I am not a Nationalist

This post is my response to a recent post in Bella Caledonia by David Morgan, entitled I am a Nationalist, which you can read here. David Morgan is none too keen on those who say, I am not a nationalist, but …… This of course is exactly my position. I am not a nationalist, though I have always been in favour of an independent Scotland. Morgan’s article is very interesting and well worth reading. I agree with much of what he writes. My prime objection is that he conflates two very different meanings of nation – nation as a country and nation as a people who claim a common descent.  This is clear when he writes, Put simply nationalism is the extremely dangerous idea that countries should be governed according to the democratically expressed wishes of their citizens and not in the interests of a miniscule power elite. Here we have what is for David Morgan the basic, but erroneous, equation, namely that nation = country. This is just not true. For example in Canada, the indigenous people of the Americas are known by the term First Nations. Yet of course the First Nations peoples have no country of their own. Most do not even have a province of their own. A nation can exist without the need for it to have its own state or country.

We have two recent reminders of this. The annual Tartan Day celebrations in New York came around earlier this month. This was about celebrating Scots and perhaps Scottishness and was open to all who regarded themselves as in some way Scottish. It is not primarily about Scotland the country. It could though be regarded as a national event inasmuch as it is to celebrate all who belong to the Scottish Nation. Nation here in its original sense of those who share or claim to share a common descent. In March many parts of the world were celebrating St Patrick’s Day as a celebration of all things Irish. Again this could be regarded as a celebration of the Irish Nation. What it could not be reduced to was a celebration of the Republic of Ireland.  For the very good reason that many people who consider themselves to be Irish do not live in the Republic and have no desire to do so.

I also dispute the second claim expressed in the sentence quoted above from David Morgan’s article. The bit where he  asserts that nationalism means that countries should be governed according to the democratically expressed wishes of their citizens and not in the interests of a miniscule power elite. Again I would contend that this simplistic equation is not borne out by history. Even in the case of Scottish history. The Wars of Independence for example were fought and led by the country’s or should that be the nation’s miniscule power elite. While many outwith this elite also fought for the nation’s independence, the nation remained under the iron rule of this miniscule power elite.

There are more recent examples of where nationalism had little if anything to do with the democratically expressed wishes of citizens as opposed to a miniscule power elite. On the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War we should not need reminding of the crucial role that Serbian nationalism played in detonating that war. The Serbian elite in the pre First World War Kingdom of Serbia expressed and promoted, at times violently, a rather extreme notion of nationalism. This Serbian elite wanted the Kingdom of Serbia to expand to include all Serbs within its new expanded boundaries. Which was not necessarily an ignoble aim. What was a lot less noble was that this elite were none too concerned about how this Greater Serbia emerged. They were also somewhat inconsistent in their claims for a Greater Serbia. They not only wanted all areas where Serbs were in a majority to be included, they also wanted all areas where only a minority of the population were Serbs  to be included. Furthermore they wanted areas where Serbs had lived in the past, but no longer did so, to be included in this Greater Serbia. Not exactly an example of nationalism as a promoter of democracy.

It is this not so positive side of nationalism that David Morgan just simply ignores in his article. Now Scottish nationalism has nothing in common with Serbian nationalism of a hundred years ago. My point is that you cannot simply deny the existence of this side of nationalism. I have no problem with people like David Morgan who are happy to call themselves nationalists, as he makes it clear what kind of nationalism he supports. What I object to is the lazy claim that all people who support Scottish independence must be nationalists. The basis for my support for independence is democracy, not nationalism.  I have written about this way back in 2012 in a post entitled Is Scotland a Nation?- see here.  My conclusion to that post still stands and I am happy to quote it now – Scotland the country, Scotland the land has existed for centuries with its own distinctive customs and laws. It is on the basis of its continuing existence as a distinct entity – a state – that I support Scottish Independence. Let it be us – the people of Scotland, wherever we come from – who decide our future. Some of my more recent thoughts can be found here and here.

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1 Comment

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One response to “I am not a Nationalist

  1. David Morgan

    Hi Alister

    Thanks for taking the time to create such an extended and well argued response. It’s good to see people taking a critical approach to what I’ve said, and not just taking it all at face value.

    First up I should apologise if I came across as being critical of folks who reject the nationalist label – that certainly wasn’t my intention. Hell – some of by best friends are ‘not nationalists’ 🙂

    What I was trying to do was to probe beyond that a bit deeper in order to try and expand peoples thinking and encourage them to ask some broader questions about what is happening in Scotland right now and how it fits into the wider context of global history.

    The reason I didn’t go into discussing the negative behaviours that can become attached to nationalism is because that’s the interpretation of nationalism that I think we’re probably all familiar with and which, for most people, make up their sole understanding of what nationalism is or could be.

    That received wisdom is something that I think established ruling elites have come to rely on as a very easy means of fending off challenges to their authority. Indeed within the last few days we’ve seen concerted attempts to try and bring down prominent independence campaigners by labelling them as ethno-nationalists (http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2014/04/16/ethnic-cleanse). I’m pretty sure that people such as Gandhi and Mandela must have faced such accusations in their time as well.

    What I was really interested in doing in the article was trying to explore other strands of political thought around the subject, primarily those that emerged in the late-18th and 19th centuries which shaped the whole concept of the modern nation-state and consequently the shape of the whole world that we live in today.

    Perhaps I’m just dabbling in sophistry here but I certainly wouldn’t classify the Scottish Wars of Independence as a ‘nationalist’ struggle in the sense in which I’m using the term. Instead I’d classify them as a Feudal Monarchist struggle to determine the outcome of a dynastic succession crisis. Incredibly the Scotland that we live in today is still hugely shaped by those forces of feudal right. It’s something that’s defined the whole of Scotland’s military history within the union, through mechanisms such as man-rent. The whole of the history of Highland Scotland can still be read against that background of feudal power.

    And yes – there’s a long history of nationalist movements being co-opted by ruling elites, or leading to the creation of new ruling elites. Once that happens you often see aggressive, expansionist tendencies coming through – something that for the purposes of argument I’d classify as ‘Imperialism’. That was certainly the case in both France and Germany in the 19th century, and that you also refer to in the case of Serbia.

    I’m conscious that that may come across as nit-picking, but I do think it’s important for us to build up a nuanced understanding of how such ideas have evolved or have been manipulated over time. Otherwise we really do run the risk of democratic reform being led astray.

    Probably lots more to discuss, but I’ll leave it there for now.

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