Scottish voters will soon go to the polls to decide on a “once in a generation” referendum. Until very recently there was a reasonable consensus that the Scots would vote No by a relatively narrow margin, which was reflected in all major polls. The 51 – 49 “Yes” prediction in a YouGov poll, published in the Sunday Times, quickly eroded this consensus, and, indeed, caused some real panic in UK financial and political circles. The pound slumped to a ten month low against the dollar, and the leaders of the three main parties in Westminster all travelled north for some emergency campaigning.
The debate on Scottish independence has been both impassioned and turgid at the same time. Turgid because the debate has often settled onto a handful of questions, to which no one knows the answers; currency, oil revenue, nuclear weapons, EU membership. I am not saying these issues aren’t incredibly important; merely that often those arguing on either side tend to go around in circles because they can’t give any answers. For this reason I will not repeat what has been said a thousand times before, but instead highlight some concerns that I believe are important, but which by and large have been absent from the discussion on Scottish independence.
Scotland is not the only locality in Europe with a major movement pushing for national independence. The Catalan and Basque movements are well known, but there are also calls for independence in some Italian regions. In March 2014 an un-official and non-binding poll of eligible voters in the region of Veneto, in which Venice is the capital, demonstrated tremendous support for liberation from Italy. 89.1% of those who voted, and 63.2 of all eligible voters did, cast their ballot for independence.
The Government of Catalonia has announced that their referendum on independence will be held on Sunday 9th November this year. As in Veneto and in contrast to Scotland, this regional vote will not be recognised by the central government. In fact, the Spanish government have frequently asserted their desire to block any efforts at referenda by the autonomous regions.
We can draw parallels between these various movements, and the parallels become particularly striking when you consider the Catalan and the Scottish example. Both sets of nationalists tend to present themselves as more enlightened and caring than their counterparts in the central government. In both the Catalan and the Scottish cases the regional, semi-autonomous governments, have enacted legislation of a more socialist nature, or at least you could say legislation that is more orientated toward social justice, than is the case in London or Madrid. Both the SNP and the CiU (Convergence and Union) have taken a stance against the austerity measures being implemented in the rest of their countries. For Scotland this has meant greater public spending per head than the rest of the UK. Likewise the Catalan regional government has refused to meet the 1% deficit reduction demanded by the Partido Popular in Madrid. Thus, both national movements and the parties leading them have positioned themselves as alternative versions to the neo-liberal ideologies dominating Europe and the world currently.
This has been possible due to another similarity. Both Scotland and Catalonia are prosperous regions. Tax revenue per head in Scotland is nearly £2,000 more than the UK average. Catalonia is one of the four autonomous communities that contributes the most to the state coffers; the others being Madrid, Valencia, and the Balearics. (A Catalan nationalist would point out that three of the top four were Catalan speaking regions). There has thus emerged a sense of injustice that both Scotland and Catalonia, as wealthy regions, are being shackled by the taxation and policies of political parties and institutions that many believe are alien to their national character. You will often hear Alex Salmond point out what the Scottish people have to fear if they remain in the Union – “another Tory government”.
In taking such a stance Scottish nationalists have been lauded by many left leaning commentators in the rest of the UK and Europe. A number of articles have implored the Scots to get out while the going’s good, the authors seemingly unable to understand why anyone, apart from the super-rich, would willingly remain a part of the United Kingdom as it currently exists. I just have a few questions about this form of progressive nationalism. If Scottish nationalists were truly concerned about the austerity measures of another Tory government, why are they willing to abandon those UK citizens living in less economically developed areas, such as North East England, Wales, and my regional home, Northern Ireland? Likewise, why are Catalan nationalists willing to leave the poorer Spanish regions, like Andalusia or Extremadura, to the mercy of the Madridistas? Can nationalists have it both ways? Can they claim to be concerned with all people in society and in the same breath say they are willing to abandon the poorest members of their current society to political parties they have repeatedly lambasted as being right-wing and reactionary? Perhaps this is a harsh criticism, but, it is a reminder that national movements require large helpings of collective selfishness and self-righteousness.
UKIP and the SNP
A comparison to the nationalist parties in Catalonia is what the SNP wants. It wants to be considered alongside “progressive”, left-leaning movements, and most especially wants to be seen as redressing a historical wrong, i.e. conquest and cultural hegemony. They do not want to be compared to UKIP. When UKIP had such outstanding success at the European elections Alex Salmond was quick to paint the party as an English one, and as essentially alien to the Scottish character, despite the fact that they won 10% of the vote north of the border.
It is at least worth imagining, however, that UKIP and the SNP are part of the same phenomenon. They are both nationalist. The SNP obviously are Scottish nationalists, and UKIP, whilst claiming to be a British party, in their cultural terms of reference should probably be described as English nationalists. Both parties have tapped into a widespread anger around the perception that the political system is broken; that politicians are distant and don’t speak for the average person; both parties perpetuate a fear and distrust of the centre for political advantage. In the case of the SNP the central government of Westminster is the enemy, and with UKIP the EU government and EU bureaucracy are the main focus for vitriol and anxiety, although the Westminster establishment also receives explicit and implicit criticism. If you listen to the rhetoric deployed by Nigel Farage to justify leaving the EU and that used by Alex Salmond to justify leaving the UK you would very much struggle to notice substantive differences. The essential message that recurs is “we are a separate people and can no longer be tied down by a Union that has no benefits”.
Evidently there are substantial differences between the SNP and UKIP, and I realise I am setting myself up for scorn and venom even by making the comparison. I simply wish to highlight some of the hypocrisy and sanctimony that is apparent when commentators opine on particular versions of nationalism. The Scottish and Catalan nationalist movements are allowed to present themselves as progressive and forward looking, whereas UKIP is lambasted as reactionary and dangerous. Perhaps this is fair, but, don’t forget that it’s a short step from a liberating, broad-minded nationalist movement to a backward-looking intolerant one. Rarely have nationalist fervour and self-righteousness proven good bases on which to construct a state.