Scottish nationalism’s sense of blood and belonging

David Torrance on the curious case of the SNP’s shift from ethnic to civic nationalism

It’s a canard of the contemporary constitutional debate that Scottish Nationalism is ‘civic’ rather than ‘ethnic’ in nature, having long ago jettisoned its less attractive elements. This is generally accepted by most observers of the political scene and backed by the ‘modernist’ school of political science. It’s a nice idea, and of course a convenient one for the modern SNP, but it doesn’t quite tell the full story.

In terms of positioning, the shift is strongly associated with Alex Salmond. “The SNP is engaged in the process of reinforcing our identity as a civic national party”, he wrote in a Herald column 20 years ago, “appealing to all of the people of Scotland regardless of origin”. It has, in certain respects, worked.

At the most recent Holyrood election the SNP attracted a sizeable chunk of the Catholic and Asian vote, while just last week the Polish actor Tomek Borkowy backed the Yes campaign. “Scotland gave us [Poles] an opportunity,” he explained, “and we will repay our debt”.

Although these developments are positive, in reality modern Scottish Nationalism is neither wholly ethnic nor wholly civic, but rather a mixture of the two. This is clear to anyone who regularly attends Nationalist gatherings. Although conferences are tamer affairs (they often resembled clan gatherings in the 1970s), last September’s pro-independence rally on Calton Hill in Edinburgh was ostentatiously ethnic, with a plethora of kilts, face paint, frayed banners and unsavoury characters from fringe European secessionist movements (this year’s event has been quietly shelved).

Kicking off the SNP conference last weeekend, the First Minister revived an old battle cry when he told delegates the SNP’s aim had always been “the freedom and independence of our country”; but the deployment of the word freedom was hardly consistent with his 2012 statement that Scotland was “not oppressed” and had “no need to be liberated”.

Mr Salmond’s recent speech at Glasgow Caledonian University’s New York City campus was a case in point: Scots, he said, would vote “based entirely on consensual, civic, non-ethnic and peaceful principles”, but he earlier referenced US citizens claiming Scots “ancestry”, the Declaration of Arbroath (twice), statues of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott in Central Park and the “end of an auld sang” in 1707; all standard reference points for Nationalism of the non-civic variety.

The same goes for recent Scottish Government policy. As a 2012 survey of SNP policy documents and speeches by the academic Andrew Mycock demonstrated, the party’s shift from ethnic-based nationalism had “not been absolute”, with its framing of modern Scottish Nationalism drawing heavily on historical imagery that “explicitly recognizes the ethnicised foundations of the Scottish nation and state”.

SNP ministers, for example, had sought to “embed Scottish history, culture and heritage” in a range of policy areas, while “indigenous” languages such as Gaelic and Scots (previously “suppressed and oppressed”) had been promoted. This year’s Homecoming will again invite “blood Scots” to return to the mother country and, strikingly, the First Minister’s Holyrood office is dominated by a painting featuring a massive Saltire.

Talk of Scottish “values” is generally more inclusive but it still hints at an ethnic set of cultural (even moral) values that, of course, differ (usually in unspecified ways) from the “English” variety. This is a clever repackaging of cruder anti-Englishness and one Unionist parties such as Labour have been willing since the 1980s to buy into.

There are elements in the wider National Movement, such as the writers Alasdair Gray and Alan Bissett, who are more explicit about their ethnic nationalism, but it’s not as if they’ve been kept at arm’s length by the SNP. Until recently Gray was much cited by the party leadership, while Bissett was given a prominent slot before Mr Salmond’s keynote address at the Aberdeen spring conference last Saturday. This was a preview of Bissett’s forthcoming Fringe play The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant, which, he hopes, will become “the statement about independence” during the August festival. If I were the SNP I’d be rather concerned about that for, although talented, Bissett is on the “Scotland was colonised” wing of the Yes campaign and his black-and-white view of Scottish history has found pungent expression in the play. Delegates, intriguingly, gave it a standing ovation.

The latest edition of Political Quarterly includes a penetrating piece of analysis on the political thought of Scottish Nationalism by the historian Ben Jackson that further deconstructs modern SNP thinking. He analyses the shift from independence predicated on defending “a threatened ancestral culture” to a campaign for Scottish statehood “not so much about the expression of a national identity as an instrumental device for the realisation of a more egalitarian society”.

That, of course, is the stated aim, although Dr Jackson concludes it has essentially become what Tom Nairn disdained as “Labourism”, a gradual pursuit of social reform bound by conventional parliamentary and neoliberal orthodoxies. Nairn’s lasting influence is most notable in how Nationalists view, and arguably caricature, the British state; Mr Salmond’s reference to the UK’s “fading imperial grandeur” in the US last week was pure Nairnism.

But, as Dr Jackson notes, such Nationalism does not really “offer a straightforward escape route from the power now wielded by finance in contemporary capitalism”. Its planned retention of British institutions such as the monarchy and Bank of England would, ironically, leave an independent Scotland “under the dominion of some of the very antiquated ‘imperial’ structures they excoriate”.

