By Alan Bissett
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself under a sustained attack from the media. Given how involved I’ve been in the independence campaign this, while unpleasant, was probably bound to happen. While I can certainly brush off the likes of the Daily Mail denigrating my poetry or The Telegraph making jokes about my weight, it was a piece from David Torrance in The Herald calling me an ‘ethnic nationalist’ to which I took most exception.
I’ve already answered Torrance on the website Bellacaledonia, and won’t do so again, except to quote a section which has significance for the Yes campaign:
“I’m not sure I qualify as a nationalist at all, let alone an ‘ethnic’ one. I am a socialist. If I believed the best future for the Scottish working class lay in the Union I would vote No. If we were still living in the post-war settlement of the Welfare State and full employment – led by a Labour Party that truly represented the people, not middleclass swing-constituencies and the USA – I would vote No. That compassionate Westminster, however, existed all-too briefly and is irretrievable without the shock to the body politic which Scottish independence will provide.”
This, for me, sums up the position of the movement at large. Our opponents – including, disappointingly, those on the left – like to dismiss us as ‘nationalists’, a claim which has to be discussed with examination of what is happening on the ground, not within Unionist fantasies.
At the weekend, Green activist Stan Blackley wrote in the Sunday Herald that the ‘official’ entity known as Yes Scotland has been left behind by the runaway success of the wider, informal, grassroots Yes movement. In less than a year and a half, the fledgling community-led campaign for Scottish independence has grown to become the largest and most diverse public campaign in recent Scottish history.
As someone who is invited to speak at several such events per week, all over Scotland, I can testify to this. The panels on which I find myself are not stuffed with SNP apparatchiks, but trades unionists, artists, activists, former Labour voters and members of the local community. Yes is a genuine people’s uprising, involving Scots of all colours, religions and countries of origin.
What the establishment has been forced to do, in response, is use that well-worn, divisive subject of ‘race’. Torrance, to give him his due, claims that he meant the definition of ‘ethnicity’ from the Oxford Dictionary: ‘The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.’ I’m even prepared to believe him on this, given that goes on to cite a use of the word in the Scottish government’s 2011 census.
There is a contextual difference, however, between a census, commonly used by governments to discern how citizens self-identify, and dropping the term ‘ethnic nationalism’ into a febrile debate about the imminent break-up of the British state.
It is easy to fall back on dictionary definitions, but ‘ethnic nationalism’ would be considered a smear by most – especially progressives – conjuring images of Nazi Germany or the Balkan conflict. When Better Together deploy the word ‘nationalist’, they simply seek to distract from the reality of what our movement is: a struggle for self- determination, improved democracy, dignity and equality.
It is worth saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with ‘cultural’ nationalism or the politicising of the Scottish identity. This has happened in response to the marginalisation of Scottish and Gaelic culture, history and language by a dominant British narrative which stands for the traditions of the ruling class.
Our cultural nationalism, in the absence of effective political resistance, has in the past acted as the battering ram against the Union’s ideological stranglehold, creating space in which the SNP could operate. Increasingly, however, the extant ‘nationalist’ elements of Yes have given way to those of socialism. The most influential groups in a grassroots movement which now dwarfs both the SNP and the ‘official’ Yes campaign are Radical Independence, Labour for Independence, the Common Weal Project and, of course, the Scottish Socialist Party, all far further to the left than any of the mainstream parties.
Add to this the serious left-wing voices of Dennis Canavan, Lesley Riddoch, Jim Sillars, Gerry Hassan, Ian Bell, Ruth Wishart and Tommy Brennan, as well as the international backing of socialist-anarchist giants like Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Billy Bragg.
Other pro-Yes groups such as the Green Party and Women for Independence are not explicitly socialist, but neither are they hostile to our ideas. Even Business for Scotland, whose name speaks for itself, represents small-to-medium-sized businesses, who still have connections to their communities, rather than the swollen corporations involved with the now-discredited, pro-Union CBI.
None of these groups describe themselves as ‘nationalist’ and all would run a mile from any ‘ethnic’ basis to the movement. Their prominence means that this element is simply not there or is fading under pressure from the true face of Scotland’s future: a republican, democratic socialism.
Up and down the land, every night of the week, community centres, church halls, pubs and school assemblies are full of citizens – many of whom have never been political in their lives – waking from their slumber to engage with radical plans for the transformation of Scotland. This is an unprecedented blooming from within, a renewal of a moribund democracy which has the potential to alter politics all across Britain, perhaps even across Europe.
That the Unionist left can still dismiss the scale of this change as mere ‘nationalism’ is nothing short of staggering. Meanwhile, the No campaign routinely claim, ‘But your relatives will be foreign!’ as though foreigners are automatically a bad thing. Small wonder that the neo-fascist BNP, EDL and SDL, as well the xenophobic UKIP – while not formally aligned with Better Together – are also campaigning against independence.
British nationalists (for that is what we face) all come draped in the triumphalism of the Union Jack, with its sordid, imperialist history. They bizarrely seem to regard worker ‘solidarity’ as being, by definition, whatever lies within the organisational unit of the British state.
By this rationale, the Unionist left couldn’t care less about the plight of workers in the Republic or Ireland, since they are not under this aegis. Presumably they also demand the reabsorption of all the former colonies back into the British Empire, since that freedom involved ‘nationalist’ struggles for self-determination.
Did they not notice that the solidarity between anti-Poll Tax protestors and striking miners in all parts of the UK did not require a constitution to ratify it, but happened organically, despite the anti-trade union laws and brutal tactics of the British state? Aren’t they aware that the Scottish vote has only made a difference to the outcome of UK elections three times since the 1920s?
No, Scotland must simply surrender its aspirations and latent, rising radicalism to the demands of the same Labour Party who squandered our trust the last time and who have committed to further austerity measures. This, somehow, is ‘solidarity’. To want a better future is ‘nationalism’.
The independence movement is not about ethnicity, no matter how much the Unionists wish it to be. It’s so much bigger than that. The knowledge of that fact, and panic about our growing size, success and determination, is why the No campaign are so desperate to reduce us to ‘Braveheart’ stereotypes. Don’t let them fool you anymore. Come with us.
Courtesy of The Scottish Socialist Voice