Post-Nationalist Scotland

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” ― George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday my wife and I took part in a fascinating radio interview looking at how people, particularly migrants to Scotland, have come to support independence. I hope I’ll be able to share it with you in a month or so when it’s due to be published though at this stage I have no idea how much – if any – of our conversation will make the final cut (the programme is expected to be about ten minutes long, we talked for over an hour and the interviewer spoke to several people apart from us). As one might expect the conversation looked, in part, at the nature of Nationalism in Scotland and how that is viewed by both migrants and the countries from which they came. That part of the conversation got me thinking about my own views on Nationalism and where Scotland is, or could go, as part of our journey towards independence.

Be assured, that this isn’t going to be another lazy attack on Nationalism as we have seen levelled against proponents of Scottish Independence (particularly by those who wave their own flags just as hard under the more sanitised name of Patriotism or National Unity). Indeed, I shall defend at least the logic of Nationalism later in this piece. But I shall lay out why I think it only takes us so far in the philosophy of independence and set out a proposition that there is perhaps a hint of what an independent Scotland could look like in a post-nationalist world.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony of writing this on a day when a lot of folk are watching groups of men defined by their national identity kick a ball around. I never was one for Football.)

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My Rejection of Nationalism

Right from my very first piece of political writing about independence I have prefaced my support for independence with a personal rejection of Nationalism. My support for independence stems naturally from a support for democracy, particularly a form of democracy that is as direct as possible, as granular as possible and built on a foundation of subsidiarity – that is, the idea that while it is valid to determine if a certain power should be handled at local, regional, national or supra-national level, the default position should always be that a particular power is delivered by local government until and unless a compelling case is made to devolve them up to a regional level and then upwards still until an appropriate level is reached. This is a direct opposition to the attitude in the UK Government that says that powers descend only from Westminster and that powers devolved “down” to national, regional or local government or even devolved “up” to the EU or to international alliances/trade deals etc, represent not a sharing of responsibility but a loss of sovereignty.

(Source here)

Fundamentally, my support for Scottish independence is based on that sense of democracy first and it doesn’t end with moving powers just to Edinburgh. My own vision for an independent Scotland is one where the national level government is comparatively weak when considering domestic affairs, providing support and overall strategic framework but little in the way of direct power over the regional and local governments that would be doing most of the actual work. 

In Defence of Nationalism

Not being a proponent of Nationalism, it is as much my place to promote and even to explain it as it is mine to define and explain conservative politics without underhumanising the views of those who, in all sincerity and with valid reason, hold those views. I do utterly reject the supremacy aspects of Nationalism -more on that later – but if there is a case for it it exists in the fact that boundaries between legal jurisdictions are ultimately fairly arbitrary. That blob we draw on a map and say that within it, these laws apply and outwith it, some other laws apply is the foundation of a state but where those lines end up can be rather mutable. Yes, geography can play a part. That river, or mountain range or island may make for a convenient demarcation, especially if the boundary line has or had to be defended from someone who wanted to change it by force. Yes, history can play a role although that just pushes the “reason” further back in time and “what has always been” is not necessarily a reliable indicator of “what should be”. So if an arbitrary reason must be chosen, why not draw the line around a “nation”? – that is, around a group of people who happen to live there and who share some or all of a set of common cultural, linguistic, traditional or other distinctions and see themselves as part of a common heritage, tribe or other broadly connected group. It is this idea that led to the slow shift away from states being largely multi-ethnic empires (that is, a state being based on as much land a ruler could conquer and hold without much regard for the people living there) to the concept of the “nation-state” where the state was defined by the people living there. We’ll call this group of people a nation-tribe to distinguish between the people and the state.

There are and have been places where a nation-tribe was split amongst two or more states but in many of these cases those nation-tribes form a minority in each those states, often one that is oppressed or discriminated against by the ruling nation-tribe (think of the Kurds today who live in the states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey). There are, of course, still multi-ethnic states where several nation-tribes live and in many cases hold identities that can sit in harmony with or alongside a broader identity (someone might say “I’m Scottish and British”, for example).