Another canard of modern Scottish Nationalism is that, while the Labour Party has ditched its principles and swung to the right, the SNP has remained consistent since its formation in 1934. Thus Nicola Sturgeon’s conference invitation to Labour voters to “reclaim” their party by voting Yes in September. Not only is this a bizarre reading of the party’s history but it neglects, of course, the SNP’s own shift to the right (in economic terms), which roughly mirrored that of Labour.

But the pitch is clear: Labour voters are vital to a majority Yes vote, so the wooing continues. Therefore independence, claimed Mr Salmond in his speech, is not about him (despite Ms Sturgeon introducing him as the “man who’s led Scotland to this moment”); nor the SNP (despite Salmond saying independence would “fulfil … the aims and the efforts of the party over these 80 years”); nor even the wider Yes campaign (despite Better Together being dismissed as “totally laughable and completely ludicrous”).

One can imagine the SNP’s derision were Nigel Farage to claim that his campaign to extract the UK from the EU wasn’t about him, Ukip or the wider Eurosceptic movement. For British Unionism is also a blend of ethnic and civic nationalism although, by and large, it does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground.

David Torrance is a columnist with the Scottish Herald ( where this article first appeared, and author of The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum, reviewed on ClickonWales by David Melding last Saturday (12 April).

13 thoughts on “Scottish nationalism’s sense of blood and belonging

  1. This is an excellent article, highlighting an aspect of the current debate about independence that is almost completely ignored by commentators. As David Torrance rightly notes, Scottish and British nationalism (and, by the same token, Welsh nationalism) retain an element of ethnic nationalism. I’d go further than the author and suggest that the notion that the Scottish/British/Welsh people are distinctive or special is at the core of the nationalist proposition.

    I had a long running discussion on the now defunct WalesHome site, continued elsewhere in the Welsh blogosphere, in which I asked “what is it about the Welsh people that is different or distinctive such that a wholly new and separate state is indicated as the ideal constitutional settlement”? It was an illuminating discussion as much for the absence of an clear answer and the insistence that I was asking the wrong question to begin with. And it demonstrated, to me at least, that nationalists (in this case Welsh nationalists) are unwilling or unable to to provide an analysis of what makes their people distinctive or different – but that a notion of such distinctiveness is nevertheless central to their project. David Torrance demonstrates here that the same is true of Scottish nationalism.

    All of which brings me onto “civic nationalism” which, as David Torrance says, has been largely accepted as the variety of nationalism on offer by the SNP (and, by extension, Plaid Cymru and the British unionist parties). I can understand, and to a great extent sympathise, with the reason why this term came about, i.e to distinguish it from the aggressive and racist forms of nationalism that have thrived from time-to-time elsewhere. Yet while that is justified up to a point the phrase “civic nationalism” does not do justice to what is really on offer. A purely civic nationalism would not – could not – provide a patriotic or emotional appeal; it would be more like a local government boundary review than a project to create a new state. It would be a technocratic discussion about the optimum sized units of government to best deliver public services and aggregate public preferences.

    To be sure, this does figure in the Scottish and Welsh debates (Nicola Sturgeon in particular is the prime advocate of the argument that what is on offer in the referendum is a decision about which unit is best placed to deliver the right policy and democratic outcomes) but only a brief glance at the campaign messages from the “Yes” side tell you that it is much more than that. There is embedded in all the nationalist pitches, be they Scottish, British or Welsh, the idea of the people in question as A People; a distinctive and/or special group with shared values, heritage and culture and who should identify strongly with other such group members to the exclusion of non-group members.

    Steer clear of the term “ethnic nationalism” to describe that if you will, but you need something more than “civic nationalism” to capture it properly.

  2. Mr. Torrance has been given a quite deserved kicking online because of this overt attempt to equate the modern, civic nationalism of the SNP – which is supported by people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds – with notions of ‘ethnicity’, something with which the supporters of continuing Unionism (and they alone in this debate) seem obsessed.

    Alan Bissett has countered Torrance’s assrtions here; Robin McAlpine provides a brief analysis of what Torrance is attempting to do here; and Stuart Campbell puts a similar critique of the smear attempts against Bissett in rather more direct terms here.

    Outside observers should be aware that the entirety of the ‘official’ media in Scotland – TV, radio and newsprint – is implacably in the ‘No’ camp, which is why so many more such ’embarrassments to journalism’ get published.

  3. I think this article is based on a misunderstanding. Civic nationalism says anyone who chooses to live somewhere and contribute to the society is entitled to be a full member with equal rights and dignity, irrespective of where they come from. That does not mean you have to deny the history and traditions of the place itself or its ‘ancestral culture’. Incomers are encouraged to enrich and diversify a culture, not to wipe it out or supersede it. The fact that Salmond referred to the Declaration of Arbroath and Robert Burns is quite consistent with civic nationalism therefore. Anyway the SNP cannot afford ethnic nationalism. That would mean Scots living in England would get a vote in the referendum – and they would vote no by a large majority.

