In theory a global pandemic should have proven the best opportunity to expose the limits of what the nation state can achieve on its own. Instead, it has merely shown just how ill-prepared we are to tackle problems outwith our patchy and individual national frameworks.
As curfews, closures and on-off travel restrictions continue to limit our view of the world in quite literal ways, so too has the international community disappeared from our conscience. National performance has become the only metric that matters. Leaders and their medical advisers address their publics on this daily threat to the nation. In such a landscape it’s natural that Boris Johnson should characterise a second wave in the pandemic as ‘coming in’—as though it were washing up on our shores rather festering away from inside. That it should be so easy to invoke language more commonly used to express fear of immigrants just shows how nationally-minded our response has become. To act locally is to also think locally, or so it has come to pass.
In Scotland, this national-mindedness has come with an inverse side effect, because it has allowed a notionally domestic, devolved issue—healthcare—its chance to stand on an international footing. The last comparable event to have had such truly global reverberations for the Scottish government alone (as opposed to the UK-wide rupture that is Brexit) was the release of the Lockerbie bomber, when President Barack Obama uttered this extraordinary sentence: “We have been in contact with the Scottish government, indicating that we objected to this.’” At the time there was a certain masochistic relish in how often this was cited by the Scottish press. It didn’t matter that we had drawn the ire of a world superpower. It added an international lustre to an administration keen to show itself as a legitimate player in world affairs.
Now things are less civil and the rhetoric less measured, but in many ways it is still the more subtle comments that remain the most revealing. The increasing difficulty with which we can talk about a British approach to coronavirus has led to the incredible birth, at the hands of journalists and the media, of an ‘English government’: quick off the mark now are clarifications like ‘Matt Hancock, that is the English Health Secretary, for England’. All of a sudden the job of making distinctions between what is British and English is no longer the reserve of pedants, but a public health concern. And the fallout of this on the constitutional question will be more profound than even recent polling suggests.
Strands of internationalism
At one time Britishness, as Tom Nairn wrote in the LRB back in 2009, was felt in Scotland as a sense of the inevitable—a banal fact of ‘wider reality’ that all Scots must contend with at some point or another, if they want to get on with life beyond their borders. Britishness was outwardness, full stop, the face put on for international success and esteem. For so long the only alternative internationalism on offer to Scots was through the thickest pair of tourist-friendly glasses: the tartanry, the clans, the haggis and shortbread, the sort of sugary kitsch that erodes a sense of self rather than helps to build one.
If the defining characteristic of Britishness is its internationality, it follows that Britishness has gone the way of the rest of the international community during this pandemic: it has simply disappeared, or at the very least proven inept when push came to shove. Of course this is not the first time we’ve heard about the ‘death’ of British solidarity in Scotland. Like the vestiges of industry, it has lingered on without ever quite going for good. But in no other international setting has Britishness been so easily and seamlessly replaced by a Scottishness that reckons with internationalism itself in a way that actually matters. And while coronavirus alone is unlikely to provide the final death knell, it leaves Britishness significantly weaker—and anything but inevitable.
British exceptionalism or Scottish normality?
So far it’s proven too early for the end of British inevitability to register any great deal of change in the arguments over independence, even if it will fundamentally end up reversing the roles of the actors involved. With Westminster unperturbed by breaking international law, any renewed doomsaying about the risks of an independent Scotland reneging on its debts and obligations will appear the grandest form of projection. The complete side-lining of the Joint Ministerial Committee will make it even harder to present Scotland as an equal partner within a ‘Union of Equals’. No matter when it happens, a second referendum campaign will take place under the unspoken acknowledgement that the status quo has lost its esteem, along with its common sense. But where does this leave our newly formed Scottishness?
One consequence of independence going from the fringes to the mainstream is that it has lost much of its radical character. An oft-repeated argument made about independence now is that it is Scotland’s opportunity to become a ‘normal country’. Where before that might have begged the question, ‘why rock the boat?’, now it could prove a winning strategy. Faced with Westminster’s constitutional tinkering, independence may well appeal precisely because it looks less like a radical departure and more a restoration of sanity and normality—a factory reset rather than a clean slate.
For those of us who do hope independence might offer some sort of democratic renewal, this is not necessarily a positive development. It’s now more likely than ever that a successful vote for independence will hinge on a gush of feeling that many Scots were left with no choice, who may not even be that interested in independence as a means of doing things differently. It is defining what we want to accept as normal that remains the question that ‘independence as an end in itself’ will not answer.
Doubtless these sorts of questions will be regarded by some as muddying diversions to be considered only after the ‘deed is done’. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps for now normality, fashioned as a kind of ‘egalitarian decency’—where all people are treated with respect, where nobody should have to resort to food banks, where society is caring without being patrimonial or patronising—is tantalising and achievable enough. Regardless we should pause and reflect on just how dysfunctional the world order has become that it should make ‘normality’, plain and simple, such a radical proposal all on its own.