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.

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43 thoughts on “A tale of two nationalisms

  1. Total nonsense. Nationalism is based on the idea of what should constitute a sovereign nation – Scottish nationalists believe that Scotland should be the sovereign nation whereas those opposed to that concept, arguing that the UK should be the sovereign state, are British nationalists. A very few socialists believe that there should be no sovereign countries of any sort and the whole world should be governed a a single entity but they are so few in number as to be irrelevant to this discussion

  2. Whilst I don’t agree with the sentiments, I do agree we should stop calling each other names. Both Labour and the SNP want to improve people’s lives, it’s only tribalism that’s preventing them working together to do that. I think the SNP have proven their internationalism tendencies. Labour needs to realise the SNP aren’t the enemy simply because it was them that unseated them from power. I fear the labour leadership still thinks the electorate will simply return to fold when they learn the “error” of their ways.

    1. Or it could be that the two parties have a fundamental disagreement over the founding aim of one of them?

      1. It depends what you mean by “parties”. Is it those who traditionally vote for a “party”, those who make up the activist base or those who fill the leadership positions? The voters haven’t deserted the ideals they have always supported. They have just switched to a different political vehicle to have them delivered. Many of the “activists” have also switched vehicles while many of those who remain are advocating a more sympathetic approach to Scottish independence. It is the “Leadership” which appears the most intransigent. They appear to believe the Union is more important than the delivery of progressive policies to the people they purport to represent. Perhaps, for some, it is the knowledge they will personally become politically irrelevant if Labour abandons its “Union or bust” stance …. personal ego over what’s best for the country. For Scotland to escape the right-wing, xenophobic, downward spiral the UK is on, they will need to get over it. England has made its choice. That choice trumps (sic) Scotland’s (as it ALWAYS does). Why should Scotland have to sacrifice its well-being in the hope England comes round to Scottish (sic) Labour’s way of thinking (it never will)? To regain relevance and ensure progressive policies are implemented in Scotland, Scottish (sic) Labour need to ditch the “Union or bust” ego trip and embrace the independence message of hope. Otherwise ….

        1. They appear to believe the Union is more important than the delivery of progressive policies to the people they purport to represent. Perhaps, for some, it is the knowledge they will personally become politically irrelevant if Labour abandons its “Union or bust” stance …. personal ego over what’s best for the country.

          I don’t think this is correct. I think what they actually believe is that the delivery of progressive policies relies on a functioning economy, and that much of the Scottish economy relies on having the rest of the UK as its home market, and therefore that breaking up the UK would prevent, rather than enable, the delivery of progressive policies. As a result it’s the opposite of your assessment – support for independence would feed the ego, whereas arguing for the status quo puts what’s best for the country over personal ego.

          1. Why would an independent Scotland not have a functioning economy?

            Why is the heavy reliance on one market for goods and services a good thing? Ireland relied on the UK for over half their trade until the 1970s and were, subsequently, very poor. Then they joined the EC, broke the link with Sterling and sought new trading partners. It is now about 12% (Belgium is about 11%; the USA about 28%) and they are very rich.

            If the status quo is the best way to deliver progressive policies across the UK, why do we always seem to get conservative govts (including the Blair years) with progressive “gains” of the past forever on the defensive and in retreat? I ask again; “why should Scotland always have to sacrifice its well-being in the hope England comes round to Scottish (sic) Labour’s way of thinking”?

          2. Given that England exports more to Scotland than it gets the other way, it would be stupid if it blocked trade. But it might.
            I am an advocate of Scotland trading through the EEA, rather than join the EU directly—if that happened it would be—the best of both worlds.

            It is also of interest to look at what we trade–electricity, gas, prime foods (Heathrows biggest volume export is Scottish salmon) and drink–should be relatively easy to find new markets, where as England’s goods to us are more ubiquitous, so loosing Scottish customers would be that bit harder to replace.

            But stupidity on either side could cost us all dear.

          3. Why is your assumption that any blocks to trade would be from rUK side? Haven’t we seen how this goes with Brexit? It is quite obviously in nobody’s interest for frictionless trade between the UK and EU to be made more difficult. But the UK has made the choice to break away. So the EU isn’t going to bend over backwards to every demand. Surely the exact same stupidity would apply in Scotland/rUK negotiations. Scotland would have chosen to break away. It cannot demand the status quo when it has ended it.

