It may seem befitting the name for a nationalist to claim their nationalism is in some way fundamentally different from others—and yet we find ourselves presented with that conclusion, and without batting an eye.
The BBC’s survey earlier last month on ‘Scottishness’ went a long way in demarcating the lines between what it saw as the differences between Scottish and English nationalism. What the survey really proved, though, was how the application of a term can be so wide as to make it meaningless. Even the most conventional symptom of nationalism—that the Scots and English believe their respective nation to be better than others—falls away as being fairly consistent when compared to other attitudes across Western Europe. We have yet to call out the Norwegians for their rampant nationalism.
It is apparent we are using a political vocabulary increasingly unsuitable for a 21st century dialogue. But of all the missing words, one in particular has been absent from the discussion for too long: power.
The symbolic and the actual
In a framework that subordinates the state to the market, the flow of capital and the subsequent accumulation of private wealth become the real sources of power. This definition of neoliberal ideology is well established, and world-weary. But seldom does it tell us what it actually means for the rump state.
At the most visible level, it means the execution of power in government takes on an increasingly symbolic function. Legislation is pursued only in so far as it may reflect the identity of those in government. This holds particularly true for the very wealthiest politicians, who, closer to the source of real power, do not depend on the function of government for any other means or ends.
While symbolic action on the part of state actors is nothing new, the ideological approach has shifted. Authoritarian, Stalinist regimes of the last century needed visible monuments—vanity projects veiled as the fruits of labour, like the White Sea-Baltic Canal project—to convey the might of the state apparatus. Symbolic acts were to leave little doubt as to who held power, and that possession of that power was entirely justified.
Today, few state governments would impose themselves so directly upon their citizens; today, power itself has been deindustrialised. Governments do not execute power, but manage it. Power has become an intangible thing that nobody possesses and yet it still prevails with real world consequence all the same. In this way neoliberalism has achieved what 20th century authoritarianism could not: present the consequences of our current power dynamic as part of the natural way of things, beyond the control of ordinary people and—more importantly—beyond change.
If the absurdity of Stalinism was in asking the question: ‘who makes the rules?’ because the answer was so obvious—it’s Stalin, of course—the absurdity of neoliberalism is in the fact nobody even thinks to ask the question.
Yet, despite us believing things were beyond change, they continue to change at an evermore rapid pace. The idea that governments hold no power beyond the extent to which it is conferred to the market is revealed to be part of the overall obfuscation. In this sense, Brexit represents a culmination of sorts. The inevitable outcome of two years of discussion is that we will not know what decisions made were merely token, and which hold real consequence. Nobody will be able to present Brexit as a victory or a defeat, and the underlying levers of power will remain unquestioned. Change will come and not at the same time: neoliberalism will fortify its position as the only coherent option.
All means of approaching power seek to do so in a way that tries to make the approach appear the most natural. And that is why, once ingrained, it becomes very difficult to talk about, without seeming to refute a basic fact of life, like the necessity of water. This is also the fundamental principle of nationalism: to elevate the role of power in the hands of the nation state beyond question.
But the Scottish independence debate has made the term fit uncomfortably with its supporters. Regardless of any stance, it has always been a question rooted in the opposite direction: questioning how, or who, has the right and the ability to take part in the decisions that affect them. Devolution as an ongoing project has made us question the legitimacy of established power, or at least forced it to justify itself.
The Brexit vote took the sovereignty of the United Kingdom as beyond question. Scottish independence asked, without looking for any particular answer: how are things being done? And can they be better?
At around ten years old, in the early 2000s, I went on a school trip to see the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building. Afterwards we met with two MSPs—one Tory, one Labour—for a Q&A. Back then ideological differences were not something my peers or I could really grasp, and so the difference of opinion at the Q&A was overlooked in favour of what made them the same; their age, their balding heads. Their incapability of answering ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
Later, it dawned on me as paradoxical that, even before the 1990s, Edinburgh was still referred to as Scotland’s capital, yet with only the symbolism and history to justify the claim. With devolution, Scotland’s political discourse moved from a historical reality to a topical one. Before politics was largely something that happened to Scotland, instead of something that it actively took part in. Like culture, democracy needs to be experienced to stay alive, needs to be participatory to be inclusive.
While the Scottish Parliament is neither perfect nor immune to global currents, the very fact that those it represents demand more of it, expect better of it, shows a certain trust that what it does is more than symbolic or gestural: to expect something to do better is to say that it can. Devolution has revived something of a civic duty for many in Scotland, regardless of how they feel about independence.
Rather than coalescing around a single idea, then, perhaps it is in creating an atmosphere of open-endedness, of establishing a kind of potentiality that brings us to think about power.
And perhaps, eventually, we will no longer feel the need to make sense of the new with an outmoded vocabulary.
Image by dun_deagh on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)