Sometimes I imagine my former self and my current self in conversation.
“We’re obviously better together”, asserts my former self without a trace of doubt, bolstered in that view by his Anglo-Scottish heritage. “My country is Britain, and why would anyone want to divide it? Being part of something bigger – a Union – is something we can all be proud of, however much we value our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish identity. We have so much shared history, so many ties of family and friendship, so much in common. We would all be diminished were it to break up”.
“I get all that”, declares my current self. “And I don’t deny that, if the UK were to break up, part of me would feel very sad. But I’ve been feeling that sense of loss – of something utterly broken – for years. Isn’t Brexit the ultimate illustration of where the power in this asymmetric Union lies? In any case, I don’t feel safe, and don’t feel my kids are safe, under an electoral system which has given absolute power to what is effectively a far-right minority party, and could easily do so again.”
The need for mutual understanding
My former self and current self never fully agree. But we don’t dislike each other – we each realise that the other’s view is sincerely held and based on his own lived experience.
My former self now understands that many Scots just don’t feel that same sense of belonging to or pride in the UK that some of their English counterparts, often with similar values and politics, do. He understands much more than he used to why that might be. He knows this doesn’t make them all bad people, and that if you try to tell someone they should be feeling something they don’t, or they should be ashamed of feeling something they do, you will have the opposite effect to the one you intended.
My current self understands what it is to feel unquestioningly British, even if he is looking at much of what he used to believe through new eyes. He understands there are many people on both sides of the border for whom the idea that their country might break up (and they do see it as a country however much others tell them it isn’t) is devastating. He knows this doesn’t make them all bad people either, or – if they’re Scottish – any less Scottish than the most fervent believers in independence.
Both my selves also understand that, away from the poison of party politics and social media, people with different views on this question are quite capable of having grown-up conversations, of being civil to one another, of loving one another.
When Keir Starmer speaks about Scotland, though, both my former self and my current self feel a sense of irritation. Because although weboth understand that this is a complex, nuanced and for some people painful question – one that merits more than trite soundbites – it seems that he doesn’t. Or at least he didn’t last week, when – in his speech to Labour conference in front of a Union Jack so vast you could only see a fragment of red and white – he declared without any sense of irony that “once again the SNP… will wave away the lessons of history; (and) try to present nationalism as a bridge to the world”.
There it is. Nationalism. That gloriously vague but utterly loaded word. That word that so often escapes from Conservative and Labour lips in turns of phrase that can seem superficially profound but on examination are profoundly superficial.
Who are Labour talking to?
I understand who Labour are talking to when they use such language: already committed supporters of the Union in Scotland, and a wider element of the UK populace who – insofar as they think about these things at all – take it as a given that those nasty Nats are just not right-thinking people. They are talking to people who will nod their head sagely and with absolute conviction that they are on the side of the angels.
But I can’t see how it is that they are speaking to “soft independence voters” or even people who are just open-minded about that question. Some of those people will unquestionably vote Labour for other reasons at the next election. But it won’t be because they’ve suddenly realised that “nationalism” is evil, and made a vow on pain of death never to flirt with filthy thoughts of independence again.
Votes for Labour may not equate to hearts and minds
Maybe Labour has it all worked out. But I do wonder. You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand how counter-productive, in the long run, this approach could be. Whichever poll you look at, roughly half, and probably more, of Scotland’s voters are at least open-minded about independence. And, reasonable people that many of them will be, they won’t like being smeared as “nationalist” just for having those thoughts, when that word comes with all the negative connotations with which Starmer and colleagues imbue it. Many, I suspect, will give Labour their votes at the next election for any number of reasons – including disenchantment with the SNP and existential dread of further Tory government – without remotely lending them their hearts and minds.
Some in Labour (and certainly those who seem to be influencing the party in Scotland) would have you believe that if you dabble with independence it can only be a sign that you don’t like the English, or don’t think it’s possible to be both British and Scottish, or have been brainwashed by the Nationalists, or some other tired and vastly over-used straw man. But the reality for many, and certainly for me, is something altogether different, intensely personal and hard to encapsulate in a soundbite. A large part of it is genuine fear about the direction UK politics is taking. I want my children to be able to exercise their right to demonstrate without the fear of being locked up. I want them to be able to vote. I want them to be able to strike. I want them to be told by their leaders why we have a duty to help refugees. I don’t want them to live under elective dictatorship after elective dictatorship after elective dictatorship.
Our nationalism or your nationalism?
You can do a thought experiment here. Imagine an alternative history where Quebec had voted to secede from Canada, or even where Scotland had voted for independence in 2014. Would Starmer be making comments about nationalism and the “lessons of history”? Or would he be saying something else?
Alternatively, imagine asking politicians from other countries which example most comes to their mind when they think of “nationalism” in its most negative sense. Scottish independence? Or the hard Brexit supported by Labour and embodied by the ever more obsessive displaying of outsized flags by both the main parties? Starmer might not like the answer. He certainly wouldn’t like the laughter. He might learn that one man’s patriotism is another man’s nationalism.
And what of the future if Scotland one day does become independent? Will it really be in anyone’s interests if much of the population of the UK has been encouraged year after year, by Labour as much as anyone, to believe that the people who have delivered it are driven primarily by the worst sort of nationalism? Or would it be better if they were just seen as grown-ups who took a different view on how Scotland should be governed, so that all parties could focus without anger on what would matter most – how to ensure the best possible relations between London and Edinburgh post-independence?.
We all desperately need Starmer to be the next prime minister, because the thought of this iteration of the Tory party winning another term is beyond terrifying. But as long as he and some in Labour continue to dismiss what is an immensely complex and, for some, anguished question into one-line lectures about nationalism, they will leave me – and I think many others – cold. They will be dismissing a significant chunk of the Scottish population whose position, at the very least, needs to be understood. They will be demonstrating that they have learnt nothing.
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