In most of these states, the nation-tribes still have a strong sense of geography attached to them and barring some migration or catastrophic diaspora events, you can find the greatest density and often the greatest number of that nation-tribe located within a particular geographic area. Willing migrants are a laudable exception to the majority of humanity where, even in this age where travel has never been easier (at least, pandemics notwithstanding), the majority of people don’t migrate much even within their state of birth never mind migrating to another one. A 2013 study found that 31% of supercentenarians born within present-day Germany still lived in or had died in the same town in which they were born and 50% died within 25 km of their birthplace.

There are fewer examples of multi-ethnic states where this geographic component does not exist and the various nation-tribes are spread homogenously throughout it. The United States of America may be the closest example I can think of where its history of mass inwards migration has meant that while cultural tribes like Italian-Americans can often be found clustered in districts within a city, many cities across the state have such districts. Of course, the darker reason for the USA’s homogeneity is not only its foundation on willing mass migration but also its foundation upon unwilling migration and the mass-genocide and ethnic cleansing of the various nations who lived there before the Columbian Exchange along with the deliberate disappearance of those that remain from popular maps even though many exist across the boundaries of the USA’s states.

Geography is therefore itself one marker of being a part of a nation-tribe but it is neither necessary nor sufficient in itself. However, geography also defines and refines many of the other markers of membership of a nation-tribe. The food you eat is determined by the soil in which it grows. Your architecture may be defined by the materials you have to hand to build with. Your music, culture and language may be shaped by the land around you.

So given the desire for a nation-tribe to avoid oppression from outwith, avoid being split by legal jurisdictions which may divide its cultural identity and to allow its own legal jurisdiction to shape itself around the needs and wants of that identity, the idea of a nation-tribe forming a distinct nation-state is understandable to me. In this sense, Nationalism has a valid and logical foundation.

The Other N-Word

Though Nationalism can lead to a minority nation-tribe’s freedom from oppression by a governing majority it has a darker element that it can all too easily slide into. Once the nation-tribe is in control of its own nation-state, it can too easily develop a sense of innate superiority of itself over its own minority peoples living within that new state.

This is the fear that shadows much of especially European politics where structures like the Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights were all founded as a reaction against the Nationalism that tore the continent apart in the mid-20th century and led to the deaths of millions. Few would suggest that Scottish Nationalism would result in that extreme but racism is present in Scotland and many a migrant here (including my wife) has a story to tell about being victims of discrimination.

European political figures who are not hostile towards or are outright in favour of Scottish independence such as Yanis Varoufakis and Guy Verhofstadt are if anything even more outspoken against the evils of Nationalism.


The countries that Scotland is looking towards to potentially back our cause and to formally recognise our state when the time comes will want assurances that their citizens living here can continue to do so without fear or discrimination. Nationalism, in deed or even just in word, will always be a barrier to that, no matter how it is framed.

This said, one of the things that Scotland has done well in recent decades has been to take us some way towards that reframing.

Civic Nationalism

Scotland’s biggest success to date in the reframing of Nationalism has been in the creation of the term Civic Nationalism as a means to try to defuse the instinctive opposition shown above. If conventional Nationalism is about creating a state for the nation-tribe that lives in a particular place, Civic Nationalism is about broadening the definition of that tribe to include everyone who lives in Scotland regardless of where they came from or which nation-tribe they see themselves as belonging to. In this frame Scottish Independence is for the people of Scotland, not just the people born here.

But I do believe that this idea of Civic Nationalism will only take us so far. One of its effects has been to brand (often as an exonym) all migrants in Scotland as “New Scots” and for many this has been a welcome sign of acceptance. But many others reject it and resent it being applied to them – especially if the same people who apply it readily take it away when they discover that their beloved “New Scot” holds different views to them on independence or any other political matter (Tip: a person cannot only be “welcome and valued” when they agree with you). Some who do not accept the “New Scot” label do so because while they live in Scotland they may not intend to be here forever or even if they do, they do not intend to eventually take full citizenship. Indeed, some countries place limits on dual-nationality such that becoming British – or Scottish – citizens would mean surrendering their current citizenship. In the case of EU citizens in Brexit Britain this may mean trading their Freedom of Movement and other rights for something much more precarious.

