A few weeks ago the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, caused controversy by saying that “There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion”. These comments were quick receive criticism from the online nationalist communities as well as many from within in the Labour Party, notably Scottish Young Labour, who rightly pointed out just how counterproductive Khan’s comments were in alienating a lot of the voters Labour is seeking to win back. Yet Khan’s comments reminded me of the very reasons I myself left the Yes movement not long after the referendum.
Like many young people in Scotland, I got swept up in the vibrancy of the Yes movement. When the University of Glasgow held its mock referendum in 2013, I handed out Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) flyers, and in the run up to the referendum spent many a rainy night passionately putting forward the case for an independent Scotland in pubs across Glasgow and Edinburgh. Yet the nationalistic elements of the Yes movement had always made me feel uncomfortable. I’m in no way saying that Scottish nationalism is a carbon copy of British nationalism (there are some fundamental differences between civic and ethnic nationalisms after all) or that anyone who supports independence is a racist, but I do believe there are some uncomfortable truths that the Yes movement has to face up to.
One of the biggest issues I take with Scottish nationalism is the argument that Scotland is in some way a colony of England. Not only is this just plain untrue, but is also incredibly insulting to the countries that have actually faced colonial oppression at the hands of Scotland as part of the UK. First, the idea that Scotland is somehow a colony is simply a historical fantasy, despite Irvine Welsh’s best attempts to say otherwise. Scotland entered into a union with England freely, with the passing of the Act of Union of 1707 and the argument of ‘bought and sold for English gold’ is one largely discredited by historians.
Secondly, far from being an oppressed nation, Scotland itself along with England were the oppressors. Scotland’s long history of imperialism can easily be seen in the many street names in Glasgow. Streets like Jamaica Street are a living testament to just how much Scotland benefited from imperialism with their English counterparts under the British flag. Some nationalists seek to brush this uncomfortable period in Scotland’s history off by saying that Scottish troops where simply used as cannon fodder for the British colonial machine, yet far from being cannon fodder, Scottish troops were often used as the shock troops and took part in many of Britain’s brutal repressions of rebellions from India to the Americas. Scotland’s imperialist past may not sit well with the anti-imperialist rhetoric of many in the Yes movement but it is one that the movement cannot pretend does not exist.
Another contentious point that nationalists tend to highlight is the idea that Scotland is, by nature, more progressive than England. One of the key points made by the Yes movement, myself included, was that ‘Scotland doesn’t vote Tory’ and that Scottish politics is by its very nature more left wing than our friends down south. Now this isn’t to diminish Scotland’s proud history of radical politics, with the University of Glasgow itself producing some of Scotland’s most radical thinkers, from James Maxton to John McLean, but the very fact that the second largest party in Holyrood at this very moment is Conservative means this argument may not be as solid as first thought. Scotland may, in many ways, be a welcoming place and more accepting than other countries but the idea that prejudice and bigotry ends at the border isn’t just untrue, it’s dangerously complacent. Figures published by the Independent in 2016 shows that Scotland has had a similar increase in hate crime as the rest of the UK, and that’s without mentioning Scotland’s sectarian issue. Scotland, like the rest of the UK post Brexit, is seeing a dangerous rise in hate crime and the far right, with fascist groups organising marches across the country, including in Alloa and Edinburgh. Women are still subjected to sexism every day whether they live in Scotland or not. The Yes movement has for the most part, (barring glaring exceptions from groups like Scottish Resistance and Wings over Scotland) been on the right side of history when it comes to feminism, but this denial of the issues that Scotland faces won’t make streets safer for people.
Sadiq Khan may have been wrong to compare Scottish nationalism and racism, but the Yes movement’s ultimate nationalist nature is one I find unsettling. The idea that Scotland’s working class has more in common with Scotland’s elite than their English brothers and sisters and that racism, homophobia and sexism are somehow an “English problem” is incompatible with my own Socialist politics.
Nearly 100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that ‘Society stands at a crossroads … Socialism or regression to barbarism’ and with the current state of the world, I think these words have never been more relevant. To me, nationalism, in any form, is a step towards barbarism.
[Jack Taylor – @dibbs247]