          4. Fair enough, but the EU has made it clear that alignment with EU standards will be required for frictionless trade—it is the UK which wants to make its own rules–a move which will cost us all dear.
            Small countries to me have a different mind set, and tend to be more aware of the dangers of an ego-centric view of the world.
            Scotland won’t put the “Great” back into anything: Scotland won’t seek “Empire2” or to reconfigure a “Commonwealth” which was dumped half a century ago. I should say I would expect London to always be a great and prosperous city, and I wish England ( where I lived and worked for some years and where one of my daughters lives and works) my very best wishes for its future.
            But for us? We should go with the Norway model, and then trade should be easier, both with the EU and the rUK. If Scotland wants to prosper, then it has to be more productive, which I believe will be easier to achieve with more actual economic and fiscal leg room than central control from London.
            Look around, and small countries are more nimble economically; more aware of danger and the need to change. And Scotland really needs change in a big way after a century of stagnation.

          5. “We should go with the Norway model”…

            It would not be our choice! We would be the minor negotiating partner with rUK and the minor negotiating partner with the EU. The way you are presenting this is almost an exact echo of what Brexiteers were saying prior to the EU referendum. We don’t get to choose.

          6. Disagree Duncan.
            Joining the EEA would be our choice, and the parameters for trade with the EU and rUK are therefore largely set.
            You make it sound as though we are so small and insignificant that we are powerless. I suggest that the UK has used huge diplomatic resources in the last three years to keep Ireland on-side (though the border issue is part of that). There is no reason to think rUK would not be willing to keep a high leval of trade with indy Scotland—not when the balance of trade is in their favour.

          7. I agree gavin.

            The big difference between Brexit and Scottish Independence is that Scotland knows where it wants to be internationally, with that destination having all the trade agreements you could ever want already set out for us, while the UK has no idea where the next trade deal is coming from or what conditions will be imposed on them.

            It is reckoned that it could take the UK many decades just to get back to the trading position it was in prior to Brexit. With EEA membership (with or without EU membership) Scotland would be back there in a couple of years. In that position, the UK would just have to suck it up and deal with Scotland under the deal they had already struck with the EU. “Negotiations” would be minimal at best.

            Unionists need to break this ridiculous and seemingly “faith” based mind-set that sees Scotland’s future as solely dependent on the UK. Its not healthy. The Irish economic experience since eschewing dependence on the UK for trade and currency illustrates this perfectly.

          8. Delivery of progressive policies requires the election of a progressive govt. 9 years of conservative govt and they get back into power for another 5. The U.K. Electoral system is broken. Scotland consistently votes for a progressive govt. the choice is a progressive country with Scotland being independent or ongoing conservative governments with, at best, brief respite of labour.
            Personally, I can’t see labour winning the next election so, if I’m right, we will have had 20 years of conservative rule. How many years will it take before Scottish Labour judge independence as the best route to progressive government ? Thirty ? Fifty ?

  3. Mainly wishful thinking sadly. This view of Scottish Unionism is possibly true, but, sadly, now historic.

    The kind of progressive Scottish unionism Reuben talks about has already been defeated, defeated by other Unionists. The UK Government’s position is that Scotland was extinguished as a country by the Act of Union. During the referendum campaign Labour Peer Lord Robertson even went so far as to claim “..language, and culture, and all these sort of things. We don’t have any of that.” Current Labour politicians constantly claim that even if Scotland is a distinct nation (which they won’t always admit) then “solidarity” demands that it pretends not to be, a position which hilariously has Corbyn and Carlaw making the exact same fruitless plea to recalcitrant nats – “Wheesht for Brexit.”

    It’s one thing for Reuben to ask the Labour Party to recognise “Scotland’s unique civic, cultural and political identity.”Quite another thing to convince them that it is of value.

    I sympathise, I really do, but this is simply Labour scrabbling around for a third way, a compromise between two “extremes” of independence and the nasty far right state the UK is becoming. It’s an argument which might have had some appeal ten, fifteen years ago, but today it’s utterly inadequate. Brexit is happening, the far right have taken over the party of government and they have the majority and compliant media they need to wreak havoc.

    Labour’s third way solution for this week is federalism, but they aren’t being honest about how realistic it is. Firstly Labour need to be in government in London – earliest 2024, but realistically 2029. Then they have to convince the rest of the UK to accept it. Hard to gauge support for federalism UK wide, but the only party who stood on a manifesto commitment to it last year were the Lib Dems, and they only got 11% of the vote. In short, convincing the rest of the UK to federalise will be the work of a generation, and frankly, Scotland doesn’t have that time to waste, it needs change now.

