Scottish nationalism is built on a big lie

March 30, 2014 at 5:41 pm (Europe, history, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", scotland)

By Simon Winder in the latest edition of Standpoint magazine (yes, I know that Standpoint is generally a right-of centre publication, but that doesn’t mean everything that appears there is wrong. This strikes me as a well-argued and perceptive piece, written from a left-of-centre perspective, that pro-independence leftists would do well to study, even if the suggestion that Salmond’s rhetoric is “effectively fascist” or that the SNP’s ideology is “national socialist” is, perhaps, a little OTT. It should not be assumed that everyone associated with Shiraz Socialist agrees with everything – or even anything -in the article):


14.06.2012: Steve Bell cartoon on Alex Salmond at Leveson

Alex Salmond’s blend of flag-waving and leftist economics is all too similar to the ideologies that ravaged 20th-century Europe

Last summer, when I was checking the proofs for my book about the Habsburg Empire, Danubia, I found myself reflecting on the way that across Central Europe over the past century and a half different forms of nationalism have done almost untold damage. Wherever I travelled there were entire towns whose populations had been killed or expelled at the command of one form of nationalist zealot or another. My conclusion (which I am sure is an uncontentious one) was that anyone who makes exclusive claims based around flags, songs or mystical and immemorial borders was at some base level evil — that to believe in such things, which have more in common with magic than rationality, puts the believer and his disciples en route to catastrophe. And then I thought about Alex Salmond.

The Habsburg Empire, which was destroyed during the course of the First World War, joined together part or whole of 12 modern European countries and stretched from the Alps to western Ukraine. It was hardly a model of rationality and could often be cynical or incompetent but it seems like a vision of paradise compared to the nihilistic disaster that unfolded for its inhabitants from 1914 to the end of the Cold War. Several generations found themselves savaged by all the most horrible elements in Europe’s formidable armoury of creepy prejudices sprinkled with a dusting of intellectualism what language you spoke, your religion, your political views had you herded into different camps at different times. In the end nobody won. Whatever terrible crimes the Communists carried out they at least had a salutary attitude towards the nationalists scattered across Central Europe who had done so much to support the Nazis and to poison community after community that had until then generally lived cheek-by-jowl for centuries, if not in harmony then in grudging indifference.

The lesson of the Habsburg Empire’s demise is probably that multinational states are extremely valuable. They define themselves by some measure of tolerance and the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, had until his assassination, planned for his accession all manner of schemes to federalise the Empire. Before the catastrophe of the First World War very few of the Empire’s inhabitants imagined that independence was even a rational option. Even Tomáš Masaryk, later to found Czechoslovakia, could only imagine a federal solution the lands of Bohemia and Moravia which he wished to have autonomy were simply filled with too many people who could never be reconciled to rule by Czech-speakers, as turned out to be the case.

This is when I started to think about Salmond. The United Kingdom is Europe’s last big multinational state and in that sense vulnerable to what nationalists love to think of as “the tide of history”. But the disasters of the 20th century have perhaps taught us that there are many problems with nationalist ideas on sovereignty. Indeed the European Union was created specifically in order to neuter these problems. One hardly discussed reason why the EU might be antagonistic towards Scottish independence is that Salmond’s rhetoric and reality swim in exactly the opposite direction to all the most positive European trends since 1945. While most of Europe pools its sovereignty, here is someone yet again making mystical claims for the greater virtue that would emerge from drawing a ring around a particular chunk of land.