And the view from outwith – as others see us – remains that Nationalism is still Nationalism regardless of the colour of the lipstick on the pig. Whether justified or not, Scottish Civic Nationalism will always be judged alongside the darker roads of humanity’s history. This has been acknowledged by Nicola Sturgeon who has stated that if it were possible, she would rename the Scottish National Party to drop the “hugely problematic” N-word.


This isn’t to say that Civic Nationalism hasn’t led to progress and to a more inclusive Scotland and independence movement than seen in some other countries. Support for migrants in Scotland has sometimes stuttered and has sometimes been incomplete but it has in several cases gone beyond just saying the nice things for the camera. One of these areas has been in democratic representation. From this year onwards all migrants in Scotland have a democratic voice to help shape the country’s future. Since the Electoral Franchise Act, all residents of Scotland – regardless of citizenship – will be able to vote in elections and referendums in Scotland and have been invited to take part in other democratic events such as Citizens’ Assemblies (which now seem to be suffering from the same legacy name issues that Citizens’ Basic Income used to suffer from before its rebranding as Universal). Scotland now has one of the most expansive democratic franchises in the world (short of Wales which differs only by having more enlightened views on prisoner voting and granted them with less fuss).

Almost no-where else in the world offers non-citizens the vote at a national level like this (EU countries guarantee the vote only in local elections – although as alluded to earlier, this is a much more powerful right than it is in highly centralised Scotland and the UK). This expansion of rights was fought against particularly by the Conservatives who argued that for national citizenship to mean anything, it must confer rights and privileges above and beyond the mere residency status of migrants in the country and that one of those rights and privileges should be the ability to take part in elections and stand for office. I disagree with this argument in particular simply on the basis of the principle of no taxation without representation but on the broader point I do think the question of “What is citizenship for?” is one worth asking in a country that does treat its native-born and migrant populations as equals without distinction and how this may help our country move beyond Civic Nationalism.

In the crude, practical sense, your citizenship would continue to matter when travelling between countries. The diplomacy of migration means that it will be easier or harder to enter certain countries based on your passport and it will affect criteria for being allowed to reside either temporarily or permanently. It will also affect which embassy you contact in the event that you need consular support abroad. But with regards to your life within your country of residence, your nationality and your citizenship(s) shouldn’t be “for” anything. The boundaries of the legal jurisdiction of the state that we call Scotland may have its roots in the nation-state of the land of the Scots, just as it may have in the geography and history that created it but it needn’t continue to be defined by that nation-tribe of Scots nor in the distinction between Old Scots and New Scots, Citizens and Residents.

This should be the next step in the philosophy of independence. An embracing of the cultural distinctions of people who live here but a complete denial of any distinction in rights, privileges or duties that one’s nationality or citizenship might have conferred (or denied) in a previous age. It may be part of a world where there is much greater freedom of movement between states (I would certainly encourage it – another of my motivations to fight for independence has been to fight against the inhumane Home Office) but even if it isn’t, once you are living in a state, any state, you should be able to live there without fear or favour, and with the same voice in that state’s affairs as anyone else living beside you.

We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns, as the saying goes and no community is any more resilient than its least powerful, least enfranchised member. Scotland has taken some positive steps in this direction but it is still far from certain that we’ll complete that journey. We must resist any attempt to give in to the obvious baiting by the UK to frame our democracy around citizenship or nationality just as we should refute any Scottish Nationalist who seeks to do the same. Scotland must work for All of Us or the complaints that other nations just can’t see the difference between “our” Civic Nationalism and “that place’s” Blood and Soil ethnic Nationalism would be, at best, a hollow cry. At worst, any distinction would be one only of degree.

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One thought on “Post-Nationalist Scotland

  1. Pingback: Penetrating Pension Politics | The Common Green

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