Ugly face of Scottish nationalism

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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One of the favorite tropes on one side of the Scottish independence debate is that nationalism in Scotland is not like nationalism in Hungary, Russia or the US. It is not “ethnic nationalism”, but rather “civic nationalism”.

That distinction will have been lost on Charles Kennedy before his untimely death, Sir Chris Hoy, and even Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy. Yes, Kennedy, Hoy and Murphy were not attacked for not being ethnic Scots.


They were attacked for not agreeing with the nationalist ideological line: just as ethnic nationalists are always happy to attack people within their own ethnic group so long as they do not agree with their ideology.

But whatever dressing you want to put on nationalism, it only ever amounts to the same one thing: tribalism. And whether tribalism attaches to ethnic identity, religious identity, some ideological position, or just a football team, the end result is always the same: pack mentality and aggression toward “outsiders”.

Is it possible to be in favor of independence for Scotland and not be a nationalist in that way? Of course. You can care about your community and society without being tribal about it.

You can be patriotic, and not be tribal about it: you can contribute to your country and your community with community service, public service, scientific, technological or artistic endeavour and earn pride for your community, without hating foreigners or attacking people who disagree with you.

And you can genuinely believe that your community would thrive and prosper better if politically independent of the rest of the United Kingdom.

A patriot would be rather more likely to lean toward remaining in the Union, even if they did not agree with many aspects of the governance we get from Westminster

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Patriotism and nationalism

This is the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is doing things for your community to make it better and to earn pride in yourself and in that community.

Nationalism is to wave flags, sing songs, and claim pride for the achievements of others – and then duly attack anyone who calls you out on your nonsense. But patriotism has been scarcely present on the pro-independence side in Scotland, which is hardly surprising.

An honest look at the evidence available suggests that independence would be very damaging to Scotland’s fiscal position, and that would have a negative effect on our communities and the things we wish to achieve together, such as good health for everyone, a good education for our children, and a humane society which looks after the vulnerable and the elderly.

A patriot would be rather more likely to lean toward remaining in the Union, even if they did not agree with many aspects of the governance we get from Westminster.

Malevolent ‘outsider’

What has been amply present on that side has been eager, flag-waving nationalism. Point out how Scotland would likely suffer if it were to untether itself from the rest of the United Kingdom and you are automatically a malevolent “outsider”, promptly dismissed as a “Westminster Tory”, a “shill for the ‘elites’”, a “globalist sell-out”, or whatever else.

Any evidence you might bring to the debate is immediately dismissed without any further investigation. And any hope for a constructive discussion is promptly snuffed out.

The basic prerequisite for a society, especially for a society, which claims itself to be democratic, is for people to be able to talk to one another and settle their disagreements through debate and political negotiation. If you remove that, eventually then only way to mediate disputes ends up being force and, inevitably, violence.

We must never, under any circumstances, lose the ability to talk to one another in good faith. But this is exactly what nationalism undermines in Scotland, as it does everywhere else. Calling it “civic nationalism” does nothing to change that.

Yes, the fact that ethnic chauvinism is, largely, not a part of it is a good thing – some anti-English sentiment is obviously present, but by and large we are fine with other ethnic identities.

Yet that does not alleviate the fact that tribalism is just as present and potent as in other nationalist movements, nor the fact that it is tearing us apart as a society and makes us unable to work together for the good of our communities.

And right now in Scotland this is doing far more damage to our country than the “Westminster Tories”.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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