When last summer I first started suggesting to friends that there was something about Salmond’s rhetoric that really worried me that it could be seen as effectively fascist in its mix of flag-waving mysticism allied to socioeconomic gestures to the Left I found few takers. But following February’s UK-SNP name calling, threats and counter-threats I am much more confident that Salmond is indeed a deeply dangerous figure for the UK and a disaster for Scotland. Nationalists anywhere are never driven by reason, because their position is unrelated to reason. Salmond was already a nationalist when American, British and Dutch multinationals were investing many millions of pounds in North Sea oil exploration. His central argument about the autonomy made possible through ownership of oil royalties is therefore merely a rhetorical extra. His socialism is a fraud — he claims that these redirected royalties will make life better in Glasgow, but he intends to do this only by taking those royalties away from the impoverished of those cities outside his new borders so suddenly the people of Newcastle, say, are flung outside the pale and Scotland’s flagship role in improving the condition of the working class throughout the United Kingdom is abandoned. Driving back and forth across the Scottish border myself the other week it seemed incredible to imagine that very soon this could mark a real and hostile line. Salmond claims that a specific group has virtues which are unavailable to those south of that line. But this is only sustainable (because it is untrue) by imagining an “other”.This “other” has been somewhat vague until now. But just as I feared, the process of nationalist state-making inevitably creates and then feeds an enemy, and this phase is now apparent in  two equally important and worrying groups. It is impossible not to speculate that the apparent incompetence of Salmond’s ideas about currency union and the EU were specifically designed to goad the UK government and the EU into lashing out. Until recently it was probably fair to say that the vast majority of those in most areas of the UK excluded from the referendum had no strong views, beyond a mild incredulity that Scotland could possibly find it desirable to become independent. In a composite state where so many people feel themselves to be British, the language did not really exist to conceive of a United Kingdom which might no longer include such a large element of its Britishness. The potential threat of a now predominantly English state for millions who relied on their Britishness was chilling, but remote. But the implications do now need to be thought through. They also need to be thought through for Ulster, which would become a futile exclave — a further measure of the weird, arbitrary nature of nationalism, with the SNP turning its back on an area with which Scots have as intricate and old a linkage as with England.

The second group consists, of course, of those who vote No in the referendum. The best that the Yes camp can hope for is a very marginal victory — but this would mean that a little under half of those living in Scotland, perhaps at least as passionately, do not think independence a good idea. Any separate Scottish state will have to deal with “disloyalty” on a potentially huge scale. What happens to council areas which decisively vote No? Could these secede? Any new state has to define itself by loyalty to its institutions. I can think of almost no successful examples of this happening without threats and violence. A new Scottish state will be defined against the remainder of the UK. If it is not, then there was no point in creating such a state. But a state created by, say, even 55:45 is a mockery of real democracy real democracy is about the regular reviewing of choice, not a one-shot plebiscite. Within weeks the legitimacy of such a place could be frighteningly compromised — but the damage could never be undone. Psychologically, how could a new, smaller UK not lash out at its neighbour? How could negotiations over military bases, say, or oil not be vituperative, egged on by the millions of Scots who never wanted independence in the first place? How has this been allowed to happen?

Thinking about the Habsburgs, it is probably fair to say that they would have viewed the very idea of agreeing to a referendum as insane. We have somehow sleepwalked into a situation where our political classes have created something ruinous. The SNP are like the dwarves in The Hobbit who can only open the stone door into the mountain when the keyhole appears at a specific time on a specific day. To their amazement they found themselves in power through the implosion of Labour’s credibility, facing off against a comically rebarbative (and atypical) “southern English toff” government in London, and in the run-up to the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. This entirely fluky alignment has made a bid for independence plausible, for a few moments: and so something which will be irreversible and hugely damaging to almost everyone involved has been somehow allowed to go ahead. Incidentally, should there not perhaps be some minor element in Nato’s mission which involves dispatching squads to arrest anyone who organises political rallies around old battle commemorations? Or indeed arrests anyone who even tries to use some daft medieval scrimmage like Bannockburn to trump later centuries of cooperation and mutual respect? Anything involving slow drumbeats, flaming torches, body-paint, the usual junk, is so patently disturbing that it is hard to believe it is allowed to happen at all. It may be a grand day out for all the family, but there are plenty of places to put children’s bouncy-castles other than on a blood-soaked field. In what sense is this any different from commemorating Tannenberg or Kosovo Polje? The atavistic anti-Englishness is no less horrible and mad than the anti-Russian or anti-Muslim connotations of these other two examples. How can this be in any sense “socialist”, the key marker the SNP uses to differentiate itself and Scotland from a notionally less collectivist and welfarist England? But it in fact squares the circle in a very traditional way — it is “national socialist.”

