Scottish Exceptionalism

A lamentably consistent theme has developed in my recent encounters with pro-independence advocates and campaigners, which threatens to dispel my prior notions on the nature of the modern brand of Scottish nationalism. I believe that I can still say that Scottish nationalism, for the most part, is perhaps the most admirable variety that has yet been evolved. Not for the Yes campaign vulgar assertions about the purity of blood or the superiority of race. If you live in Scotland you get a vote in the upcoming referendum, regardless of whether you were born in Dundee, Dhaka or Dubrovnik. A comparison between the Scottish Nationalist Party and the British Nationalist Party is simply ignoble and inapplicable; comparing apples to racist oranges. However drawing differences between people based on where they happen to live is potentially problematic, and one of these problems seems to be manifesting among some Yes voters. I stress that my sample size is too small to be representative, and hence I am addressing precisely this idea and not the Yes campaign as a whole.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that Scottish independence is desirable partially because it will unleash the innate tendency of Scots towards social justice and egalitarianism from its Westminster shackles and allow Scotland to act as an example of progress to our erstwhile fellow Britons. From the first encounter of this claim I was struck by a powerful unease. Stating that an entire nation holds to a particular view, even a positive one, is both a gross generalisation and strays dangerously close to being racist. One may identify voting tendencies – it is entirely true that Scotland’s lone Conservative MP is significant – and elements of Zeigeist, but to make this kind of blanket statement is unjustified and unjustifiable. Scots desire social equality. Scots are virulently homophobic, racist or misogynistic. Scots are deeply religious. Scots are gleefully irreverent. Scots think taxes should go up. Scots think taxes should go down. As a matter of fact, Scots are as diverse as any other randomly selected group of people. Absent a North Korea-style system of systematic ignorance and isolation, you will find liberals, conservatives, socialists and anarchists almost anywhere you look.

An apparent corollary of this claimed Scottish exceptionalism is the implication that our failure to achieve such an egalitarian society thus far has been the result of obstruction by less enlightened English, Welsh and Northern Irish. Or, to soften the claim a little, the blockage is caused exclusively by Londoners (who, I am assured, get exactly what they want from Parliament). This commits the same offence in the opposite direction. Those in the rest of the UK are as diverse in opinion as those in the upper third, and to state otherwise is to demean the countless people who fight for social justice beyond Berwick or across the Irish Sea. To paint England in particular as a hotbed of right-wing politics seems to me to mistake anti-Labour feeling – after 13 years of decidedly mixed-to-shoddy governance – for pro-Conservative feeling. Citing the rise of UKIP is equally vacuous, as I firmly believe that ideas are loudest as they are losing. UKIP’s racist, homophobic and misogynistic policies have no future, and their apparent resurgence seems more death rattle than bugle call.

In the last days before this referendum I remain firmly in the No camp, having heard no convincing argument to change my position. The word “convincing” is important here. This issue is complex enough that points may be launched in both directions and discussed and, ultimately, decided upon. Whatever your view, it is essential to make an informed choice and to be able to back up this choice with facts and not empty assertions. The discourse has descended on numerous occasions to jeering in the streets, facile internet memes and simple-minded tribal loyalty. I want us all to be better than this, and claims of Scottish exceptionalism are merely a slightly more sophisticated version of this tribalism. Make your decision, make it well, but please make it on the basis of facts and not fantasies based on geographical happenstance.


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