    The debate today isn’t between two progressive versions of Scottish nationalism even if Reuben would like it to be. The debate today is between an internationalist, pro-EU, progressive and inclusive Scottish nationalism (which barely qualifies as nationalism by most definitions), and a British nationalism grounded in national chauvinism and xenophobia. When the referendum happens there will only be two choices on the ballot – Scotland or Britain and Labour will need to pick one.

    There’s a lot to admire in Reuben’s concept of progressive Scottish unionism, but it’s had its chance, and its blown it.

    1. Spot on.
      Labour tried a sort of federalism thing before in England after Scottish and Welsh (and indeed London) devolution, and in 2004 in the North East England referendum it was decisively turned down, so much so they didn’t even bother holding the Yorkshire referendum.

      England doesn’t want to be balkanised for the sake of the other 3 UK nations. There is no reason for it nor interest in it down there. As you say, this is Labour scrabbling around for a third way and is another example of Labour being a reactive party, rather than one that leads. Starmer talks of a way forward ” built on the principle of federalism” – uh oh – not federalism then but something built on the principle of federalism. That’s the problem, years go past and Labour has never even looked at creating a coherent solution to the constitutional problems of the UK.
      Labour knows that there is no conceivable way of creating a federal UK but it keeps hoping there is one and that it might work out. There isn’t, and everyone knows that.

      https://labourlist.org/2020/01/starmer-calls-for-federal-uk-to-deliver-radical-devolution-of-power/

  4. Except Scottish Unionism denies the very notion of Scotland as a Nation and prefers to condemn Scotland to nothing more than regional status. That fact alone makes this article just another pointless attempt to avoid reality.
    Scottish Unionism fails to acknowledge the truth of the Union completely. A Union of Parliaments not a Union of Countries. The UK is not a single Country state or Nation it is a joint union of Parliaments. In order to establish any credentials as a Scottish Nationalist you have to acknowledge this fact. In order to establish your credentials as a British Nationalist you have to acknowledge that the Island of Britain is a Country State and Nation in its own right when it cant be by the very definition of what is and what isn’t a Country Nation or State. You cant place the boundaries of a Country within the boundaries of another Country. Either Scotland England and Wales are Countries or Britain is a Country they cant all be Countries.
    British Nationalist have to deny the Country status of Scotland England and Wales while Scottish Nationalist have to deny the Country status of Britain.
    Scottish Unionism therefore is a lie founded on a lie or false belief or more accurately a corruption of reality.

  5. The kind of “protective to Scottish interests” Unionism espoused by, for example, George Younger or Alick Buchanan-Smith, is long gone. There is not one person who advocates that type of Unionism in modern day Scottish Toryism. Indeed there is no person anywhere near the calibre of these two people in the modern Scottish Tory party.
    The modern Scottish Tory party is a small minded rump of the Anglo-British nationalism, who always swing behind whoever happens to lead—-at this time the Johnson wing, antipathetic to foreigners, foreign countries and any concept of parallel, but different, interests outside the Home Counties bubble, for all their waffle about “the North” (have regard to the many anti HS2 stories appearing in the media).
    Scottish Toryism is epitomised by Ruth Davidson and her “what we need (in Scotland) is more Union” statement.
    If Labour thinks it can leverage Federalism ( whatever scheme is finally hatched ) with assistance from these people, then it is in for a big surprise!

  6. “It is quite obviously in nobody’s interest for frictionless trade between the UK and EU to be made more difficult.”

    There is no internal UK trading between the member states Duncan because of the of nature of the disunion. Scotland doesn’t trade with England Wales or NI. There is no internal market at all. In order to create one we need to be Independent and out of the disunion so that our energy our minerals our water our unique trade goods are BOUGHT not TAKEN by the other members of the UK. The UK Government lays claims to all our trading assets as their own and trades them with other states with the income going to the treasury.
    Scotland needs independence in order to gain the income it should be getting from trading its own goods.
    Scotlands trade goods within the EU are sold to the EU via the UK with the UK treasury gaining the income NOT SCOTLAND.
    That’s the reality when it comes to trading and Scotland not the narrative of an internal trading market within the UK which will somehow be broken and leave Scotland with nobody to trade with.
    Another narrative needed because there is still no case for Scotland to be in this disunion with England that is beneficial to Scotland at all.

      1. Which you can prove by telling us all what Englands mains trading good to Scotland is and how much it costs Scotland to buy.