Whatever the result of a referendum, it will change how the UK feels about itself in deeply destabilising ways. There is a chance that it could be positive that a long overdue general devolution of powers from London across the whole UK might happen. But the stakes are probably already too high for something so genial. Salmond has mortgaged his future on the idea that somehow an act of collective will by a group of people living at this moment within a specific geographical area and in a specific age group, will take a decision which will conjure into existence something better a state which future generations, those outside these borders and those too young to vote now will be grateful for. To reach this mystical goal he has fuelled what amounts to ethnic hatred, the sundering of previously natural relationships, a dislike of Scotland that was simply non-existent before and an angry bitterness for a large minority whatever the result. As he points the finger at an ever more bulging number of “enemy” targets — the “Westminster government” (a hideously creepy piece of “othering”, transmuting Scotland’s democratic forum for over 300 years into a sort of hostile camp), the EU, economists, business leaders-it is impossible not to hear in his recent speeches the violent and perhaps irreversible ripping apart of the innumerable bonds that have so far held the UK together.

The Habsburgs would have restored order with a mixture of large bribes, expulsions, prison sentences and the odd execution, because they rightly saw that there was a deeper poison in nationalism than in any countermeasure. Their reasons were self-serving, but subsequent events proved them correct. It is obviously admirable that the UK authorities cannot simply let Salmond cool his heels on the Isle of Man for a few years, but those who value the plurality and anti-nationalism of the UK have sleepily allowed themselves to drift into a situation where they find themselves face to face with something seriously malevolent which feeds off fear, misinformation, conspiracy, grandstanding and scapegoating. We have no choice but to be reasonable or we betray our own values, but this is, as so many times in Europe’s 20th century, to allow ourselves to be outflanked by more single-minded forces.

Indeed it may well be already too late. It must surely be a nightmare to imagine a Scotland falling into the well-worn independence rut of a week or two of parading figures, giant flags and tiny singing children in traditional outfits, followed moments thereafter by impoverishment, a hostile border, flailing autarky and the ever widening hunt for “enemies within”, those who hate and challenge the barely legitimate new state, fuelled by dissident groups in England. This is an absurd vision except that I cannot see a way round it. Or at least, the risks around it seem far too great. No part of Europe has proved immune to nationalist violence — even the dullest regions have been filled with burning houses in their quite recent pasts. Through a miracle of geography, luck, military strength and political intelligence, the island of Great Britain almost alone has avoided this contagion. Nationalism is unappeasable, it soils everything in its path and it has been allowed to cross the North Sea.If Salmond wants to share everything with the rest of the UK, then there is no need for independence. But this is not what he wants. The referendum is meant to be a moment of chain-shattering change — not just a mild and highly dubious redirecting of revenues to a new state’s smirking functionaries. Yet it is impossible to imagine this a happy place, or one which offers any actual benefit to most of its inhabitants. It could in turn promote a disgusting new variety of English nationalism. The SNP will be unable to deliver anything real and will instead create an excluding, under-siege Volk-community, with marginally better crèche facilities. This would be a state  viewed with repugnance by most other Europeans and would be a fantastically retrograde step, one that is being managed into being with slipshod and juvenile helplessness by the “Westminster government” almost as much as it has been whipped up by the SNP itself.


  1. Scottish nationalism is built on a big lie | OzHouse said,

    […] Mar 30 2014 by admin […]

  2. februarycallendar said,

    I agree that the language of this piece is, in places, lurid and over the top.

    But I also agree that the broad characteristic of the Scottish independence movement is what could best be called “reactionary socialism” (why else should Ken “The Exile” Bell have moved to Edinburgh and got involved with it?) and that this is the reason to be, at the very best, wary of it – especially in terms of its effects on the acceptance of new cultures and peoples in England (which is what I think David Bowie was really getting at).

  3. februarycallendar said,

    (this is Robin Carmody btw)

  4. justiceforkevinandjenveybaylis said,



    • Rilke said,

      Purvis I am a Scottish, I am smarter than you (BA, MPhil, PhD, Post Doc, Fellow of the British Academy) and I am tougher than you (six years a welterweight boxer and a regional champion). I cannot imagine a one party state under the SNP telling me how to live and to hate the the English and also denying me a vote on my own national status. Do not worry, I will not run away from the fight in Manchseter, Liverpool and Sheffield to make this current goverment a one session adminstration.You are simply running away from the bigger fight.
      By the way, who do you mean by ‘we’, you and the Duke of Argyle? Grow up! If you can clean up the rancid idiots at the Rangers versus Celtic games then you will be doing well – try blaming that on Westminster.

