How civic is the ‘new Scottishness’?

Posted on 27 April 2012

Photo: Lathrisk

The findings from the YouGov polling in the new British Future report underline the complexities of modern nationalism in Britain, highlighting the power of national symbols such as flags, cultural practice and rituals, the historical past, and geography in shaping popular attitudes towards community and identity, says Andrew Mycock.

The polling raises interesting questions about so-called ‘new Scottishness’ which is strongly associated with those seeking to secure Scottish independence. The data suggests that many Scots share a vision of the Scottish nation and society which is multicultural, diverse, inclusive and tolerant. However, the importance that a majority attach to place of birth (be that parental or personal origin) suggests ethnicity remains an important factor in how Scottish nationalism and nationhood are popularly understood.

The poll confirms research I have recently published which argues that the structural dynamics of Scottish nationalism differ little from those of other nations of the UK or indeed overarching conceptions of Britishness. I argue that modern nation-states have evolved from ethnic-based statehood to adopt incorporative civic nationalist models which predominantly draw on the institutions, rituals, and myths of a dominant ethno-national group or groups. This means that nationalism in Scotland is defined by a complex confluence of ethnic and civic dynamics which reflects its distinctive historical past but which is also strongly influenced by the formation of the overarching British multi-national state. This has ensured that political and cultural nationalisms evident across the UK are a product of extensive integration, encouraging identity multi-layering which has also been extended across the former British Empire and other diasporic communities.

This has not however limited claims by leading figures within the Scottish National Party and other supporting independence that modern Scottish nationalism is ‘wholly civic’. Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has argued that Scottish national identity is ‘inclusive, diverse and exciting’ when compared to its ‘narrow, bland and boring’ British counterpart. For Salmond, whilst British multi-nationalism is ‘backward-looking’, Scottish nationalism would appear to possess entirely civic qualities which, if a reality, would be truly unique.

My study of SNP policy documents and speeches reveals however that the party’s shift from ethnic-based nationalism during the 1980s and 1990s has not been absolute. The SNP framing of a modern Scottish nationalism draws heavily on a historical legacy and institutional framework which explicitly recognizes the ethicized foundations of the Scottish nation and state. For example, the SNP have sought to ‘embed Scottish history, culture and heritage’ in a range of policy areas. The teaching of Scottish history in schools has sought to prioritize Scottish pre-Union history whilst proponents for the introduction of Scottish Studies into the curriculum suggest it will allow pupils to learn of Scotland’s ‘rich heritage’. The SNP have also promoted the revitalization of ‘indigenous’ languages such as Gaelic and Scots which have been ‘suppressed and oppressed’. This approach draws on an ethnicised view of Scotland’s national past and its relevance to contemporary national culture and identity which lacks balanced recognition of the diversity of historical experiences amongst its citizenry.

The British Future poll also notes that 60% of Scots still positively associate the Union Flag with an empire in which Scotland was an active partner. Scottish nationalists seeking independence tend however to draw on post-colonial themes which appeal to some ethnic minority communities whilst often (if implicitly) Anglicising questions of British statehood. It is therefore not surprising that only 11% associate the Saltire with empire, particularly as the SNP’s continually overlook Scotland’s own post-imperial legacies and dilemmas in favour of articulating an unremittingly positive view of the Scottish nationalism. But empire has allowed for Scottish nationalists to  laud the Scottish imprint on the world and enduring ties with diasporic communities. There are though ethnic undertones in how these links are understood by the SNP, such as when the initial appeal for the Homecoming in 2009 sought to encourage ‘Blood Scots’ to come back to Scotland.

An independent Scottish nation and state is presented as unproblematic by the SNP, emerging from a ‘velvet divorce’ possessing progressive and popular democratic attributes that are distinct from the archaic, illiberal and unequal British state. However a less than half of Scots in the British Future poll associate the Scottish flag with democracy and tolerance. This would appear to chime with popular opinion surveys on issues such as immigration and Europe in Scotland which, when allied to sentiments of Anglophobia and Islamophobia in Scottish society, suggest there is potential for a more exclusory form of ethnicized Scottish nationalism to emerge. Moreover embedded sectarian schisms within Scottish society highlight enduring ethnic ties with Ireland which the SNP has sidestepped as it has sought to articulate a positive vision of post-independence Scotland.

The British Future report provides a timely reminder that, as the Scottish independence referendum draws closer, there is a need for pro-independence and pro-union protagonists to adopt a more critical and realistic understanding of the multiple nationalisms across the UK. The survey data highlights that enduing tensions between civic and ethnic nationalism in Scotland, England and Wales. Politicians and commentators have a responsibility to be temperate in their deployment of nationalism regardless of their constitutional leanings. The idea of a ‘wholly civic’ nationalism should therefore be framed as an aspiration rather than a reality, and one which is unlikely to be fully realized.

Andrew Mycock is a Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield and co-founder of the Academy for the Study of Britishness. He is also co-convenor of the Politics Studies Association Britishness Specialist Group and a regular contributor to Open Democracy.

Read British Future’s This Sceptred Isle report here.

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