Chauvinism and construction in Scotland's referendum discourses

By Michael Marten
August 11, 2013

On 18 September 2014 a referendum will take place in Scotland that will decide whether or not Scotland should become independent of the rest of the United Kingdom: the referendum was a key manifesto pledge of the Scottish National Party that won the last elections in the devolved Scottish Parliament. The question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – will allow the vast majority of people resident in Scotland the opportunity to choose independence for Scotland, or reaffirm their commitment to the three centuries-old union.

The two opposing campaigns are already hard at work on the issue. The unionist movement consists of the three major UK parties: the ruling Westminster coalition Conservative (Tory) and Liberal Democrat parties, along with Labour (all are now essentially neoliberal parties, though it is worth noting many grassroots Labour activists – marginalised by the party hierarchy – are not). They are campaigning under the banner of Better Together, though divisions in the campaign are emerging as Labour activists in particular struggle with the Tories. The independence movement consists (unsurprisingly) of parties with their roots firmly in Scotland: the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Greens, and Scottish Socialist Party and others (along with numerous elements of civil society, the arts and more – broadly, though not exclusively, a movement that tends towards the left and centre-left). They are campaigning under the banner of Yes Scotland.

My own position on this issue is important before discussing further detail: I expect to vote ‘yes’ in 2014, though I would never identify myself as a Scottish nationalist, as will become clear. This is why I feel Eric Hobsbawm’s warning does not apply to me (that it is impossible to seriously study the history of nations and nationalism as a committed political nationalist because ‘Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so.’(1)). What I want to do here is look briefly at the categories being discussed. My position in this debate has arisen in part from these reflections.

The unionist side are British nationalists. This is not how they tend to describe themselves, and those who do so can expect to be vilified (the novelist Alan Bissett describes this happening to him when he uses the term; see also Gerry Hassan‘s writing). Instead, the unionists expend much effort at deriding what they see as a narrow nationalism that the SNP (in particular) are supposed to represent. And yet, in arguing for a united country, the No campaign – whose website homepage has the heading "The patriotic all-party and non-party campaign for Scotland in the UK" – espouses a very clear form of chauvinistic nationalism. The Better Together website’s About page explains that they think "Scotland is a better and stronger country as part of the United Kingdom… [retaining the existing devolved parliament but also keeping] the strength and security of the United Kingdom." This is a point reiterated in several ways on another page that supposedly argues "The +ve case", including embarrassing comments about the British armed forces being "the best in the world". The case being made is largely an essentialist one about greater strength, unclearly defined, in a world that is a threat (indeed, internally they call their own campaigning strategy "Project Fear").

There is little self-reflection here. For example, we might want to ask: wherein lies this ‘strength and security’? As Simon Gikandi (e.g. in Maps of Englishness) and many others have described over the years, English identity in the colonial era was created largely on the basis of empire and the domination of peripheral neighbours (Wales, Ireland, Scotland), indeed, the novelist James Kelman argues that "Britain is not a country, it is the name used by the ruling elite and its structures of authority to describe itself." The growth of empire and the growth of global British trade are intimately linked, and this has played a role in post-World War II British foreign policy too.

Even with the independence of most of Britain’s colonial possessions overseas, military engagement since the war has often been at least in part about securing trading advantages for Britain. Apart from 1968, Britain has been engaged in military conflict somewhere in the world in every single year since World War II. Many of these conflicts have been of dubious legality (the 2003 invasion of Iraq is simply the latest in any such list), but in any case, given the evidence of abuse at the hands of the British from 1950s Kenya to 2000s Iraq, those on the receiving end have rarely felt warmly about British military adventurism, even when cloaked in a mantle of ‘liberation’ or ‘freedom’. Britain is also – against the consistently expressed will of the vast majority of Scots in whose territory they are based – one of a handful of states with nuclear weapons of mass destruction (making no obvious move towards disarmament as they are obliged to do, in fact, quite the reverse). There are increasing numbers of Scots who do not see in such indicators a ‘strength and security’ they want to be associated with. And yet much of Better Together‘s rhetoric is about such forms of chauvinist nationalist identity.

In contrast, the Yes Scotland movement is light on identity issues, but strong on the opportunities for positive change that a ‘yes’ vote would bring. Whereas the Better Together campaign worries about the ‘threats’ that would face an independent Scotland, the Yes Scotland website (‘the campaign for an independent Scotland’) speaks of the opportunities that would arise, and does so in a positive way, as their Why vote Yes page argues: "This is an exciting and historic opportunity for our nation. We can choose a different and better path." Independence, they argue, is about ensuring that "decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – that is by the people of Scotland. It is the people who live here who will do the best job of making our nation a fairer, greener and more successful place." Such an emphasis on opportunity, self-determination, fairness, environmentalism and success is not about essentialist interpretations of the past.

There is no Braveheart here (such twee nonsense is left to the Tourist Board!): instead, there is a positive image of what Scotland could be in the context of self-determination. Yes Scotland is treading a fine line here: on the one hand, they want to extol the virtues of positive opportunity, whilst on the other, they seek to address some of the fears that the ‘no’ campaign is seeking to raise. The difficulty Yes Scotland have with this – and they have at times failed to recognise it – is that the ‘no’ campaign will mostly seem to ‘win’ such arguments, since they are demanding facts about the future, something that is patently impossible to provide (and Better Together know this).

