Who are the Nationalists in Scotland?

Like most people in Scotland, I have been thinking a lot about nationalism over the last few years.  Scottish politics has been dominated by the independence debate, a state of affairs which shows no sign of receding; last week’s election merely confirmed this trend, seeing the Scottish Parliament dominated by the Scottish National Party and the unashamedly pro-British Conservative Party.

I am particularly interested in the positions taken by parties with a clear stance on the debate yet who do not identify as nationalists – most prominently, Labour and the Greens.  Most Green activists recognise they are allied to a nationalistic cause in pursuing independence, but justify this ambition by emphasising the possibilities for social justice and decentralisation independence could bring.  Labour, however, has seemed to portray itself as fighting against an exclusively nationalistic cause. Their support for the Union rests on the possibilities of pooling and sharing resources and workers’ solidarity across the British state.  This is a completely valid and perhaps even noble outlook – although not one I find very convincing – but it is not, at its heart, anti-nationalist.

To be anti-nationalist, the British state the Labour Party supports would have to be a non-nationalistic identity, whereas it instead, like most states, derives legitimacy from continually-enforced state nationalism.  The only difference is that this nationalism is British rather than Scottish.   Many in Labour pretend the debate in Scotland is between nationalism and anti-nationalism rather than between two competing nationalisms.  This is why I have found Labour’s position so unconvincing and disingenuous in recent years; they have presented the Union as an entity which supersedes ‘petty nationalism’ rather than advancing its own variety of it, while the Greens on the other side of the debate have had to constantly defend their association with a nationalist cause.  If you support either an independent Scotland or a British state you are supporting a nationalist cause, even if for non-nationalistic reasons.  The only anti-nationalist position would be to advocate a stateless society – or, perhaps, a federal European/world state which dissolves national boundaries.

By writing this short ramble I don’t mean to argue there is no valid basis for support of the Union, just as I believe there is a valid basis for supporting Scottish independence.  What is not valid is to contrast this debate as one between the forces of nationalism and of opposition to nationalism; whether we like it or not, two nationalisms are in fierce competition for Scotland’s future.  Each side is supported by genuine non-nationalist arguments and viewpoints, but it is dishonest to claim these avoid propping up a nationalist vision for statehood.