Far from obsessing over kilts, ceilidhs and pipers, nationalists today are pragmatic. Photo: Getty
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It is unionists, not nationalists, who are obsessed with identity

The mainstream nationalists' arguments for independence are broadly civic and pragmatic, it is the unionists who obsess about the threat an independent Scotland presents to "Britishness".

It’s a not a phrase you hear very often anymore, but in decades past the SNP was sometimes referred to, pejoratively, as the “White Heather Club wing” of Scottish politics. As Ian Jack explained in the Guardian on Saturday, the White Heather Club was an excruciatingly kitsch 1960s TV show featuring sporrans, kilts and ceilidh dancing – the imagery, in other words, of the Scottish cultural kailyard. 

For much of the SNP’s 80 year history, this insult carried some traction. Many nationalists – including senior party members – attended rallies at Bannockburn commemorating the anniversary of the ancient battle, fretted over royal designations on Scottish post-boxes and engaged in bouts of outrageous Anglophobia. The parochialism of the SNP in the immediate post-war period reflected the rural and conservative prejudices of its leadership, which was mostly drawn from the professions and small business.

But things changed in the 1970s and '80s with the emergence of a new generation of nationalists led by individuals such as Margo Macdonald and, subsequently, Alex Salmond. These (predominantly central-belt) nationalists were younger and more explicitly “political” than their predecessors. They believed the case for independence should be made unsentimentally, with an appeal to the social and economic interests of middle and lower-income Scots, rather than to some generic or “long-suppressed” sense of Scottish national identity. “The role of the SNP”, Salmond said in 1990, when he first stood for the position of party leader, “is to replace Labour as the dominant force in Scottish politics. Our strategic role is to open up the divide between the Labour Party’s supporters and its leadership”.

The ideological development of the SNP – and the divide between “traditionalist” nationalism and “modernising” nationalism (otherwise known, somewhat misleadingly, as “fundamentalist” and “gradualist” nationalism) – doesn’t really feature in press coverage of the independence debate. Large chunks of the London media seem oblivious to the (sometimes explosive) disagreements that have erupted within the party over the last three or four decades – as well as to the way in which Scottish nationalism has changed and, I would argue, matured since the 1960s and ‘70s. But you can’t really understand the nature of the current Yes campaign without first grasping this aspect of SNP history.

No nationalism is entirely devoid of cultural or “ethnic” components. There are Yes activists whose support for independence is motivated by resentment of the English and a desire to cut Scotland off from English influence. But there aren’t very many of them, and their isolationism doesn’t sit well with the SNP’s plan to maintain the monetary and social ties that currently bind Scotland to the rest of the UK. In reality, the arguments deployed by mainstream nationalists have been broadly civic and pragmatic. The White Paper is admirably free of blood-and-soil rhetoric, while the SNP – which is in some respects the most conservative wing of the Yes campaign – has adopted a much more liberal stance on citizenship and immigration than either of the two main Westminster parties.

Mainstream unionism, on the other hand, obsesses over the question of identity and the apparent “threat” independence poses to Britishness. Take the speech David Cameron gave in February – the one delivered from an empty velodrome in east London, in front of an overwhelmingly sympathetic London press pack. Having dispensed with the obligatory unionist references to Team GB and the spirit of 2012, the prime minister went on to talk about his own clan heritage and the “fusion” of Anglo-Scottish “bloodlines”. This shared Britishness, Cameron claimed, was “eased and strengthened by the institutional framework of the UK”.

Writing in this magazine recently, Tom Holland expressed a similar view, albeit in less atavistic terms. Like Cameron, Holland cast the SNP as would-be wreckers of Britain’s great multi-national experiment, arguing that “invented Britishness … more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness [and therefore] less ethnically centred than either … provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.”

Putting to one side the fact that it’s very difficult to pinpoint the origins of a coherent Scottish identity – and that many historians deny any such identity existed pre-1707 – Holland’s argument, while well-intentioned, lands wide of the mark. Just like the failed attempts of the SNP, during its White Heather Club days, to achieve independence by making Scots feel more Scottish, unionism’s relentless focus on identity is a political dead-end. A reinvigorated Britishness of the sort some unionists believe will emerge after a No vote on September 18 won’t “fix” the United Kingdom. This isn’t because Britishness itself has run out of steam. Judging by the large numbers of people across the UK who still describe themselves as British, it clearly hasn’t. It is because identity isn’t the primary motor of Scottish separatism. Indeed, on the one recent (relatively speaking) occasion support for independence just about breached the 50 per cent mark, in the late 1990s, Scotland was more closely integrated into the UK, politically and culturally, than it is now.

Even Gordon Brown seems to have conceded that structural factors, in particular the long-term decline of the UK economy, drive nationalism north of the border.  Ironically, it was Brown who, first as chancellor and then as prime minster, kick-started efforts to promote a new kind of civic Britishness as an antidote to the weakening authority of UK institutions. Like Cameron and Holland, Brown wrapped his narrative up in the cosy myths of Britain’s inherent liberalism and inclusivity – myths every bit as twee and implausible as those advanced by SNP traditionalists, when the SNP still couldn’t bring itself to look beyond the kailyard. 

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.