This was originally published on 18 May 2015 for Pubs and Publications|
Like most of our readers, my newsfeed (and the news, for that matter) has been full of reactions to the UK election – notably, the unprecedented success of the Scottish National Party in reducing the three major parties to isolated islands (quite literally in the Lib Dem case) in a sea of yellow north of the Tweed. Labour in particular resembles a vestigial Byzantine Empire, reduced from its traditional dominance to a tiny enclave in my own constituency of Edinburgh South, protected from the Ottoman-esque yellow sprawl by a hastily planned extension of Hadrian’s Wall. Thanks partly to Gary’s excellent piece on the shifting meanings attributed to ‘One Nation’ in political discourse, the (in)ability of the SNP to shift how we understand nationalism as a modern political force has made me think about how the history of nationalism still influences politics.
The reactions to the SNP’s rise that I find most interesting are from the political left, who in terms of actual policy probably have a fair bit in common with the SNP platform but who have a visceral reaction to the idea of political nationalism. The politics of nationalism are (supposedly) ugly, divisive and anathema to a progressive vision by their very definition. This instinctive reaction can be seen not just on my newsfeed, but also in the reaction of the major political parties to the prospect of a significant grouping of SNP MPs at Westminster. We’ll never know whether Ed Miliband would have relented and cooperated with the SNP in the end, but the rhetoric leading up to the election was more than just tactics: it represented a deep suspicion of the role of nationalism in politics.
It’s no real mystery why political nationalism has gotten such bad press. The politics of nationalism have often been used to foster division, set neighbour against neighbour and to justify war and conflict. The collapse of Yugoslavia is ample proof that even in modern Europe, letting nationalism out of its cage can lead to genocide. Even today, wars in the Ukraine and elsewhere are rooted in competing and aggressive nationalisms. Nationalism has been a leading cause of major inter-state conflicts throughout the twentieth century, from the Falklands to the First World War, to say nothing of underpinning the logic of fascism. Fascism, we can all agree, is not a good thing.
Yet nationalism as a historical concept – and by extension, how it is generally viewed today – should not be seen in such black and white terms. Historians are taught to differentiate between different forms of nationalism. Colonial nationalist movements helped to bring down European imperialism. Liberal, Wilsonian nationalism defined much of the way that states interacted in the twentieth century and represented a huge stride in delegitimising and limiting warfare. Perhaps most pertinently for any conversation about the SNP, civic nationalism, or the voluntary participation in a non-discriminatory and democratic national project, is based on the notion that the purpose of the nation state is to better the lives of those who live there through shared responsibilities and collective action. Which one might consider to be the theoretical foundation for the modern welfare state. Which is not a bad thing.
It is probably too soon to tell whether the SNP will live up to its stated ideals of promoting a version of civic nationalism, or fall into the temptation of using or creating divisions to further its goals. From my own perspective, it’s hard to see how any mass political party could use such tactics in Britain and hope to remain a mass political party, although I must admit that as an Australian with Scottish parents, the whole ‘I support whoever is playing England’ thing does have some appeal. Perhaps rugby is a gateway drug for nationalism-fuelled organised violence, which, on reflection, makes a great deal of sense. Yet I do think that those who condemn the SNP for the N in their name need to be more precise about the fight they pick with nationalism as a political tool: as with all tools, who is using it and what for is the crux of the issue.