No Nationalism Please – We’re British

They say you should never meet your heroes – they never tell you the part about not listening to them talk about politics either. Last month, Simon Schama decided to turn his usually sensitive grasp of the sweep of time towards Scottish independence, or as he calls it ‘a catastrophe that somehow came about in our political sleep‘. (He has a way with words, that’s what I like about him)

In doing so, and repeating the same mantra this week, he illuminated a part of the #indyref that I’d been aware of, but unable to fully articulate, until recently – the fact that what is essentially a debate between two different nationalisms has been framed in such a way as to seem like the assault of a narrow (Scottish) nationalism on the ‘precious’, ‘splendid mess’ of (British) non-nationalism.

Most of the the discussion at present seems to be around whether Yes Scotland’s nationalism is either ‘ethnic’ or ‘civil’ (it is both, read Anthony Smith), after David Torrance’s elaborate piece of trolling in the Herald from April – a false battle which obscures the real point that no one is really discussing the debate as one between two nationalisms.

It only really hit me between the eyes when I read Schama describing ‘legions of die-stamp patriots – whether Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Scotland’s own first minister, Alex Salmond – for whom similarity is identity‘ being unable to appreciate the beauty of: ‘a nation state whose glory over the centuries has been precisely that it does not correspond with some imagined romance of tribal singularity but has been made up of many peoples, languages, customs, all jumbled together within the expansive, inclusive British home‘.

Here was a statement that I’d seen countless times, in different guises, but never presented as beautifully as this – a foundation myth, but a very modern, very British one. The United Kingdom is different, it says. It is a nation, but above nationalism. Now, as foundation myths go, it is pretty good, certainly more believable than the Hungarian one about Csodaszarvas, the magic deer and Turul, the giant falcon bringing the Magyars to Central Europe, but one that is as replete with the invented traditions or imagined communities that Hobsbawm and Anderson wrote about – and don’t just listen me, even the LSE politics blog got in on the act this morning.

What made me most upset was the fact that it was Simon Schama writing this – a man who is no slouch as a historian (some people think he’s terribly populist, just because he’s on the telly) letting his nationalist sentiments get in the way of the evidence. This is a man who knows that the UK isn’t unique as multicultural, inclusive jumble in Europe, because he first made his name writing about the French Revolution. A revolution that was of course the basis for popular sovereignty over divine rule, but it was indeed popular sovereignty over a land made of many peoples, languages and customs, that was still to be united.

He will surely have read Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen, about the struggle of the French Third Republic, after the farce of the Franco-Prussian war, to bring the assorted Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Occitain, Provençal and speakers of innumerable patois into an inclusive French home – an idea probably embodied best by General de Gaulle’s ‘How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?‘.

The more you read about large, modern nation states, the more you realise that they’ve all had a hard time making ‘E pluribus unum‘. I’m sure Schama knows this – he will have read about the difficulties of bringing Protestant Prussia and Catholic Bavaria into a united Germany, and how the most destructive nationalism in history was born in order to find a way to unite them around a singularly German gemeinschaft. He will know about the way Southern Italians feel betrayed that their once great capitals of Naples and Palermo saw their riches literally stripped and wheeled off to fill the coffers of a national, Italian, bank further north, laying the seeds of an inequality that exists to this day. Even (whisper it) ‘die-stamp patriots’ like Putin preside over diverse, multi-faith, multi-ethic states. And while he may be a chauvinist and a homophobe, I don’t think he’d give up Europe’s largest Muslim population to make a smaller Russia more ethnically Russian and Orthodox.

And while it would be correct to say that Scots in the United Kingdom are not like Tatars in the Russian Federation (because the Tatars get to keep more oil money, boom-boom), and I for one have been grateful that we have been held in a more benign grip, never tiring of reminding people when abroad that Scotland was never conquered by force, but willingly entered into an Act of Union. But the United Kingdom wasn’t even the first to do that – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth beat it by 30-odd years.

Now, I actually agree with David Torrance about our own little foundation myth – that an independent Scotland will be automatically a fairer place than at present. We must not be complacent in thinking that a rebranded Scottish right-of-centre party won’t gain more votes than its present incarnation – but I don’t agree with him when he said in that piece in April that ‘British Unionism…by and large, does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground.‘ The foundation myth that says the UK is above nationalism because it is, in some ways, supra-national, isn’t just occupying the moral high-ground, its building fortifications around the moral high-ground to make sure no one else can get onto it.

Critiques of nationalism tend to hit a brick wall when you consider that the world is solely composed of nation-states, and any attempt at finding an alternative has not ended well. That doesn’t make what Hobsbawm, or Gellner, or Anderson wrote any less true, because belief in, or a sense of belonging to a nation is irrational. Following that logic, sadness at the demise of a nation is just as irrational as loving that nation. That’s why I was so disappointed to read the article from Schama, and hear the same logic from others – because while I might expect such intellectual sloppiness from the @UKaForceForGood guy, I didn’t expect it from one of our greatest living Historians.

In short, we’re dealing with a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the future, against a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the past. Recently we’ve had the last two British Prime Ministers invoking the words of John Smith by saying that it is possible to be both Scottish, and part of something bigger, which, as British nationalists, they are bound to see the United Kingdom as. That that bigger United Kingdom is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world is unacceptable to me, and means I’ll be voting to be part of something smaller, but fairer. I get to be part of something bigger, because I want that fairer Scotland to be playing a full part in the European Union, not sniping from the cheap seats. That is my foundation myth – and I’m sticking to it.

A shorter version of this article appeared on on 14 July 2014