is a mood that is reflected across the political spectrum in the rest of Britain too, and even among those political parties that claim to be radical.  The resemblance to the appeal of UKIP is obvious, even if it obviously lacks the raucous xenophobia (although the old adage that no Scottish populist politician ever lost votes by blaming the English still applies, and one can still see that in the jibes about “Westminster”, still presented – wrongly – as a repository of wholly English values).  But it also brings to mind the appeal of some strands of Labour thinking, and the Green Party.  Blue Labour is a response to contemporary problems that mirrors Hassan’s analysis closely, and lacks the self-awareness and the understanding of history to realise that its central themes of family, flag and faith are – absolutely precisely – the narratives that the English political establishment of the early nineteenth century in particular, scared by popular discontent and the revolution in France, used in seeking to stunt the growth of a distinctly working-class political identity – and, in a different context, still does.  The Green Party talks of structurelessness and openness, but its very lack of structure means that it reflects existing social structures – especially the social hierarchies that its overwhelmingly middle-class membership and support base take for granted.

And the mythology that all these views reflect – even Blue Labour, whose rhetoric was so powerfully established in community – is a privileging of the individual over the collective; it is, in the literal sense of the word anti-political.  It rejects the idea of politics as a collective and pragmatic activity, and prefers nostalgia to optimism.  It is a political method based in the indulgence of blaming the Other – the English, New Labour, immigrants – rather than seeking a collective agreement for change. When the SDP was founded in 1982, Ralph Dahrendorf, director of the LSE, remarked caustically that it was the party of those who longed for a better yesterday.  Today’s “none of the above” options are the SNP, UKIP and the Green Party; how little things change.

And this is reflected in language and political method that is inward-looking and self-referential.  The tactics of the Yes campaign’s supporters have come under some scrutiny: this blog post sums them up, and they will be familiar to anyone who has argued online with Greens and Kippers as well as Trots (for a Labour activist, the most interesting thing about a Twitter debate with a Green is how soon he – and their aggressive Twitter warriors are almost invariably male  – will refer to Iraq.)  It’s a political method that, to my mind, overwhelmingly belongs on the Right – based on slogans and grandstanding rather than on critical and open debate – even when its proponents, Greens and Trots, self-identify as on the Left.  It’s rhetoric designed to close down debate, not open it up.  In the depths of economic crisis and democratic deficit, that method is not a luxury we can remotely afford.

The reason why I would vote “no” if I had a vote in Scotland is not because the idea of Scottish independence is inherently absurd.  An independent Scotland would be a medium-sized EU nation with considerable economic strengths and resources – provided that Salmond’s non-position over the currency could be sorted out.  And I do not for one moment challenge Scotland’s right to decide. It is that the rhetoric of Nationalist Scotland is backward-looking and simply does not address the issues of effecting change in the real world.  It is neither optimistic nor grounded.  And we in Green Brighton – or indeed almost anywhere that has elected a UKIP councillor – know where that political method leads.

One thought on “Scottish independence and the potency of nostalgic mythology

  1. As someone who has spoken to literally thousands of people who plan on voting Yes in the referendum, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single one that was doing so based on anything other than how to change society in the future.

    In fact, I’ve never seen anyone trying to draw a logical connection between the Jacobite uprisings and the Indyref. (By the way there are a number of factual errors in the Scottish history that you have provided)

    However, as a Labour party member, can you please tell Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy to stop telling me to vote No because we ‘fought fascism together’? The war ended 40 years before I was born, it’s not actually relevant to the debate.

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