The alternative to the unrelenting negativity of the ‘no’ campaign cannot be unremitting optimism, however, since voters will simply regard that as naïvety. That is something that Yes Scotland have sought to avoid, with reassurances about Scotland ‘the day after’ the referendum. There is probably more they need to do in relation to thinking about the future, particularly in looking at other countries of similar size and context such as the Nordic countries (Lesley Riddoch’s Nordic Horizons does some of this; see also recent National Collective blog postings). The international context will, I think, become more important as time goes on, and offers Yes Scotland the possibility of meaningful insights into what an independent Scotland could be.

Why is all this important or of interest in the context of a project like the Critical Religion Association, which is seeking to understand categories of analysis?

It seems to me that the referendum debate offers us an insight into the interaction between categories which have a very definite end-point in the form of a referendum on 18. September 2014. Ostensibly, both the Better Together and the Yes Scotland campaigns are addressing the same issue, and yet the debate is happening in terms that mean they are effectively talking past one other:

The tendency for the British nationalists is to connect to a chauvinist nationalist identity that emphasises the place of Britain above all else. There is little recognition of what might need to change: no sense that British nationalism is a contaminated brand, or that the Scottish place in Britain is marginal, not only in relation to England, but especially in relation to the de facto city-state of London. The liberal use of the language of ‘patriotism’ and ‘pride’ and similar terms reflects an emphasis on identity based on a particular understanding of ‘tradition’ (or, as Scots might say, "it’s aye bin!"), rather than a future of potential and possibility. Of course, it is a truism to say that it is always harder to campaign positively for any kind of ‘no’, but whilst there is support from corporate sources for Better Together (some profoundly problematic), there simply does not appear to be a creative or inspiring hinterland underpinning the Better Together campaign, as Joyce McMillan recently noted. A negative referendum result would (in the short-term at least) almost certainly curtail any moves towards alternative possible futures for Scotland – the Westminster neo-liberal parties would see no incentive to give the devolved Scottish parliament additional powers, and the head of Better Together has made clear that is not how they see their role.

The Yes Scotland approach tends towards a constructivist perspective, one that argues for creating something by taking the steps that are necessary for that creation. What Yes Scotland and other independence campaigners want to do is "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation" (paraphrased by Alasdair Gray from Dennis Lee), or to refer to Hobsbawm again: "Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round."(2) Independence, in the eyes of Yes Scotland - and the various energetic and creative think-tanks and artistic movements that support independence (such as Bella Caledonia and National Collective, both, in different ways, models of creative civic engagement) – is not the end of a process, but the beginning of something new, something that allows for the creation of a state that will, ideally, be congruent with the developing national identity that Scots want to pursue, but cannot at the moment.

The journalists Lesley Riddoch and Joyce McMillan have both argued in different ways that this idea of constructing a better society is what will motivate them to vote ‘yes’. In such a vision, voting for independence is not an end in and of itself, but a step on the way towards a society that more closely reflects what it is that Scots want. What the ‘yes’ supporters are aiming to excite is the imagination, in the belief that a community of people that can imagine a better future can also bring it about. This involves building on the past but not being held hostage to it, as Dominic Hinde puts it: ‘The historically rooted aspects of Scottish identity will not vanish, but they must be selectively built upon… Self determination for Scotland has the potential to be a Stunde Null, and that involves reimagining parts of the national consciousness which have no place in a modern society.’

Of course, there are chauvinists on the ‘yes’ side and constructivists on the ‘no’ side, but the overall tendencies are pretty clear. Perhaps it is the incongruence of categories of discussion here – chauvinistic essentialism vs. optimistic constructivism – that is one of the reasons why the debate itself has been characterised as negative.

Finally, in thinking about categories of analysis when considering responses to a question such as independence, we might be able to point to essentialism and constructivism as alternative approaches, but what this means for the vote itself next September is unclear: fear and chauvinism have often defeated creative and inspirational constructivist approaches – but there are also examples of the reverse happening, and I am hopeful a more positive approach will win out, and continue to work for such an outcome. Certainly, Yes Scotland’s case that the people of Scotland should decide Scotland’s future has an undeniable logic to it, and the fact that Scotland is even debating independence is met with bemusement by many outsiders.

What is clear is that were it not for the common date of the referendum in 2014, many observers might struggle to realise that the two sides are even discussing the question of Scottish independence, so different are the categories with which they engage.



(1) Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, London, 1990, 1992: 12.
(2) ibid, 10.

This article is also available, with a range of additional hyperlinks to research and commentary material, on CRA: http://criticalreligion.org/2013/07/04/chauvinism-and-constructivism-in-...


© Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and an Ekklesia associate. More on his work, background and publications history is summarised here.

This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the Critical Religion Association (CRA), developed out of the University of Stirling Critical Religion Research Group. CRA is bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CriticoReligio (@CriticoReligio).

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