What is 21st century nationalism doing to us? Across the world, the rise of demagogues who play on the worst fears and basest instincts of national populations is leading to outcomes and policies that are deeply unpalatable to the liberal mind.
In the US, Donald Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have upped the ante with a draconian crackdown on illegal immigrants. American immigration officials say 2,342 immigrant children have been separated from 2,206 parents in the past month. Distressing images of young children crowded together in cages have raced around the world, corroding America’s reputation and leading to comparisons between Trump’s “tender age” holding centres and Nazi concentration camps.
In Italy, the new right-wing populist interior minister, Matteo Salvini, wants a census of the 130,000-strong Roma community so that non-Italians can be deported. “Unfortunately we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them,” he said. Last week Salvini refused to allow a charity ship carrying 629 migrants into the country.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban has this week imposed a 25 per cent tax on NGOs that assist immigrants and is passing a law that would jail those who help undocumented migrants. Here in Britain, a key motive force behind the Brexit vote was a desire to see immigration cut. This is a global ill wind that is blowing no good.
Four years ago, the SNP – a party with the word “National” in their very name – asked Scots to support the break up of the UK. They were criticised at the time by Unionists for having a myopic and limiting worldview, and for risking Scotland’s economic stability and role in the world for the sake of their obsessive identity politics. Alex Salmond’s deliberate rhetorical separation of voters into “Team Scotland” and “Team UK” played into the hands of those who argued that nationalism can only ever be a divisive credo, however it is dressed up.
The party’s connection to nationalism has become something of a millstone around its neck. At last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, Nicola Sturgeon admitted as much, when she told an audience the word carries unwanted associations with “inward-looking and insular” movements elsewhere. The SNP in fact promoted a “civic, open, inclusive view of the world,” the First Minister said, adding: “If I could turn the clock back…to the establishment of my party, and choose its name all over again, I wouldn’t choose the name it’s got just now.” It’s not uncommon for supporters of independence to object to being described in the media as nationalists or separatists. They see themselves differently: as builders, not wreckers.
In 2018, it could be argued that those “elsewhere” nationalists are in a sense doing Sturgeon and her colleagues a favour. The tighter Trump turns the screw, the more extreme governments in Eastern Europe become, the more hard-edged fundamentalist Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn get, the more evidence there is of what Scottish nationalism isn’t.
Only the SNP’s most unthinking critics maintain today that there is any intellectual or values-based link to the unhealthy ideologies that are driving so much global disruption. Indeed, the younger generation of SNP politicians and Yes supporters often view securing independence as little more than a technocratic exercise – it is about better governance, more effective democracy, a chance to get stuff done. In their private moments, some admit they would be content with a federal arrangement. When meeting the party’s newer MPs and MSPs one is struck by the sense that if this was the mid-1990s a number of them might have joined New Labour – they have an attraction, as the young often do, to momentum, energy and power.
The SNP doesn’t want a census of Scotland’s Roma, or to take immigrants’ kids away from them, or to foster a culture of suspicion and aggression based on blood and soil, or to quit the EU. Quite the opposite. The party wants more immigrants to come to Scotland, for both economic and cultural reasons. It wants Holyrood to have greater control over immigration so it can shape an expansive approach that suits demand north of the Border. Scottish nationalism has its share of fruit loops and racists, but they are a tiny minority in a party that today is a successful, mainstream, centre-left institution.
It suits Sturgeon’s opponents to tarnish her by association, but her claims for the SNP are not without independent intellectual support. Maya Tudor, an associate professor of government and public policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, backs the idea of a healthy “inclusive” nationalism. Tudor, who researches nationalisms across the world, warns that a healthy scepticism towards populists with malign intentions “should not lead us to reject all forms of nationalism as undesirable”.
She writes: “Historically, nationalism has been used to motivate withdrawal from international cooperation, aggression, war and genocide. But so, too, has it underpinned vibrant movements for colonial independence, the construction of generous welfare states that provide for their citizens and a feeling of solidarity that is crucial to individual identity in the modern world. As countries and regions diversify, the sense of community that nationalism can foster may be more important than ever. It is for this reason that we should seek to emphasise and celebrate inclusive forms of nationalism.
“Inclusive forms of nationalism eschew fixed identities and use shared aspirations – often civic or economic ideals – as the basis of their national imagining. Examples of this type of nationalism are rarer and emerged more recently in history.”
You don’t have to want Scottish independence to appreciate today’s SNP as a significant emblem of decency, progressiveness and social conscience. This is all the more important when one looks glumly around the world and even, sadly, to Westminster. Scottish nationalism has grown up, and it has grown up well.