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Friday, 7 December 2012

Do Scots Have An Identity And Is It Important?

In October I wrote a blog entitled "I Am Not A Nationalist - But" and did not expect to return to the topic so quickly, but Nicola Sturgeon's recent lecture, "Building a Better Nation" caused me to criticise her argument that, "the fact of  nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motor force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desireable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity." I disagree with her, said so and provoked a reaction from several SNP supporters, leading eventually to the usual accusations that my opposition to SNP policies is based solely on my animosity to the party per se. It is worthwhile re-examining the arguments because Nicola's speech has also been criticised by others, not least Brian Wilson, long-time opponent of Scottish Nationalism, although like so many others of a Unionist bent, a strong advocate of British Nationalism.

I made my position clear in October, not for the first time, but it will do no harm to do so again. I am a hard line, uncompromising Scottish Nationalist, who supports independence for its own sake. No matter how much I criticise the SNP policies, some of which I believe undermine independence, no matter what line is taken by pro-independence parties and the Yes Campaign, nothing will stop me voting Yes in the referendum. In his column in The Scotsman, the day following Nicola Sturgeon's speech, Brian Wilson wrote, "There are plenty who believe fairly and squarely in the cause of Scottish independence, without worrying about whether it is going to mean being better or worse off....the Ex-Faction want independence come hell or high water, for better or worse, richer or poorer. That is an honest and selfless political outlook" Of much more importance, it is a political stance for which the Unionists have no answer. When a Unionist tells me, "You will be worse off" and my response is, "So what, we can make it better," where do they go next?

Nicola claimed Neil MacCormick had divided Nationalists into two camps, the Existensialists and the Utilitarianists, the former in favour of independence for its own sake, while the latter favoured independence as a tool to create a better country. Nicola put herself in the Utilitarian section stating, "My conviction that Scotland should be independent, stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice." She went on to say, "I take it for granted  as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination". Most Unionists would also accept that as a matter of fact and the only difference between those on the self-styled Left in the Unionist camp and the Utilitarian strand of Scottish Nationalism, is that the Unionists see the best chance of Scotland becoming a "more prosperous and fairer country" is in being a part of the UK. They both have the same aim - a fair society - and neither acknowledges Scottish identity as being a factor in the creation of that society.

If, like Nicola Sturgeon and the leadership of the SNP, the reason for pursuing independence is based on the  belief that an independent Scotland has a better chance of being a better, fairer more prosperous country; that identity and nationality has nothing to do with it, it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask that, if the kind of country they seek could be achieved by continuing as a part of the UK, would they still be in favour of independence? It is also fair to ask, as I did and as Wilson did in his Scotsman piece, why stop at Scotland, why strive for fairness in just Scotland, when it might be achieved in the UK? Wilson put it slightly differently but was effectively asking the same question when he wrote, "I doubt if most Scots want to turn our backs on the needs of our counterparts in Newcastle or Liverpool, Corby or Cardiff." Those who responded to my tweet, asking that question, came up with some curious answers, more of which below.

In 1990, during the debates in the SNP about membership of the EEC, as it was then, my objections to membership were on the grounds of loss of sovereignty and my objections have not changed as the centralisation of power in the EU has increased greatly since 1990. In 1990 I wrote, "Sovereignty is a legal as well as a philisophical way of describing the right of a people to govern itself, to determine its own priorities within the constraints imposed by its external environment. Increased interdependence may change the balance of advantage and disadvantage in any "self-determined" act, but it cannot make the principle of self-determination or self-government superfluous. At any level of integration or interdependence, a community of people must ask itself how important it is to retain the right to make its own choices between the options with which they are faced." Since its commitment to the EU, the SNP has never asked the question.

One respondent to my question about creating the "fairer state" in the UK, claimed, "Who are these "Scots"? We have a diverse population", followed by, "There is no homogenous Scottish identity - countries don't have identity", then, "We have Asian Scots, Polish Scots, American Scots etc each with their own identity, but all Scots nonetheless". Just to round off the question of identity, "If folk want to keep a "British" identity then so be it. I've never felt British myself." I don't know what this kind of verbal gymnastics tells us about some of the people who will defend the SNP to the death but I have NEVER met anyone from another country, prepared to go to such lengths to deny they and their fellow nationals had an identity AND that it was important. I have discussed the politics of independence with any number of Europeans over the years and cannot imagine the Irish, Norwegians, Catalans, Basques et al claiming they had no identity and even if they did, it was not important to the question of their nation's independence. That argument would be treated with derision.

Even more ludicrous were the arguments advanced as to why the UK could not create this "fair society". The same tweeter offered this as a reason, "it is not a democratic arrangement and is corrupt beyond redemption" or alternatively, "the UK Government will never allow a fair society to exist". By far the mildest criticism of the UK was, "Scotland and the rUK have diverged socially and politically to such an extent that UK project no longer fulfils purpose." If Scotland and rUK have diverged socially and politically, might that not have something to do with the identity or character of the Scottish people? Is it just an accident that Scots place such store on equity, that the SNP's policies on free tuition fees, free prescriptions, bus passes and bridge tolls are applauded in Scotland and resented in England, where they have come under attack? At the same time, the SNP's policy of aiming to have corporation tax set at 12.5% is hardly going to create "fairness", as the Irish can testify.

Although Nicola Sturgeon's desire for independence is not driven by identity or nationality, she does acknowledge that Scots do have a distinctive identity. However, the main thrust of her argument for independence is contained in the following, "You cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the is only by bringing the powers home, by being independent, that we can build the nation we all want." I do not disagree with a word of that sentiment and it is why I am so critical of the SNP's policies on the EU and the currency. It also underlines the contradictory nature of the SNP's campaign and, Nicola's speech. One of my critics claimed, "You appear to have an "ultra" view which would reject independence other than on your own purist terms" and considers any debate on the EU, the euro or the currency as sterile, ignoring the fact that membership of the EU/Euro and retaining sterling, undermines the very independence he claims to want.

No matter how SNP supporters dress it up, membership of the EU will tie Scotland into another incorporating Union, something more and more people are coming to recognise. Just as Independence in Europe was an oxymoron, it is a nonsense to argue we should wait until we are "independent" before discussing the EU, when the SNP strains every sinew to persuade Scots they will be members of another Union, as soon as we leave the UK. When does their version of "independence" actually kick in? Similarly, retaining sterling will ensure we will not be in a position to "bring the powers home" to create the "fair society"  that is supposed to be the whole point of the independence the Utilitarians claim to pursue. By couching their stated aim of independence in terms of creating a "fair society", they leave themselves open to the kind of questions Wilson et al will continue to pose until 2014. They will have to do better than they have done to date.