Henry McLeish can’t seem to quite make up his mind about nationalism. Repeatedly, he uses the word in a manner which leaves little doubt that he regards it as a pejorative term. But then he describes the notion that “businesses trade, not countries” as a “flawed idea”. He is clearly disturbed by President Trump’s prioritisation of corporations over nation states, describing it as “an agenda for markets and consumers not for democracies and citizens”. Apparently, it’s not nationalism in itself which is anathema to Mr McLeish, but Donald Trump’s particular brand of nationalism. When nationalism is considered as a means by which popular democracy defends itself against encroaching corporate power, then it is a good thing.
Their nationalism bad! Our nationalism good!
Reducing the concept of nationalism to this banal ‘them and us’ level of simplicity is a serious error of thinking. Much better to regard nationalism as a component of all ideologies, varying only in the manner of its expression. We are all nationalists. We just define our nationalism in different ways. And, as Henry McLeish has demonstrated, we also tend to define others’ nationalism in ways that are informed by our prejudices. Their nationalism is bad because it is part of a world-view which we do not share. Or it is bad simply because they are political rivals and must be portrayed as bad in every regard.
Of course, nationalism can be expressed in ways that may be considered objectively malign simply on account of the outcomes that flow from it. History provides vivid examples of nationalism perverted to some malevolent purpose. But it is pure folly to conflate such extremes with the commonplace of nationalism as no more than recognition of the role of the nation state as a unit of social, political and economic organisation.
This last stands as a fairly adequate definition of civic nationalism. A form of nationalism that defines the nation state primarily in jurisdictional and administrative terms, with a sense of national identity deriving from shared participation rather than common ancestry.
It is doubtless his tenuous grasp of the nature of nationalism which explains Henry McLeish’s ambivalence about Scotland’s independence movement. An interminable deliberation which, it must be said, long since departed the realm of interesting internal debate to reside in the land of exasperating public indecision. The man will neither piss nor, thanks to inexplicably indulgent media, will he get off the pot.
An inclination to see something dark and ominous in the very mention of nationalism almost certainly accounts for McLeish’s reluctance to fully embrace the project to normalise Scotland’s constitutional status. All those learned negative associations blind him to the simple civic nationalist desire to bring Scotland’s government home, where it can better reflect Scotland’s distinctive political culture. A political culture informed by the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people.
But Henry McLeish is not blind to the justice of Scotland’s cause. He just needs a way to reconcile the conflict between the unarguable logic of dissolving a dysfunctional political union and his aversion to a conception of nationalism which, for all its irrelevance in the context of Scotland’s politics, is nonetheless real to him.
Reluctant to admit that restoring Scotland’s rightful constitutional status is a good in its own right, he seeks to identify special circumstances that might justify it.
Unwilling to acknowledge that it was fatally flawed from its inception, he looks to recent developments to find a reason for considering an end to the political union.
Unable to concede that it has always been the union that was anomalous, he persuades himself that the anomalies are products of the Brexit débâcle, the Trump presidency and the Tory hegemony.
A new future for our country, better governance and the capacity to engage with the world on our own terms have always been good ideas. It didn’t need Brexit, Trump or permanent Tory rule to make independence desirable. Independence is normal. It is the status to which the people of all nations will always aspire. But if seeing independence as an escape rather than an ambition helps Henry McLeish overcome his feckless faltering on the issue, then perhaps we shouldn’t complain too much.Views: 3041
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