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What is nationalism?

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What is nationalism?

The nature of English and Scottish nationalism is often misunderstood

In Scottish towns, it’s the blue and white of the Saltire; in English villages, it’s the red and white cross of St George. 

These constituent elements of the Union Jack, representing Scotland and England, are the backdrop to modern Britain. Scotland’s flag has been ubiquitous ever since the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, but England’s, too, has become increasingly prominent in recent years.  

But how do Scottish and English nationalism compare? The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson recently waded into that debate, arguing that they are essentially the same, provoking a storm of controversy.  

Academics who have devoted their careers to studying national identity in the British Isles roll their eyes at Swinson’s comments and her attempt to lump together all forms of nationalism, a view they firmly reject. Scottish and English nationalism are not the same.

But they also warn against simplistic assessments of both. The co-opting of national identity by political parties can have a powerful impact on how it is perceived, but the real story of nationalism north and south of the border is more nuanced. 

At its core, nationalism can be defined as “a belief in the existence of a nation and therefore the belief that something should follow from that,” says Ailsa Henderson, Professor of Political Science at Edinburgh University.

What should follow from it varies depending on the type of nationalism. One aim of nationalist movements is recognition of cultural differences; another is political autonomy as in Scotland. 

Exceptionalism – the belief that one’s nation is different or exceptional in some way – is “pretty endemic”, according to Michael Kenny, Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge University and an expert on English nationalism. “I think there are strains of it in every nationalist movement.” This doesn’t necessarily mean nationalists think their nation is better than others – just different – though sometimes nationalists do imagine their national characteristics are superior. 

One form of English exceptionalism, according to Kenny, is the belief that parliamentary sovereignty held at Westminster is indivisible and cannot be compromised. (This may help explain the greater levels of hostility to EU membership in England than in Scotland.) 

In Scotland, a sense of being different is often expressed in terms of values (typically, a view that Scotland is more liberal or left wing than England). “It’s very important to the Scottish political culture,” says Henderson.  

Perhaps ironically for something that has become such an influential part of the Scottish identity, this understanding that Scotland is substantially different is hard to sustain when you look at the evidence.

If it’s on attitudes to immigration, measuring people’s attitudes to authoritarianism, on the extent to which the state should be involved in economic or social policy, there is no marked difference in values between the peoples of Scotland and England, according to the data. “But a belief in that difference can drive the creation of policy,” observes Henderson. 

This belief in progressive Scotland doesn’t just come from the SNP. All the parties seek to define Scottish values.

“There’s a fair degree of consensus about what Scottish values are between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP, but the Scottish Conservatives do it too, though they put a slightly different cast on it,” says Henderson. (The Scottish Conservatives under Annabel Goldie and Ruth Davidson have tended to adopt a more moderate tone on key issues like immigration than their UK counterparts, reflecting this consensus view.)

All the Scottish political parties have what could be called a nationalist flavour, but nationalism has become most strongly associated with the cause of independence and the SNP. 

National identity has been more important politically in Scotland than England and this reflects the differing histories of the two nations. Historically, Scottish nationalism has been defined in relation to the UK state (often antagonistically), but that tension has been largely absent from an English perspective. In English eyes, until recently, the idea of England and Britain “flowed into each other”, says Kenny. 

Henderson agrees, having compared the labels Scottish and English people use to describe their national identity.

“One thing that’s really important is the relationship between sub-state identity [feeling English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or Irish] and national identity [feeling British], and it’s completely different in England compared to Scotland.  

“So people who feel Scottish often feel they are only Scottish, whereas in England, Englishness and Britishness are much more tangled. It’s partly because people confuse the boundaries of England and Britain, meaning Britain when they are talking about England. They don’t see the two in opposition.” 

Polling last year revealed that 57 per cent of Scots feel either only Scottish or more Scottish than British, while 36 per cent of English people feel only English or more English than British. 

English nationalism did become more marked in the 1990s, however, in response to two things: globalisation (which gave rise to local movements of identity all over Europe); and developments in the EU.

“One view is that nationalism needs an ‘other’ – a perceived oppressor – and arguably, the EU started to fulfil that function with the project of ‘ever closer union’,” says Kenny.

Black Wednesday in 1992, when Britain crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, was portrayed as a national humiliation in the press. The first time he remembers a sea of red and white crosses was at the Euro ’96 championship.

Interest in English identity then intensified, first after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and then after the 2016 EU referendum.  

What do the academics make of the view that Scottish nationalism is tolerant and inclusive, and English nationalism narrow, anti-immigrant and even racist?  

“It’s too simplistic on both sides,” says Henderson. “The notion that no one in Scotland is racist is utter nonsense and also the notion that anyone who prioritises English national identity is against immigration, is not true either. While some people who prioritise English national identity are opposed to immigration, some just want an English parliament.  

“So I think this notion that Scottish nationalism is civic and cuddly, and that English nationalism is atavistic and racist, is far too simplistic on both sides.” 

Kenny agrees with her. “It’s just incorrect,” he says. “I don’t think you can reduce any nationalism to any one characteristic or expression of it.”  

It’s “just not true” to say that the overarching impression of English nationalism is angry and racist, he says, though it can take that form. It is also associated with a commitment to democracy, rights and popular sovereignty. 

Yet the way that politicians take up and shape the image of nationalism is crucial to the way it is perceived, allowing one expression of it to dominate in the public consciousness.

Scottish nationalism has long had troublesome elements on the fringes, responsible for aggressive, intolerant contributions on social media, but overall, modern Scottish nationalism is moderate and outward-looking, guided by the centre-left SNP.  

English nationalism, by contrast, has in recent years been exploited by hard right parties such as UKIP and even the neo-fascist English Defence League.

Kenny says: “Most liberals and progressive types are wary of English nationalism; many believe it will capsize Britain or think it’s narrow, chauvinistic and maybe inherently xenophobic.”

He believes that it is this unwillingness of liberals to engage that has left the field open for English identity to be claimed by others.

Some politicians would prefer to ignore questions of national identity altogether but that is no longer a viable option. Politicians of all parties have to understand nationalism, and handle it with care.

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