Has nationalism over-reached?





There have been two interesting articles in newspapers this week. Both address the current ‘Condition of Scotland’ question.

For Northern Ireland unionism, which always likes to consider its situation unique and exceptional, there were clear commonalities with its own indulgence in a distinctive perilousness of its condition; though these articles suggest that that indulgence is overwrought.

Both articles touched on matters familiar to those who have been keeping abreast with posts to this site – cultural pessimism, historical inevitability and (alleged) superior nationalist political strategy.

The first by Alex Massie, Culture and politics dance to different tunes, in The Times [Scottish edition (£)] touches on all these issues. Massie observes that nationalists still believe that ‘completing the fabled “journey” to independence is little more than a matter of tidy housekeeping’. Unfortunately for them, Massie is keen to remind us the average voter remains more likely to favour the Union. ‘The opinion polls churn away but collectively the people, the thrawn buggers that they are, continue to reject independence’.

Even though Unionists find themselves culturally embattled – and feel under siege individually and collectively – for the time being at least they are ‘politically secure’. The Scottish dream of independence – like the Irish dream of unity – is insistent and inventive but practical reality still favours the Union – as it does also in Northern Ireland.

Unlike dreams, argues Massie, ‘reality, and power, must be paid for’. Nationalists can indulge ‘the march of history’. However, ‘Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures will remind us that politics is hard and that economics are Unionist’. Massie puts the instrumental case succinctly:

According to the nationalist interpretation of our times there is only one acceptable definition of “fairness” and “self-definition”. On the other hand, you might feel like asking if, say, ten billion pounds of tax increases and spending cuts is a “fair” price for a keener sense of “self-definition”. Unionism needs more than numbers but, for the moment, the numbers are on its side.”

As posts on this site have consistently repeated, that case applies equally – if not more so – in Northern Ireland. Promoting the Union is more than merely public expenditure, though that is certainly part of the benefit within a functioning fiscal union – even for many who might more generally identify as nationalist or republican voters.

The other part which This Union will be developing is intimated by Massie here:

“Independence is an easy idea; at its best (albeit a best seen too rarely), Unionism is a more subtle beast, if also a mysterious and adaptable one. It is, then, the more interesting phenomenon.”

Indeed. The case for Unionism can be made – and better made than for nationalism. All in good time.

The second article to note is by Chris Deerin, Sadly the nationalist movement is stuck in the intellectual slow lane, in Herald Scotland. For all the talk about the ever onward march of the super canny Scottish National Party strategists, he has noticed a return to ‘voodoo economics and embarrassingly lame policy suggestions – a brains trust that struggles to meet the definition of either word’. In short, a return to ‘tired claims that independence is but a short hop away’. Something commonly heard from nationalists, everywhere.

Deerin could only speculate that we are witnessing not the confident agenda setting for an inevitable independent Scotland but rather a desperation that the goal is slipping away.

“For those whose sole purpose in life is to bring about the end of the United Kingdom, any accusation, regardless of how feeble, nonsensical or methodologically unsound, will be accepted, consumed and regurgitated as fact as long as it is aimed in the right direction.”

Unionists should take note and have confidence in their own capacity to take on nationalism politically and culturally.

Nationalism, at its core, is one idea sustained by a confidence in being on the right side of history, the ‘inevitability’ of its cause and the passivity of Unionism in promoting the Union.

Perhaps it is time we looked more closely at the vacuous nature of the case for nationalism, its dependence on the belief that it is winning.

Nationalism in many forms, Scottish Irish or other, can be seen to be over-reaching, desperately seeking new ways to retain or regain momentum, reluctant to even comment on extremes lest it seems defensive or weak, or not in control.

Time too to challenge what amounts to an acquiescence from unionists that the Union is at risk or ‘losing’. This is not the case.

The Union is far from ended: the end is not nigh.