Professor Trevor Davies says the rise of nationalism, in the context of Scottish independence and now the EU referendum, is a threat to decent government and honest politics.
Another year. Another referendum. Then, it was Indy. Now, it’s Brexit. So once again we’ll be assailed with fanciful economics, grass-is-greener politics and straw-man enemies beyond our borders. Above we’ll be treated to another surge in nationalism.
And nationalism is seriously bad for us.
Writing this in Scotland I know that not all nationalists are SNP supporters and not all SNP supporters are nationalists. But nationalism is what drives the SNP, as it does UKIP (and many Tories) over Europe.
I need to be clear. Patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing. Indeed, if we follow George Orwell writing way back in 1945, they are opposites. Patriots identify with a place and a people which they value and want to nurture and protect, simply because it’s theirs and they believe it good.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. We see that desire in those in the EU debate who want to ‘bring back powers to the British people’. And we see it in the SNP who consistently argue for more powers to ‘come back’ to Scotland and, in their case, not just some powers, but every power.
But it’s more than just power. It’s about prestige too – about not wanting to be ‘dictated to’, by Brussels or Westminster, even though there’s no evidence of any dictator. Look through the social media or the noisier newspapers and the thoughts of nationalists constantly turn, as Orwell noted seventy years ago, on “victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations”. A win by a Scots sports star in the British team is a ‘victory for Scotland’. Criticise the SNP for a policy failing by their government and you are ‘talking Scotland down’. When the desire for prestige is so strong, criticism seems close to humiliation, and so becomes an attack on the whole idea of the nation not on that single policy.
And that’s really bad for us, because when policy is so infected with considerations of prestige, then debate, discussion, and so improvement, becomes impossible. And if we can’t debate and improve that’s truly bad for us. Nationalism is not just unpatriotic, it’s anti-patriotic.
For nationalists, the welfare of the place and the people isn’t paramount. The nation is. The nation, its powers and prestige, is what matters. And in the minds of nationalists that’s because the Scots are somehow special. Or the British are somehow special. They truly believe the rules that apply to the rest of the world somehow won’t apply here once we’re ‘free’.
Even when the facts are overwhelmingly against them, nationalists stick to their position. Their hunger for powers and prestige is tempered only by self-deception. Orwell says it better than I can:
“Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also – since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself – unshakeably certain of being right.”
That’s bad for us, especially when a party espousing those views is in government, because it leads at the very least to foolishness and cronyism. Only a nationalist government would spend money on changing the name of a major institution from the National Gallery of Scotland to the Scottish National Gallery. Only a nationalist government – strengthened by their belief that distinctiveness of language enhances national prestige and feeling – would introduce, at great cost, invented Gaelic station names in places where that language has never been spoken.
Foolishness we see daily. Cronyism and small incidents of petty corruption we are now familiar with as well. Because if nationalists are unshakeably ‘right’ then others must be wrong. And if nationalists are ‘right’ how can their behaviour be anything other than right too, especially when in pursuit of ‘the cause’? So we see talented people of other persuasions excluded from public appointments; we see a pressure to conform, both monetary and political, applied to those reliant on government patronage; we see the kind of minor corruption where small amounts of public money are given to organisations just because they are run or supported by other nationalists; and wrongdoings by other nationalists either condoned or unreported.
The unshakeable conviction of being right and the desire for powers and prestige above all else prevents consideration of any half-way house. It is all or nothing at all. The UK has the full power of a nation state and yet sharing that sovereignty with other European nations is seen by UK nationalists to remove all power to progress; we must leave and regain our independence if we are to be whole, free and powerful again.
It is the same in Scotland. Being provided with what was agreed and signed for by the SNP in the Smith Commission provokes cries of ‘betrayal’ because it falls short of the ultimate aim of independence. Falling short subverts prestige and so must be rejected. So we see the painful reluctance of the SNP government to use the full powers that make the Scottish Parliament one of the strongest devolved legislatures in the world. Like Oliver Twist they simply stand and ask for more – a habit which deprives the people of progress.
The nationalist need to identify with a single ‘nation’ appears to confer on them no other duty than that of advancing what they see as its interests. Actions or ideas therefore come to be seen as good or bad, not on their merits, but simply by their origin. Thus the power to see resemblances between similar circumstances is lost to them. The SNP, believing Scotland deprived, restricted and dictated to by the UK, nevertheless enthusiastically desires to share power with European nations other than England and Wales. And UKIP steadfastly defends the merits of the multi-nation state which is the UK but refuses the very idea of a looser union with other Europeans nations.
Nationalism is a predominant force in our times, just as it was in the middle of the last century. The reasons for its re-emergence are real enough – the experience of seeing power and wealth being appropriated by the self-serving actions of a tiny corporate and governmental elite, destroying our common welfare. Its prescription of separation, however, can only deny to us the collective actions which are the sole effective means to overcome that destruction.