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federalism, independence referendum, politics, scotland

All nationalisms are not the same.

There has been a subtext to much of the coverage of the independence debate over the last three months as the London media has started to take a closer interest in what is going on in Scotland.  It has brought to the fore a latent tendency in much metropolitan commentary on Scotland to see the Scottish National Party as in some way a far right organisation hiding behind radical clothing.

Commentators like the Times’ David Aaronovitch and many of the contributors to the Guardian’s Comment is Free even say that Alex Salmond is really a clone of Nigel Farage – “two peas in the same hard pod” as the former put it.  This is because they are both nationalists and therefore base their politics on notions of race and ethnicity.   Salmond may SAY he supports more immigration, not less – but that’s just to dupe naive leftists in Scotland.  Underneath the woolly radical, the racist wolf lurks.

This is why the Salmond loves Putin story got such prominence. Not because of what Salmond actually said about Putin, which is what most commentators had been saying about him before the annexation of Crimea. But equating Salmond with Putin fixes the image of the dangerous authoritarian.  The Scotsman commentator, John McTernan, even called the First Minister an “imperialist”  suggesting presumably that he has designs on annexation of Northumberland.

It’s perhaps understandable that some people find it hard to believe that the Scottish National Party is not a far right organisation like the True Finns or Italy’s Lombard League. To some people, the mere mention of the word nation is suspect – except of course when it is the British nation. Somehow Tony Blair wasn’t seen as a neofascist when he talked of cool Britannia, and nor is David Cameron an apologist for the far right when he celebrates Britain’s role in the Second World War.  So perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that nationalism hasn’t always had such a bad rep.

In fact, democracy and civic nationalism have always been very closely linked, certainly since the European revolutions in 1848, which was called the Springtime for Nations.  Nationalism throughout most of the 19th Century meant the democratic assertion of popular sovereignty against dynastic empires.  During the Winds of Change in the 1950s, which blew away the British Empire, nationalism in the southern hemisphere was closely aligned with liberation movements of the dispossessed. When all those Eastern European countries declared their independence from the Soviet Union after 1989 they were not cast as right wing, neo-fascist or reactionary.

Of course, Scotland is not under the domination of a foreign power, and such comparisons are of limited relevance. But that doesn’t mean that it is wrong for this free nation to seek to govern its own affairs if it feels that government from London is no longer acceptable.  And many people in Scotland believe that London is no longer concerned with its best interests – indeed that the City of London financial establishment has become a parasite on the UK.

I keep being told that it is wrong for Scotland to seek to release itself from the grip of metropolitan finance capital because people in the North of England, and the South West, “need our help”.  But no one could seriously argue that Scotland should give up its democratic aspirations because other regions of the UK do lack the wit or determination to affirm their own. Anyway, the point surely is that Scotland is a nation not a region.  I have been astonished in recent months at the number of people south of the border, and in Scotland, who seem not to believe that this is the case.

Some academics appear to believe that Scotland ceased to exist when it joined the Union – even though no one would argue that England extinguished itself three hundred years ago when the UK was borne. Scotland never ceased to be a nation after 1707 and has an inalienable right to self-determination. It already has a sovereign national parliament; independence merely extends self-determination to the economic sphere.  Federalism might have been a viable alternative to independence had there been an open minded and enlightened regime in Westminster.  The House of Lords could have been reformed into a regionally elected Senate, and the UK reconstructed as a federation. But that moment is surely past.  There is no will in Westminster to set up an English parliament, create a new level of federal government and give autonomy to the English regions.

The Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander says that a No vote will lead to federalism, but Liberals have been saying that for over a century. It’s certainly not going to happen now. The various schemes for “more powers” offered by the unionist parties have been unconvincing when they are not incoherent. There is no consensus among them about the way forward and no guarantee of any further significant devolution of powers. Even as a non-nationalist, I find myself almost irresistibly drawn therefore to the Yes campaign.

As the author and former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway – surely one of the most humane and non-authoritarian thinkers around – put it last week at a Saltire Society event, it is impossible in this climate to see any possibility of real change happening without a vote for independence. The only way to achieve federalism in a polity dominated by the myopic city state of London is to remake the UK as what is should always have been: a truly multinational entity in which the component parts – Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the English regions if they wish, have genuine political autonomy. Perhaps then they could come together in a new political arrangement recognising the equality of all parts of the UK.

But it would have to be on the basis of equality. There can be no continuing with a remote government which so fundamentally lacks an understanding of the moral foundation of Union that it would threaten unilaterally to withdraw the pound and force economic ruin on Scotland. That is redolent of the kind of economic destabilisation that the old British Empire used to deploy in colonial countries in the Middle East and Africa. The demonisation of Scotland’s elected First Minister – the elected leader of Scotland – is another.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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