The essential nationalist

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of iScot Magazine.
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As a young child at school, I was often beaten for saying ‘aye’ instead of ‘yes’; or ‘disnae’ instead of ‘doesn’t’; or even ‘ye’ rather than ‘you’. Woe betide the bairn who uttered such phrases as “Ah dinnae ken!” or “It wisnae me!” within earshot of some tawse-wielding dominie. Personal memory is an unreliable narrator of the wee film biographies we screen in our heads, but in the version of my life story that I tell myself, such treatment sowed the seeds for my lifelong commitment to the cause of Scottish nationalism.

There were other things, of course. Things I read. Things I heard. Things I witnessed. But the memory that lingers with a burning sense of injustice barely dimmed by intervening decades, is the recollection of having it impressed upon me by means of casually inflicted pain that the language I’d been immersed in all my short life was unsavoury, unfit and unacceptable. In a very real sense, we are our words. We are the words we use to describe ourselves and our world, both to ourselves and to others. To take away a person’s language is a cruel thing.

I was not able to articulate it thus aged six or thereabouts, but already I was beginning to see the world in terms power relationships and the injustices that commonly ensue from the reckless or malicious exercise of superior power. The injustice that I perceived in the powerful seeking to suppress the language of the powerless opened my eyes to other, perhaps greater, injustices. The injustice of being beaten for using my own native tongue led inexorably to conclusions about the injustice of Scotland’s political union with England. The power which swung that tawse to deny me my words was merely an extension of the power which deployed more sophisticated means to deny me my country. They were not unconnected.

A person and their politics can be formed by experiences that some might dismiss as trivial. We are all the products of our past. My past produced a Scottish nationalist. I first joined the SNP aged 12. Over the years, I have frequently allowed my membership to lapse. But I always returned to the SNP. In those days, there were not a lot of options for someone who aspired to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. Nor were there that many options for those who simply wanted to shake up the moribund pantomime of British politics.

I don’t deny that I went through a “hate the English phase”. It never amounted to much and didn’t last long, mainly because auld enmity failed quite spectacularly as a credible or satisfactory explanation of the injustices and anomalies that I was increasingly aware of. Even in 1962, when I first joined the SNP, such attitudes were uncommon, other than among a few ‘old-timers’ who were generally regarded as a bit of an embarrassment to ‘modern’ Scottish nationalism.

I don’t have a problem with calling myself a nationalist, because I don’t let others define that term for me. Those who try to tell me what my nationalism is, rather than asking me, can’t possibly be talking about my nationalism because, not having bothered to ask me, they can’t possibly know what my nationalism is. What they are describing can only be their own nationalism, or some facile generic as peddled by those whose stock-in-trade is the generically facile. As one astute blogger* put it,

“The narrative used to keep the pro-independence movement down actually has no factual base when it comes to defining nationalism.  The more people that can appreciate what civic nationalism is and why it would benefit everyone in Scotland, the more you will see people come round to the economic arguments of the pro-independence movement…”

Even as I write this, the British parties and their friends in the media are beavering away, assiduously misrepresenting Nicola Sturgeon, who made a similar point. It seems that being part of the British political establishment precludes understanding of the fact that it is possible to “transcend” something while still embracing it. Constitutional politics – the politics of the independence movement – transcends, for example, economic policy in the same way that social justice transcends, for example, welfare policy. These are what we may call meta-concepts. Overarching ideals which encompass the finer detail of policy designed to realise those ideals. The idea that the “beautiful dream” of independence exists in glorious isolation, excluding all other considerations, is puerile to the point of idiocy.

More than half a century on, I am still with the SNP. How would that be possible if it was about independence and nothing else? How might any thinking person set aside the principles and the rationale developed over a lifetime for the sake of a solitary purpose?

The SNP has changed in that half century, just as Scotland and the world has changed. The party has sometimes been the agent of change. At other times, it has responded to external change. There is, I think, no need to recount the history here. No need to catalogue the names and dates that now stand like great rocks in the stream of Scotland’s history. Suffice it to say that the SNP is not the party I first joined all those years ago. What hasn’t changed is its relevance to Scottish politics. In fact, it is more relevant than ever.