        1. You do understand that trade isn’t actually between countries, but between companies and organisations based in those countries? On that basis, please define “main trading good”?

          1. On that basis there is no internal trading market between Scotland and the rUK then is there?

  7. What is Englands main export good to Scotland and how much does it cost Scotland to buy?

  8. You said there isnt You said there is only trading between companies and organisations in what universe does that constitute a trading market between Countries states and Nations? If there was any kind of a trading market arrangement between the COUNTRIES of Scotland England Wales and Ni then there would be a treaty complete with terms conditions regulations and signed agreements. Why dont you point me to them.
    According to the claims Scotland trades over 48 billion worth of goods to the rUK so where does the money go? It certainly doesnt appear in any of the Devolved budgets. if it did it would show a massive surplus instead of the fake 13 billion deficit.
    Thats the problem with yoon lies they constantly contradict and trip over each other.

    1. You genuinely don’t understand that when we talk about trade between countries we’re actually talking about trade between companies and organisations based in those countries. And you think you’ve tripped *me* up? Surreal.

      1. When we talk about trade between Countries States and Nations we talk about trade deals treaties regulations and agreements and you havent been able to produce a single one in terms of trading between Scotland and the rUK because you cant. You’re still tripping yourself up over your need to keep on being disingenuous. What are the arrangements between Scotland and the rUK in terms of trading? As far as I can tell there arent any so why dont you show me seeing as you believe they exist.

        1. Scotland is part of the UK! How could the UK do a trade deal with itself? You are not equipped for rational debate on this topic.

          1. Thats my point exactly how can there be an internal trading market within the UK when it involves trading with itself.
            Did you hurt yourself that time?

          2. I said “trade deal”, not “trading”. Do you understand the difference? Trade deals are, as you say, struck between governments. Trading is done by companies.

  9. Except you’re claiming that trading between companies within the UK is done through a trading market arrangement set between the 4 member countries of the UK. You’re literally claiming the UK is trading with itself through an internal market arrangement it negotiated with itself.
    Can your knees take anymore punishment Duncan?

    1. No. The market isn’t a “trading market arrangement set between the 4 member countries”. It’s just their home market! I’m not making any claims about the UK negotiating with itself; I’m pointing out that your claims are ridiculous.

      1. So we agree there is no internal trade market agreement between the member countries of the UK. Its a brand new never seen or heard of before arrangement called a “Home Market”.
        Only on Labourhame.

        1. You’re doing it again. There is, quite obviously, a market. There’s not trade agreement, because the market exists in one country. And if you’ve never heard of the term “home market” before you really shouldn’t embark on a discussion about trade. Enough now.

          1. Not with you though because you make it up as you go along.
            There is obviously not a market because there is obviously no agreement treaty arrangement or settlement negotiated that created one. No agreed standards no agreed tariffs or lack of tariffs agreed through negotiation. Nothing. So when Scotland ends the UK Union of Parliaments there is no internal trade arrangement to lose with the other member states of the UK. No 48 billion worth of trading at all until we become Independent and create a 48 billion trading market with England Wales and NI.

      1. So its not defined as the UK internal market between Scotland England Wales and NI then. At least we’ve cleared that misconception up for you.

  10. We have gone from 50 Nations to 200 since WW11.
    These Nations form Unions that help control their economic/trading stability.
    They retain the right to shape their own internal policies.
    The UN has enshrined the Right for any group of people as regards Self Determination.
    The Act of Union was between Two Nations. Scotland and England.
    In 1707 only a handful of very wealthy people had the vote regarding the formation of the Union.
    In 2014 Scotland voted to Remain in the Union (status quo)

    These are all simple facts. It follows that Norway had the Right to seek Independence from Sweden in 1904. The “Velvet Divorce” more recently took place without any difficulty. On the other hand the stories of India and Ireland are very different in regard to the former settlements.

    It is impossible to enforce a solution either way. People decide their future at some point as Brexit has shown. People will Leave or Remain based on their own drive, values, beliefs or interpretation of the evidence.

    I don’t know where the Independence arguement will go. However one thing I am certain about is that the current arguments for the denial of a Referendum given the support for the EU in Scotland are dangerous in the context of democracy.

  11. Watched Scotland the promised land Sunday night everything from soldiers coming home from ww1 limbs missing to Jenny Lee elected to Westminster still to young to vote .great with people and addressing a crowd the old way in the street .
    One of Scotlands characters but virtually unknown now.

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