Reuben Duffy argues that it’s wrong for opponents to condemn Scottish unionism as British nationalism; in reality, he suggests, it is just another form of Scottish nationalism.
Yes versus No, nationalist versus unionist. At times, modern Scottish politics can appear incredibly polarised between these two opposing constitutional traditions. A common criticism of Scottish nationalism made by unionists is that it is divisive and not truly civic, and that it cares only about Scotland in an insular fashion.
Scottish unionists who make this criticism would do well to remember their own nationalist heritage, for Scottish unionism is merely another form of Scottish nationalism.
When it comes to the independence debate, very few of those opposed to the idea deny Scotland’s unique civic, cultural and political identity. Indeed, many advocate the enhancement of such identities through further devolution.
This is by no means a modern phenomenon. The Treaty of Union itself lists the Scottish systems of law, religion, education and local government as protected areas. During the post-war Attlee government, several Scottish unionists argued against nationalisation on the grounds that it removed Scottish control over industries and placed them in the hands of a far-away centralising government. In the Thatcher years, when a remote and disinterested government made little accommodation for a separate Scottish identity, devolution was the battle cry of many Labour politicians in Scotland. Robin Cook is reputed to have suggested a unilateral declaration of independence as a viable option in the face of another Thatcher government.
A common attack line on unionists is that they are merely British nationalists. It is disingenuous to write off Scottish unionism in this way. British nationalism seeks to deny the existence of a separate and legitimate Scottish identity. Scottish unionism has deep historical roots and has always, to varying degrees, sought to protect the notion of a distinct Scottish community.
But it is equally disingenuous for unionists to claim that their ideology stands against nationalism. It patently does not. Unionism is clearly a different form of Scottish nationalism. The unionist movement even has its own nationalist symbols and totems, ranging across a broad spectrum from social democratic institutions such as the NHS and the welfare state to more reactionary ones such as the monarchy. The story of the constitutional divide in Scotland is not of nationalism versus internationalism but of two competing Scottish nationalisms.
Members of Scottish Labour will have to contend with three separate internal elections in the coming weeks. Already candidates for these contests have staked out a position on the union and a second independence referensum. All candidates would do well to remember the inherent nationalism of Scottish unionism.
It is not enough to say you oppose a second referendum or independence itself because you are against ‘divisive nationalism’. Claiming to oppose all forms of nationalism when referencing Scotland is to deny the existence of a separate Scottish community and in effect oppose Scottish unionism. This is a critical time for Labour, both in Scotland and the wider UK. Members deserve better than shallow meaningless sound bites about unionism and nationalism.