Since the weekend’s Scottish Labour party conference, discussions among those involved in Scottish politics have been ablaze with claim and counterclaim about the nature of Scottish nationalism and independence. The catalyst was Sadiq Khan’s comments in Perth, suggesting that a second independence referendum could spell isolation and end in populist division. This led to the usual questions: are Scottish nationalists racist? Or are they unwittingly part of the western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions?
Many north of the border have received this line of critique poorly, with the sneaking suspicion that this is, in fact, part of an opening salvo to another independence referendum. I couldn’t help but feel dismayed myself, as I see a pattern of comment from pro-union politicians who, either out of a lack of awareness or disingenuousness, have repeatedly insinuated that Scottish nationalism is born of hatred.
I can understand that initial reaction – I grew up in south-west London, in a staunchly Labour-voting African-Caribbean family for whom competing nationalisms were to be distrusted. Aware of the hypocrisy and contradictions within Britishness, cool multi-ethnic Britannia or “where are you really from?” Britannia, we preferred to hide in its shell. Yet coming up to Scotland just before the referendum, my mind was changed by the optimism and will for change expressed by those who called themselves civic nationalists.
This emphasis on the civic nature of belonging is unusual within the context of a wider European political tradition in that there is a rejection of the kind of blood and soil nationalism found in Ukip, Front National and other movements. The crucial mistake the political opponents of the SNP in Scotland have made is seeing the party solely through the prism of national identity, thus missing why so many have flocked to it.
Among the campaigners for independence, there was an acute understanding (often lost in the rhetoric of public debate) that Scotland as an entity owed much of its modern character to Britain. Therefore the idea of critiquing the UK without any introversion was often dismissed. Any myth of unique Scottish enlightenment may be evident but is reined in by the constant dialogue between supporters on the civic nationalist and internationalist socialist wings.
Now Khan, who was my constituency MP when I was growing up, cannot be dismissed in his experience and views on racism. But his description of Scottish nationalism as a divisive response just doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots.
It was the independence movement that, unlike many other groups in Scotland, was the most self-reflective about racism today, representation and historical racial injustice. Those who have been ferocious in demanding justice for Sheku Bayoh, who died after being detained by Police Scotland, or the Roma communities ignored by professional Scotland, have often been pro-independence. The Scots-Asian human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar is an example of a prominent independence supporter who has been a crucial part of this combination of Scottish nationalism and anti-racism.
The 2014 referendum saw a plethora of academic research and public workshops dedicated to reckoning with Scotland’s slave-owning past and the discrimination groups such as the Roma, Polish, Irish and Scots Asians have endured.
Scotland’s most prestigious living historian, who is pro-independence, Professor Sir Tom Devine, has laboured over the topic. The nation’s part in the African slave trade and the country’s complete denial of it has been tackled by writers such as Stephen Mullen, and Chris Bambery in A People’s History of Scotland. Books such as Yes: The Radical Case of Independence by James Foley and Pete Ramand have been highly influential in the movement in discussing tackling racial discrimination today.
For many, to vote for Scotland’s autonomy was to reject the history of imperialism while making sure it was remembered and learned from. To leave the union was, for them, a redemptive act and the start of a process of becoming not a shuffling nation of self-pitiers but one mature enough to talk about its flaws. To leave the UK state with its Tory permanence was, to those people, an embrace of the world.
Claire Heuchan, who received an intolerable amount of abuse for airing her views about the links between Scottish nationalism and racism, is correct that a nationalist feature is to define against as much as for an ideal or people. I disagreed profoundly with the article that she wrote, yet it is crucial that opposing views are engaged with in a calm and constructive manner. I cannot dismiss her ideas or experience, as I hope mine will not be. However, a critique of Scottish nationalism as simply being an oppositional defining force misses the context of that defining. What I found on arriving in Scotland among the independence movement were people who defined themselves sharply against a British norm that was becoming more aggressive in its language against the poor, migrants and the welfare state.
In fact, Stephen Daisley, columnist with the Scottish Daily Mail and not a man known to be a friend of Scottish nationalism or the SNP, said: “For the SNP, identity is a choice rather than an accident of birth, an interior dialogue between people who find themselves living in Scotland and the Scotland they find around them. Reduced to its simplest terms, Ukip wants fewer people to be English while the SNP wants more people to be Scottish.”
Ironically, the forces in Scotland most likely to have strong links to this shameful past are not found in the independence movement, but rather in some voices that favour the union. The Orange Order still looming large on Glasgow’s streets is allowed to parade its religious extremism and bigotry by a Labour council. The Scottish Tories and Labour throughout the independence referendum dismissed ideas of reflection on the place of Scotland within an empire. Solidarity, a British commodity, was withheld from refugees, British minority ethnic people and EU nationals who now find themselves abandoned by a Labour party granting ease of passage to a Tory hard Brexit.
As someone who grew up in England with an existential struggle of what I meant to the national ideal, the independence referendum gave many like me a chance to feel accepted and safe in a UK that is becoming increasingly hostile to difference. For more than 1.5 million people in Scotland, half the country no less, the ambition is not being “better than England”, but aspiring to just be better in an age in which progressivism is under threat.