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Scottish nationalism isn't racist - but Sadiq Khan has a point

Not being racist is quite a low bar, actually, when you're part of a mainstream political movement. 

“It has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” quipped PG Wodehouse. Well, it appears Scottish politics experienced something of a solar eclipse following Sadiq Khan’s intervention at the Scottish Labour Conference. The history of the Union of Scotland and England is littered with artless interventions by English politicians on Scottish affairs. London Mayor Sadiq Khan stood in this proud tradition, “There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion,” he said. Only after the Twitter skies began to darken, did he add: “Now of course I’m not saying that nationalists are somehow racist or bigoted."

To be fair to Khan, his analysis seems to be a far more general one based on global trends. As an abstract criticism of reactionary forces against globalisation, it is true that nationalism is aimed at breaking the world into ever smaller associations of power and identity. But to lump Scottish nationalism in with British nationalism is to lack precisely the kind of rigour which is essential to combat “narrow nationalist parties” – and I say that as former Better Together campaigner, who faced many a nationalist across the debate table – including Nicola Sturgeon herself.

I’ve found modern Scottish nationalism does not always spring from an insecure dominant culture challenged by outsiders, but like the “sub-national” movements of Catalonia or Quebec defines itself as an insurgency against a sclerotic oppressor – “Westmonster” in the lingua franca of the cybernats. Sturgeon leads a “civic” nationalism, which aims to break from an aloof British state, and in doing so emphasises that it’s not of that sort of ideology that promotes ethno-centric ideas. All this makes it more palatable to progressives who associate with the movement, but would not describe themselves as nationalists. Its enemy is not a mythical immigrant stereotype created to bully a fearful electorate, but the British state. Pretending otherwise will do Unionists no good.

But not being a shower of racists is a low bar indeed. There is no need to strawman Scottish nationalism to observe that still at its core, as all nationalisms do, it requires an “other”. Nationalism, even under a very big tent, exaggerates a difference which tracks culture and borders. In this case the SNP claim there is something fundamentally, morally different about Scotland.

Never mind that Scottish Social Attitudes survey say Scots are pretty much in line with rUK voters on tax, austerity, and just about all issues with the exception of immigration (Scotland has a declining population so this is unsurprising), or that the character of the UK state been hugely influenced by Scots filling every known position in government - true Scottish nationalists would rather exploit the emotional differences.

This kind of nationalism often manifests in a virulent anti-traitor sentiment when confronted. Former First Minister Alex Salmond’s close adviser Joan McAlpine has questioned the “Scottishness” of Unionists. Cybernats mugged late Charles Kennedy and continue to hound JK Rowling (with added misogyny, because of course). If you are not party to the civic project then you are not merely disagreeable, your very nationality is questionable.

The leadership may not endorse the foaming rage of its supporters, but it has on occasion found it useful cover when targeting the media. The BBC’s Nick Robinson found himself at the end of a pre-Trumpian attack during the Scottish referendum, when Salmond accused him of "heckling". Fast forward two and a half years, and Claire Heuchan, a black Scottish student researching critical race theory quit Twitter after daring to back Khan in a Guardian column. In this worldview, scrutiny is too often viewed as malign treachery and not reasoned difference.

This is still not "racism" – such a rhetorical claymore is of no use to Labour in unpicking the complex coalition of identities which compose the Yes movement, many of which only have a loose affiliation with Scottish nationalism. Those who attack the petty tribalism of intolerant, trueborn nationalists should be careful not to dismiss the many progressive Scots who simply see independence as a lifeboat for a more just society, in a UK intent on drifting into an irrelevant Atlantic Ocean. 

Sadiq Khan leads London (home to thousands of Scots), another major UK region to back Remain. He was elected against a tide of bile and cynicism unseen in the UK since the 1980s. He was elected because against a campaign of fear he stood in the image of a forward-thinking politician who looked like the future of a cosmopolitan, tolerant society. This is an image which also strikes a chord in Scotland. Even Stugeon prefaced her tweets with “I'm a big admirer of @SadiqKhan”. If the Union is to be preserved, it will only happen because Scotland sees a UK which shares its idea of itself. To that end, Khan should offer sunshine and leave grievance to nationalists.

John McKee worked on the pro-union Better Together campaign during the 2014 Scottish referendum and is a freelance journalist.

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
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Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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