The British right cannot answer the case for nationalism because it does not understand itby Ben Jackson / July 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
How should unionists answer the case for Scottish independence? The first step is to admit they have a problem. Many unionists have spent so long greeting independence with condescension that they find themselves unable to empathise with, and rationally respond to, the attractive argument for democratic self-determination that underpins Scottish nationalism. The latest efforts to save the union being plotted from Downing Street provide a case study of the intellectual vacuum on the unionist side.
As the SNP continues to ride high in polling for next year’s Holyrood election, and two recent polls have placed Scottish support for independence as high as 54 per cent, the Conservative government in London is planning a counterattack which looks heavy on clunky symbols.
Alongside Boris Johnson’s adoption of the title “Minister for the Union,” the strategy seems to be to rein in the centrifugal tendencies of devolution by asserting a more muscular British state, which will deliver British-badged infrastructure projects to Scotland and extend a stronger sense of British identity across government. Everything is figuratively to be wrapped in a union flag, with a disconcerting lurch from a red, white and blue Brexit to—as it were—red, white and blue bridges and public buildings.
Inspired by the think tank Policy Exchange, this “muscular unionism” is set to be driven forward by a new Cabinet Union Policy Implementation Committee chaired by Michael Gove. Apparently without irony, the government’s plan is to copy the EU by ensuring that any transport improvements or new buildings funded by the Treasury carry signs that credit the British state for its largesse.
This noisy new unionism bears testament to how poorly the British right understands Scottish nationalism. Despite their own leading roles in the famously anti-technocratic Vote Leave campaign, Gove and Johnson are now staking everything on the imagined soothing properties of infrastructure investment, rather than summoning up anything of comparable emotional power to the ideas about democratic self-government articulated by Scottish nationalists.
As I show in my book, The Case for Scottish Independence, Scottish nationalism is too often caricatured as a superficial and nativist tradition by opponents who thereby end up ill-prepared to rebut its claims. Over the last 50 years, supporters of independence have been crafting an effective critique of the British state, and Scotland’s place within it, which draws on scrupulously social…