Put from your mind any notion that I support the SNP for sentimental reasons. I am not so over-endowed with sentiment that I can afford to squander it on a political party. To the limited extent that I am capable of devotion beyond that which I owe to those individuals closest to me, that devotion is entirely afforded to the cause of bringing Scotland’s government home; and the determination to create a better, fairer society that is inseparably associated with that cause. While it would be a cold and soulless politics which left no space for feelings and emotions, it is not sentiment but pragmatism which motivates my efforts to promote the SNP.

To put it as simply as I might, I am determined to pursue the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status; and the SNP is essential to that purpose.

This is no overblown rhetoric. It is realpolitik. The SNP is the de facto political arm of Scotland’s independence movement. And the independence movement absolutely requires the leverage of a political party with a clear mandate from the electorate. Independence must be won within the British political system. That requires a party capable of operating within the British political system. That is the role that falls to the SNP. That is the role that has been given to the SNP by Scotland’s voters. There is no other party remotely close to being in a position to fill that role.

When I first joined the SNP all those years ago, that was pretty much the only way to campaign for independence. Thankfully, this has changed. The independence movement is now vastly wider than the SNP. It reaches into every part of Scottish society. There are now countless ways in which to show support for the cause or become active in progressing it. But, ultimately, it must come down to a political party. It is only by focusing the power of the entire independence movement at the point where a pro-independence Scottish Government confronts the might of the British state that this power will become effective.

We may wish it were otherwise. But wishing won’t make it so. I hear people proclaim their abhorrence of all political parties. I would remind them that, like trade unions in the context of the workplace, political parties are the means by which we act collectively in the political arena. They are what we make them. They can be tools in the hands of established power, used to suppress and channel and absorb and disarm democratic dissent. Or they can empower the forces of progressive reform. They can be a means by which democratic dissent is transformed into effective political power.

Right now, the SNP is closer to being that transformational progressive force than anything I have encountered in all the years since my social conscience was first ignited by the injustice of teachers trying to stifle my true voice and ‘improve’ me into dutiful conformity with the aid of an intimidating leather strap. Scoff at that if you will. But look at the alternatives!

I make no apology for being a Scottish nationalist. I feel no need to defend my support for the SNP. If I tend to agree with most of the party’s policies this is best explained, not by ‘blind allegiance’, but by the fact that, along with around 125,000 others, I have been part of the process by which those policies were formulated and adopted.

There is certainly no less injustice in world now than there was fifty years ago. I am persuaded that I can do more to address this injustice as a citizen of an independent Scotland. The SNP is an essential means to that end. That is all.

* https://criticalthought.me/story/the-media-driven-myths-of-scottish-nationalism/

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3 thoughts on “The essential nationalist

  1. Dan Huil

    I want Scotland to regain its independence. I’ll vote for and support the SNP until independence is achieved. After that? The SNP will probably still exist in some form or other but many, like me, will seek pastures new in the reborn politics of an independent Scotland. I am a nationalist – after we regain independence I will still be a nationalist because I want the best for Scotland and its people. If we can also help out peoples of other nations along the way, so much the better.

  2. Andy McKirdy

    I’m a Scot, I want Scotland to be a self governing, independent, progressive country. Warts and all, good and bad, successes and failures. Friend to all and enemy to none( but don’t take the piss!!!).
    Isn’t it funny that the only people against this desire and embarrassed by it, are the “proud Scot, but!” Brigade.
    Get a grip Scotland!!!!

  3. Stu Mac

    Pressure to speak a standard language was felt by all the lower classes in Britain (and in pretty well all of the countries which were large enough to have the need of a Standard). The Geordie, the West Country, the Liverpuddlian, the Cockney child of long ago would have had similar experiences. Standard English in Scotland was imposed by Scots just as it was Scots who demeaned Highlanders and Islanders and their language. So blaming the English for it is, well almost xenophobic.

    It is more a class thing than anything else – that is how most Standards begin, those with power and influence consider their own speech to be “the best” and expect everyone else to change to match them and of course since they have power and influence many of the other classes (which also means regions) look up to them and try to mimic their speech. It was never just an imposition.

    It’s unfortunate that the corollary of that was often the demeaning of these other dialects. Since the 60s however it has become more and more acceptable to speak in ones own “tongue” – but the influence of the Standard will always be there because this Standard English is spoken both throughout the UK and throughout the world and of course modern media has it constantly in our ears. We can’t cut ourselves off from it. But on the other hand speaking basically the same English as the UK Standard doesn’t make Canadians less Canadians or Australians less Australian. And we do have both a vibrant historical and current literature in Scots which we can be proud of.

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