What did the Scottish Independence Referendum tell us about Nationalism?

Finlay Green*

London, October 4, 2014 (Alochonaa): Nationalism is widely regarded as a poisonous ideology, and it’s not hard to see why. From Nazism to the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, nationalism has all too often been the political manifestation of xenophobia, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. Even today, from the British National Party to the Front National in France, nationalism in Europe still seems to be fuelled predominantly by racial hatred. Right across the political spectrum, many people feel nations and nationalism are nothing more than corrosive and divisive influences on society. For proponents of laissez-faire economics, they prevent the global unification of markets; for many socialists, it is the working classes they divide. Even Einstein labelled nationalism ‘an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.’ blue flag

But what about the Scottish National Party? They are far removed from the anti-immigration rhetoric that courses through most nationalist parties in Europe; Alex Salmond (SNP leader and Scottish First Minister) condemned Westminster’s immigration policy as ‘sheer prejudice’ in the run up to the referendum[1]. Yet at the same time, they are still an independence movement, seeking to solidify the borders between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Are they, as Gordon Brown (former UK Prime Minister and fellow Scot) argued, merely the proponents of a ‘narrow nationalism’[2], a regressive political movement that will only serve to create strangers, erode the size and strength of our national community and stir up discontent between Scots and the rest? Or are they freedom fighters presenting a different, more palatable, more progressive face of nationalism? What can we learn from the debate around Scottish independence about this elusive concept?

Let’s start by defining it. According to Ernest Gellner, one of the most highly regarded authors on the subject, ‘nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.’ [3] On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be an inherently destructive concept. But let’s take this a bit further; what is the ‘national unit’? As the nationalism guru Benedict Anderson argues, they are ‘imagined communities…imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’[4] This is where the problem lies. Who we imagine our communities to be can often involve figuring out who they’re not. In the run up to the referendum on 18th September, there were consequences for encouraging people to think deeper about their national identity; many in the ‘Yes’ camp supporting Scottish independence felt that to vote ‘No’ meant being less Scottish, less patriotic. Yet wanting what’s best for Scotland (Scottish patriotism) is not the same as wanting Scottish independence (Scottish nationalism). In this sense, perhaps the SNP’s brand of nationalism is ‘narrow’. Many Britons hold multiple identities (I feel I’m English, Scottish and British, all at the same time and to varying degrees). Surely, a place more open to these kind of complex self-definitions is a more tolerant, accepting place to live, not just for Britons but for immigrant communities too, and the multiple identities they bring.two flags To leave it there, however, is a reductive and unfair analysis of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Figuring out who is and isn’t a member of my national community means figuring out differences and similarities. For many, these are defined on racial and ethnic grounds, which explains the close relationship between nationalism and xenophobia. And yet ethnicity didn’t feature in the debate surrounding Scotland’s nationalist movement. It was, on the whole, a positive campaign. Alex Salmond fought it on class, not race. He fought it on protecting the NHS, the welfare state, and Scotland’s resources from the posh, detached, privately educated elite in Westminster, not just for generations, but for centuries. He argued that voting ‘Yes’ would free Scotland from the shackles of London rule. The final weeks of the referendum saw a debate that touched every corner of Scottish society, going well beyond the limits of ‘politics as usual’; civil society was instrumental in pushing the nationalist message of social justice far and wide as the gap in the polls with the pro-union vote collapsed. This demonstrates, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm argues, that nations and nationalism ‘cannot be understood unless also analysed from below’, and therein lies the referendum’s main lesson.

The nationalist movement was largely a grassroots one that galvanised vast swathes of previously apathetic sections of society; 97% of the electorate registered to vote, while an astonishing 84.59% actually cast one. Unlike with national elections, where many feel there is little to choose from between the main political parties, for many Scots at the lower end of the income scale the referendum gave them the opportunity to improve their lot and that of generations to come in one of the most unequal countries in the world. You didn’t need money, assets, a lobbying group, a skin colour, or any ascribed characteristics to be a part of it. All you needed to do was sign up to a shared vision for an independent, more socially democratic Scotland, and even though they lost, if Westminster follows through on its promise to devolve more powers soon, the late surge in the polls for the ‘Yes’ camp will still have fundamentally changed Scotland. It was a great, democratic way of empowering many people that feel forgotten by the state, as opposed to, say, the riots that shook inner cities in England in the summer of 2011. What the referendum demonstrated was that nationalism does not always have to be concerned with who we aren’t and who can never be one of us. It can also be about who we are and how we can join together. Instead of being about ascribed characteristics like ethnicity and nationality, the Scottish independence referendum reminded us that nationalism can be about a positive, inclusive, shared vision for a different kind of ‘imagined community’.

* Finlay Green, editor UK Affairs at Alochonaa, is currently studying an MSc in Social Policy Research at the London School of Economics, where he hopes to explore immigrant and community relations in East London. Prior to this, he graduated with first class honours in BA Economics and Politics from the University of Sheffield, where he focused on attitudes towards the Slovakian Roma in North East Sheffield. He also spent three months in 2010 working in the media office of Oxfam GB in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: nationalism, Scotland, United Kingdon

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