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Sadiq Khan, the outspoken Mayor of London, has added bile to the Scottish independence debate by claiming that Scottish nationalism is the same as racism. His warning to who he can only imagine to be the easily led simpletons that dwell north of the Tweed can only come as a shock to the Scots who consider themselves nationalists; considering the Scottish government’s consistent struggle against Westminster to allow more refugees to be given sanctuary in our country, its insistence that the rights of migrants be protected after England voted to leave the EU, and the fact that since Brexit Scotland has been the only country of the United Kingdom where racially motivated violence has decreased.
Scottish independence supporters were among the most vocal in their outrage that Islamophobia and overt racism were at the heart of the campaign against Khan during his mayoral election campaign, and yet – somehow – these “nationalists” are the racists. None of this makes any sense. Well, it makes no sense so long as we limit ourselves to thinking that Sadiq Khan is being honest – sharing what he truly believes, misguided as this is, to be the case. No one now believes that this is what is going on. Given that Jeremy Corbyn has lost all political credibility, this is not a genuine warning against the dangers of a fictional tidal wave of ultra-white supremacist racism in Scotland. This is Labour’s opening shot in the second Scottish independence campaign.
British unionists were quick to define nationalism in their terms of reference during the 2012-14 campaign, foisting upon Yes Scotland an ideology it had never espoused. From the outset the Better Together campaign and the unionist media monopoly insisted on calling the Scottish National Party the Scottish “Nationalist” Party, with the Scotland on Sunday newspaper going as far as publishing an image of these manufactured and demonised nationalists planting a Swastika version of the St. Andrew’s flag on a mountain summit.
There was no mistaking the unionist narrative that was being constructed. Those advocating Scottish independence were to be cast as “nationalists,” and that term was to be understood through an interpretive lens set by the No campaign – that it was synonymous with the blood and soil nationalism against which Great Britain had fought its own Great Patriot War; these were the Scottish Nazis. The unrelenting use of “Nats” and “Cyber-Nats” by the unionists served only to reinforce this alliterative association. Scottish nationalists – a people who never existed in reality – were driven by frenzied anti-Englishness, antisemitism, racism, and every conceivable shade of prejudice and bigotry, and so long as the unionists were in control of the media this was how Scottish independence was to be framed. It was always a lie.
Khan’s shameful comments let us know that the British Labour Party intends to pick up its repulsive anti-Scottish independence campaign where it left it off. This use of loaded language has not let up in the time since 2014, and, as all the unionist factions have already kicked off their campaigns ahead of one actually being called by Nicola Sturgeon, it is imperative that those of us hoping for independence give some thought to nationalism.
Nationalism is a distinctly modern way of thinking about collective identity and the role of the state, but unlike other modern ideologies – like socialism and capitalism for example – it does not have a codified or set ideology. It lacks chief philosophical or political apologists the way that Karl Marx is for communism. In reality it is a broad term; encompassing a number of ideas by which a people, an ethnicity, or a nation thinks of itself as distinct from other such groups. Culturally it is expressed in a series of commonalities over time within an understood geography – or homeland; including any mixture of shared cultural assets such as language, religion, history, and so on. Politically it sets the scene for a national collective to claim the right to be subject to its own governance.
Defined thus, both Britishness and Englishness – together with Welshness and Irishness – are all forms of nationalism. Anyone can see the deep contradiction in the unionist position. Attacking the nationalism of the Scottish independence movement, on the premise that nationalism is racism, from the standpoint of Britishness – itself a nationalism – is self-defeating. It assumes the right of a nation state to deny statehood to another nation on the basis that nationhood is racially defined – and that this is racism and therefore morally repugnant. By countering Scottish independence with this flimsy argument Sadiq Khan and his fellow unionists admit their own essential racism and undermine even the argument that Britain should be a nation state.
As racism is, by virtue of its distorted anthropology, dehumanising, to imagine either the nation or the state in terms of racial exceptionalism or supremacy – á la Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, or the State of Israel qua “the Jewish State” – is profoundly morally repugnant. It has to be concluded then that nationalism and racism are not inseparable. In fact the nationalism of most nation states accepts the ethnic and racial hybridity of its particular nationhood. The very hyphen in Anglo-Saxon and the Pictish, Irish, Saxon, and Scandinavian origins of the Scots write this awareness of heterogeneity into the national psyches of the English and the Scottish people.
All of this is, however, to accept that it is indeed nationalism that is the dynamism behind the desire of Scottish people for national self-determination. Those shared cultural assets that lend themselves to nation-formation in Scotland do not easily lend themselves to any of the classical definitions of nationalism. As the country where chicken tikka masala was invented, Scotland is fiercely proud of its ancient and modern ethnic and racial diversity; Speaking English, a number of dialects of Scots and Gàidhlig, Scotland has an almost unique appreciation as a nation for linguistic difference; and being predominantly Calvinist and Catholic religiously – insular and universalist respectively, Scotland has never felt the need to impose its ideas on others.
Actually what gives Scotland its nationhood isn’t nationalism in the strictest sense at all. Historically Scotland was a kingdom in its own right before the unification of England into a singular monarchic polity, and our sense of nationhood has developed along very different lines from those of our southern neighbour. As the ideology of nationalism and the idea of the nation state were emerging across Europe Scotland was all but subsumed by the English state within a state political union completely dominated by the will of England and its parliament. That is to say we missed the “nasty nationalism” boat.
England’s nationalism is quite another kettle of fish. Its sense of nationhood was one that, from the conquest of Wales, and centuries of attempting to conquer Scotland, Ireland, and France, emerged from its domination of others. However much we are told that as a nation in union with England we too were the masters of the British Empire, the names of England and Britain are interchangeable in a way in which Scotland and Britain are not. From the beginning of England’s empire Scotland’s existence humiliated England’s imperial aspirations. The grand strategy of English imperialism from the mid seventeenth century was to prove that it could control the whole of its own island before it could enjoy the bloody glory of world domination.
This was the nationalism of the “white man’s burden;” the belief in the racial and cultural superiority of England and Englishness. It is for precisely this reason that the English language was forced on subject people and the English Anglican country parish – with its archaic Booke of Common Prayer – was replicated over North America, Africa, India, and Australia. All of this was nationalism, and none of it has gone away. It is this nationalism that Britain and “Team UK” – both codes for England – still represent in a growing nationalist awakening south of the border.
In this respect it might be argued that the rise in support for Scottish independence is an anti-nationalism; a rejection of the Islamophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, racial supremacism, and isolationism that we are seeing in an increasingly militarised and securitised – paranoid – Westminster state. This nationalism, and what has always been the dominant nationalism of the UK, fails to serve the particular needs of Scotland. Its corporatist and hyper-nationalistic social and economic agenda is so fundamentally at odds with the priorities of Scotland that we have been forced to act as different states in order to protect ourselves from the harm that this is doing to our national interest, and that we are without the powers of an independent country is a reality that is deeply harmful to Scotland.
So when Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants and the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a European capital, becomes the mouthpiece for Labour – as it gears up to defend the Union – it can be nothing but cynical. Labour, once the party of choice in Scotland, is using a man of colour and a Muslim to tell Scots that they are nationalists and therefore racists. If anything this is an act of supreme racism; the equivalent of blackface politicking where British – English and white Anglo-Saxon – Labour speaks through a symbol for the victimhood of racism for political advantage and to more convincingly tar as racist a movement that isn’t even thinking about race. Khan, for his part, is shameless as he plays Uncle Tom for the establishment that grew fat on the slave trade and ensured the post-colonial ruin of Pakistan for decades to come.
The Butterfly Rebellion