  4. This doesn’t look like ethnic nationalism too me, all social democratic parties take universal left principles and apply them to the national culture:
    ‘social democracy was built on a belief in the primacy of politics and communitarianism – that is, on a conviction that political forces rather than economic ones could and should be the driving forces of history and that the “needs” or “good” of society must be protected and nurtured – and represented a non-Marxist vision of socialism.’ (The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century by Sheri Berman)
    The alternative is the sort of empty, groundless socialist internationalism, criticised continuously by successful social democrats since the German SPD in the 1890s, but still lurking in British Unionism afraid to face up to the post imperial reality of us being just another island.
    Russell Elliott, Compass Wales

  5. “For British Unionism is also a blend of ethnic and civic nationalism although, by and large, it does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground.” What? You must be on a different planet. Of course it does! Does it not – at the very least – claim not to be nationalist at all?

    Also is it not English Unionism rather than British? Unionists do not include anything Welsh or Scottish in their view of British. When the BBC did a programme on the best British poets there were none from either Welsh or Gaelic. How can you do a programme like that and ignore Dafydd ap Gwilym? There’s no English (language) poet even good enough to clean his shoes!

  6. It only takes until the very last sentence for David Torrance to concede that what’s sauce for Scottish canards is sauce for British canes. – ” For British Unionism is also a blend of ethnic and civic nationalism.”

    And I have to own up to a lol moment on seeing the irony of the second half of his sentence –
    “…although, by and large, it does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground”

  7. @ Adam Higgitt
    “what is it about the Welsh people that is different or distinctive such that a wholly new and separate state is indicated as the ideal constitutional settlement”?

    Good question, but surely to make sense of any answers they need to be considered along with the answers given by people from across the world. There are hundreds of “separate states” all of which were “new” at some point in time. So as the existence of nation states is a well established global phenomenon just asking the question in a Welsh context is unlikely to satisfy a quest for illumination.

  8. This article is quite perceptive. The reason British nationalist parties have failed so badly is because there has been a constant struggle for supremacy between the ethnic wing and the civic wing. Every time an attempt has been made to create an ethical British civic nationalist party the ethnic wing has infiltrated and destroyed their credibility with the usual racist drivel about indigenous people and so on. Most of their effort has gone into futile intellectual arguments leading to a string of splits, followed by resignations, followed by new parties, and so on – ad infinitum it seems. It is quite difficult to debate with a racist, or any kind of fundamentalist, since their position is, by default, irrational.

    The same situation exists in Scotland and Wales but it is less obvious and arguably less well documented. As the SNP and Plaid become more irrelevant those splits will gradually surface, hopefully, with the same result. The SNP has put all its eggs in one basket and when it fails to deliver in September the recriminations will start and the ethnic-civic splits will hopefully destroy them.

    In Wales we have already seen the split between Plaid ‘Gwynedd’ and Llais Gwynedd – a split which cost Plaid overall control of Gwynedd Council where they have had to sacrifice a Cabinet position to Llafur to ensure a working majority.

    It is really quite difficult to imagine how any ethnic nationalist based party can ever be successful again in any part of the UK except, perhaps, at the very geographic fringes. Even there, their days are numbered… But will they take the civic nationalists down with them?

  9. Whether the nationalism is civic or ethnic is irrelevant. Or for that matterliberal, expansionist or cultural. All forms of nationalism are based on dividing people into ‘them’ and ‘us’, how that distinction is made does not matter, the creation of the ‘other’ is still made. This division can take various forms under nationalism as there is no objective criteria for what defines a nation. The welsh, scottish, irish, british, swiss, american (to name only a few) forms of nationalism all of have a different conception of how to create this division. Sometimes it is language, other times race, or it may be religion, geography and history that are used to divide people into arbitrary categories. The form the division takes is not significant. All nationalists wish to divide and this is why all forms of nationalism are inherently destructive rather than unifying.

  10. Let’s have a world government then to bring it closer to the people. LOL! There has to be some basis to a nation. Why are people like Higgit and the Pilgrim so scared of diffferences and variety? They should be celebrated as one of the wonders of this tapestry of a world we live in.

  11. So would David Torrance advise the people of Norway to choose to be ruled by Berlin? Or the Finns by Moscow? Why shouldn’t Scotland or Wales seek a new relationship with England and other countries, one based on equality instead of subordination?

  12. I would much prefer to listen to Chomsky than some posters on here and he says ‘yes’ and would likely say the same when it’s our turn in Wales.

  13. As of now (late May), it’s become pretty clear – if it wasn’t before – that Torrance is ensconsed in the No camp.

    It always seemed likely, as like other commentators he seemed obsessed with trying to understand the SNP and its appeal, rather than considering what enormous faults and inadequacies might lie in the UK system of government that could have brought about the demand for self-government.

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