It's about justice and democracy, not nationalism

By Simon Barrow
September 18, 2014

One of the most ingrained, and mistaken, ideas about the 'Yes' side of the Scottish independence referendum is that, as a friend from England wrote to me, "really its all about nationalism, identity and flag-waving."

Having lived and breathed this campaign for two years (and with a considerable intensity in the past two months) I want to say very strongly: it really isn't. It's centrally about power, politics and possibility.

As an English person who's been here for nearly five years now, I can't think of a single conversation about national origins or identity being of great importance that I've had with fellow Yes campaigners in the past six weeks. It's all been about welfare, economics, Trident, the NHS, energy, democracy, a more welcoming migration policy, internationalism, greenery… and above everything, hope - the opportunity to take back power from a remote, top-down Westminster / City of London system and to build a different kind of country to the deformed one the UK has become under the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron/Clegg axis. Not just for us in Scotland, but for what I believe will be an unstoppable push for real powers to the regions in England and a proper parliament in Wales.

The truth is that the 'Yes movement' on the ground (nearly 400 autonomous local groups, 50 sector groups, the Common Weal initiative, the Radical Independence Campaign, the National Collective of artists and creatives, Green Yes and many more) is not centrally organised and is certainly not a tool of the SNP - which has been as taken aback as many others have by the sheer scale of social mobilisation outwith 'politics as usual'.

Incidentally, estimates are that some 50-100,000 people have been engaged in the Yes campaign on the ground. The total membership of the SNP is only 25,000. And remember that, whatever you think of its detail, the programme of the SNP is for an inclusive society based on where you are, not where you’re from. The very opposite of ethnic nationalism.

My fellow Yes activists include Greens, disillusioned Labour voters, feminists, socialists, nonaligned radicals, people of different faiths and none, people of many nationalities, trade unionists, people who run small businesses, people of no party… and, indeed, SNP members. Often I wouldn't know which was which. Many are clear (like me) that 'nationalism' is not a label they would ever choose because of the way it is employed to mean ethnocentrism, while others want to emphasise that desiring self-determination and common bonds for a genuinely diverse people within a certain governable unit is the opposite of the hideous ethnicised politics we all despise.

(One thing I have learned is that south of the border, the whole massive and long discourse around progressive, civic and left-wing national aspiration that has been taking place for years in Scotland is either wholly unknown or barely comprehended. We need a serious conversation about that, post the referendum, perhaps resourced by the likes of Billy Bragg's reflections on the topic ( and Anabaptist-influenced theologian Doug Gay's book, Honey from the Rock: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism.)

Sure, people in Scotland wave saltires in this campaign – and not just Scottish people or Yes supporters. I've seen people from various parts of south Asia, Polan, Lithuania, Wales, Ireland, England, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere join in too. I'll never be a flag-waver, and I never sing national anthems, but the feel of this is totally different to the aggressive, xenophobic way that the far-right in England deploys the flag of St George. It's about what brings people together in this campaign for the self-government of a small nation.

As someone said to me in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when people were uniting to sweep away years of poverty and dictatorship: "I wave my flag because I'm proud of what the people in this small country are achieving against great odds, not because I want to do other countries down. No. I want them and us to share the best of what we have to offer, without regard to our differences."

Ironically, at yesterday's rally for the union led by Gordon Brown (17 September 2014), the amount of 'loud, proud Scot patriotism' outdid anything I've seen at a Yes event. There, as the establishment rallied itself, every emotional button was pushed and appealed to – including, of course the palpably false dismissal of all opponents as 'nationalists' – in order to preserve the current UK state (while appealing to 'Britishness' as what we should all put first). Oh, the deep, deep irony.

Another irony: those who go out of their way to disavow 'nationalism' then unconsciously frame things in terms of "the English" and "the Scots" as if this was somehow the issue. Even my friend and colleague Symon Hill, in an otherwise good reflection (, might be seen as doing it in his title and opening remarks. However the whole point here is that it is not national labels or ethnicity that is at stake in this referendum, but the future of all the people of Scotland (whether they are Scots or, like me, not) and the people of England, Wales and northern Ireland (whatever their background). The issue is who governs us, how they are made accountable, and what decisions they and we take. Its not "the English" telling "the Scots" what do do or think that's the key problem Symon rightly refers to, but people outside Scotland (whatever their national origin) thinking they automatically know better than people who live, work and study there (whatever their national origin).

In fact, the most prominent overtly nationalist card played in this referendum has been the British nationalist one: a sentimentalised 'unionism' that ignores or fails to recognise the fact that when our masters tell us we belong together, what they mean is under their boot. When they speak of 'division', they mean people uniting inside and across national and regional borders to decide that the current UK state is too remote, unaccountable, corrupt and trapped by neoliberal ideology, austerity economics and global capital. What they fear is self-determining peoples coming together to forge bonds based on the search for common wealth rather than subjection to the wealth of the few.

We are better together as equals, not subjects. What we need, as Canon Kenyon Wright so aptly put it, is "interdependent independence". Maintain the social, cultural, historical, community, family, business and neighbourly links of the British and Irish isles, but allow one another to elect our own governments and choose our own paths, while contracting together for the shared good wherever and whenever we can. That, together with struggling for reform within Europe rather than by abandoning it (as might happen with the UK) is what a Yes vote means for me. A No vote is, by contrast, a vote for the hegemony of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, a hollowed out Labour Party, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, tycoons, the military elite, millionaire celebrities… not to mention the likes of UKIP, the BNP, Britain First, the Orange Order and their like.

Writes Billy Bragg again: "It baffles me as to why [those who speak of international solidarity] should feel that voting against the Westminster status quo is an act of class betrayal. People who marched for CND in the 1980s are now telling me I am wrong to support a decision that may force the UK to give up its nuclear weapons." He's right. It is absurd. Because they are basing their arguments on the false premise that the present UK state binds us in a positive way, and that only the boundaries of that state are somehow able to make us one. That is the most extreme nationalist chauvinism imaginable.

By contrast, the argument for Yes to self-government in Scotland is one of subsidiarity (bringing government as close as possible to the governed), the localisation and democratisation of power, shaking up parties by building a huge and diverse civic movement for social change to hold them to account, challenging the inequality and injustice of the current UK system, moving towards a sustainable energy future, becoming a non-nuclear country and much more - without regard to ethnicity and background. In one way of looking at it, the unit of government (local, regional, national or beyond) is immaterial. In another, there can be logic to particular units - and Scotland makes sense as a place and space for sharing certain kinds of power, while (as I have argued elsewhere) the process of localisation needs to go much further and 'think globally, act locally' should be the primary frame that we continue to nourish.

The movement for change in Scotland is truly inspirational and has attracted global attention (while being largely ignored or misrepresented by the UK media). Will it happen and can it work? We will see when the votes are cast and the first decision made. If it's a Yes, that would be but the first step in the journey for us in Scotland, alongside all others on these islands who want real change. If it's No, the momentum cannot and should not be allowed to dissipate.

* More on the referendum from Ekklesia:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of the beliefs and politics think tank Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.