Brexit boosts the case for Scottish independence because it can now be framed more easily as the cosmopolitan choice: vote Yes to get away from a ‘little England’ mentality. This possibility was perhaps in Labour’s mind when it described Scottish nationalism as anything but cosmopolitan. For example, Sadiq Khan seemed to link Scottish nationalism strongly with the divisiveness of Trump and Leave campaigns, prompting some debate about how far he went to equate it with bigotry and racism, while former Labour minister Douglas Alexander left less room for doubt.
These claims prompted a small number of commentary pieces supporting or rejecting the idea that Scottish nationalism fosters racism, bigotry, and/ or social division:
- Claire Heuchan welcomed Khan’s intervention cautiously, highlighting a tendency of Scottish actors to assert their superiority over their English counterparts, and using the opportunity to expand the debate, to highlight important issues that we often ignore, from personal stories of racist abuse and examples of more limited education and employment opportunities for people of colour, to the role of Scotland in the British empire’s colonial past built on slavery and exploitation.
- In contrast, Robert Somynne identified a civic Scottish nationalism far apart from a ‘western trend towards populism based on tribal and ethnic divisions’, arguing that Khan’s description ‘doesn’t bear out the experience of so many people of colour in Scotland who campaigned in the grassroots’.
- Kevin McKenna ridiculed Khan’s argument, rejecting the idea of nationalism underpinned by anti-Englishness, identifying a more divisive UK politics of which Labour is a key part, and dismissing Khan and others as part of ‘the leftwing intelligentsia’. John McKee argued that current Scottish nationalism is more about rejecting the British state than British people, while Eric Joyce links it more to rejecting more worrying forms of nationalism pursued by parties like UKIP.
The debate rages on in twitter, but the discussion has not been driven primarily by a willingness to listen, engage constructively, or talk about issues that challenge our beliefs. I don’t suppose you need me to explain why, but it’s worth highlighting three analytically-separate explanations that will likely be present throughout all debates like this:
- The devil shift undermines debate
People form coalitions with the people who share their beliefs, and they compete with people who don’t. The ‘devil shift’ describes a form of ‘groupthink’; a tendency of actors in those coalitions to romanticise their own cause and demonise the cause of their opponents: ‘anyone who disagrees with them must be mistaken about the facts, operating from the wrong value premises, or acting from evil motive’ (Sabatier, Hunter and McLaughlin). They question the motives of their opponents but not their allies, subject only their opponent’s arguments to criticism, and think their opponents are more powerful than they are.
If all debates are interpreted through this lens of Scottish independence, you can predict the results: Yes groups will see Khan’s intervention as threatening to their beliefs and aims, No groups will embrace it because it supports their beliefs and aims, and there is little scope for conflict resolution. Indeed, during such debates, we’ll put up with some sketchy characters if they support our cause while denouncing their equivalents in the other coalition.
This dynamic will be apparent each time we interpret each issue. For example, imagine a semi-honest and open discussion about Scotland and the colonial empire. One side might combine two points – Scotland ‘punches above its weight’ in every endeavour, and Scotland was part of the empire – to argue that Scotland played a disproportionate role in colonialism and slavery. The other will remind us of the unequal and coerced alliance of 1707 and/ or blame an unelected elite in Scotland for the Union and empire, to argue that Scottish independence is the best way to reject the colonial past. The same history has a very different villain and moral.
- There are two colliding roles of storytelling
We can identify two main roles of personal storytelling: (1) to empower an individual, when they share their experiences of life and feel listened to, and (2) to take forward a political agenda, when they identify a hero/ villain and moral that suits one coalition’s beliefs and aims.
In our case, it is difficult to separate the two, and most people are not willing or able to do so. This may be understandable with Khan’s recent intervention since, although he generally has an important story to tell from his perspective, this specific speech seemed designed to bolster the position of Scottish Labour at its party conference. Heuchan’s experience is more worrying, her motives seemed far less instrumental and her personal story was worth listening to, but almost no-one has simply said ‘thank you for your story’ without adding conditions or objections. There are very few spaces in which people will listen rather than judge.
- Some topics are unusually personal
In part, this is because few people like to think that they are racist or bigoted. Some won’t think about the ways in which they benefit from the systematic effects of racism – in which some groups benefit disproportionately from education/ employment opportunities and face a smaller risk of personal abuse – partly because they don’t have to, and it’s generally not an enjoyable experience. Others will flinch at the idea that they are privileged because they are white, often because they have vivid memories of personal experiences of abuse or disadvantage linked to another part of their background, such as their gender, class, religion, or disability.
So, we often want to tell our stories without listing to those of others. If there is no such space in which to exchange the details of such stories, we soon end up with heated, futile debates based on the sense that you don’t understand my experience or perspective before you criticise it. We can’t solve this problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and perhaps be aware that, although the Scottish debate has some unusual features, it is one of many examples of routine divisive politics.