    • Babs said, <<< Buy American? <<< Oh I see you're American or a Scotsman who lives in the US.

  6. Rosie said,

    Lurid and over the top? It sounds totally mad. I detest Salmond and I detest political Scottish nationalism but I don’t foresee ethnic cleansing, nor do my English friends who live here. I am a No voter and I hate the fact that I have to pay attention to this business, which has been thrust upon us. But I don’t see why an independent Scotland would turn into Serbia. It could turn into New Zealand – a small, independent state with its own problems and difficulties but not a bad place and not one to deport ethnic minorities to gulags.

    As for Salmond’s socialism – I don’t think he’s ever made any pretence of being socialistic. The Yesses of the left variety think that there’s a better chance Scotland will be socialistic than the UK would be, but there’s no reason to think Salmond would bring it about. I think myself that Left yesses are living in cloud cuckoo land, but that’s the triumph of hope over experience.

    Anyway Alan Massie, who is centre right, a Unionist and a sane guy , takes this article apart:-

    “Every so often you come across an article so bizarre it forces you to re-examine long-held certainties on a subject about which you happen to be tolerably well-informed. This year that’s Scotland and her independence referendum and this time the article in question is Simon Winder’s epistle in the latest edition of Standpoint.

    Having duly re-examined everything I conclude that it is the maddest article I’ve read this year.

    So bonkers – really, not too strong a term – that you wonder what the magazine’s editors were thinking when they agreed to publish it. They have every right to do so, of course, and publication does not equal endorsement. But still. No-one paused to say ‘hang on, this is laughable’.”

    • Jim Denham said,

      Winder leaves a half-apologetic BTL comment at the Spectator:

      Well, I should probably just apologize. I hoped that by writing as hyperbolic piece as possible it would get noticed and make readers engage with the serious issues too – but clearly I have completely misjudged this as so many readers have simply been infuriated and left it at that. I cannot shake a sense of deep unease though about how events are unfolding. It looks as though No will win, but nationalism is a terrible creature and even in a relatively polite Scottish form I cannot see how it can shake off its almost unvarying shape-shifting tendency to go toxic. It is not a coincidence that the referendum is being played out against the backdrop of the weird arrival of UKIP and I fear that Scotland’s departure from the UK would so undermine the idea of ‘Britishness’ (currently invaluable as an umbrella for millions of citizens) that Scottish nationalism could kick off serious English nationalism. Modern European history is a sort of horrible pageant of good intentions going completely wrong – the UK is almost unique in having been sheltered from this for geographical and military reasons. Rupturing a relationship which goes back to, what? before the invention of the novel! and vaguely just hoping for the best on stuff like currencies, jobs, the future of the rest of Britain, the EU, etc. really frightens me – and not in the ‘fearful’ way that Yes always tar No – but because it has the potential to go truly horribly wrong. Anyway – that’s all I meant to say and I am sorry for the stuff, which I agree is silly, about internment camps, etc.

      • Rosie said,

        Well, Winder is an idiot. I read his Germania which I thought pretty good tho’ people who know a lot about Germany say that it isn’t particularly knowledgeable. It’s daft to wreck your argument with hyperbole. I wonder he didn’t compare Salmond to Hitler at once. Scottish nationalism has its anti-English streak and a lot of wha’s like us self-conception and self-satisfaction but it isn’t like, say, Russian nationalism and its Slav soul. It isn’t imperialist. It sees itself like Irish nationalism, i.e. defensive. And it’s a helluva lot nicer than British nationalism in the form of the BNP. It has a welcoming attitude towards ethnic minorities.

        “Rupturing a relationship which goes back to, what? before the invention of the novel! and vaguely just hoping for the best on stuff like currencies, jobs, the future of the rest of Britain, the EU, etc. really frightens me ”

        It doesn’t so much frighten me as piss me off. However that is a reasonable point about currencies, jobs etc and I hope the voters will turn out to vote No on the strength of it.

  7. Babs said,

    Hey Shiraz,

    Maryam Namazie takes self appointed Muslim community leaders to task. Unfortunately many of the community leaders are Islamists who preach their conservative regressive version of Islam to the wider Muslim community and so their school of thought is pretty widespread.

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