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20 October 2021

Will Scotland’s dizzying quest for a global role ever end?

Nationalists have modelled an independent Scotland on countries from every corner of the planet, often with little serious justification.

By Rory Scothorne

In less than a fortnight, Scotland will host the world in microcosm as Cop26 opens in Glasgow. It will do so under a Scottish government eager to portray the country as a responsible state-in-waiting, and Nicola Sturgeon has already begun to use the prospect as a chance to outline a distinctly Scottish vision of geopolitical agency. Last week, after a speech to the Ted Countdown Summit in Edinburgh on the role of smaller countries in tackling climate change, the First Minister travelled to Reykjavik to address the annual assembly of the Arctic Circle, a major international conference on Arctic geopolitics. While there, she did her best impression of a stateswoman, meeting with the Icelandic prime minister, the Danish foreign minister and the US senator for Alaska, Lisa Murkowski.

Scotland is not actually in the Arctic, of course, but Sturgeon eagerly reminded the delegates that these things are all relative: “The most northerly part of Scotland is closer to the Arctic Circle than to London,” she declared with a smirk, to the knowing chuckles of her audience. Those chuckles are themselves a victory of global branding: the idea of Scotland straining at the British leash, looking to take its business elsewhere, is becoming easily – and even fondly – recognised across the globe. 

International appeals like this have been at the heart of Scottish nationalism for half a century at least. When SNP MP Winnie Ewing took Hamilton from Labour in a 1967 by-election, her campaign slogan was “put Scotland on the map”, and she is supposed to have celebrated with the immortalised line: “Stop the world – Scotland wants to get on.” Throughout Scotland’s modern history, visions of Scotland’s place in the world have helped nationalists to articulate a case for independence that is cosmopolitan and collaborative, rebutting the accusations of “narrow nationalism” and “separatism” levelled at them by unionists. 

Yet these visions have often substituted ambition for coherence or consistency. Nationalists have modelled an independent Scotland on countries from every corner of the planet, often with little serious justification beyond passing ideological convenience. 

Modern Scottish nationalism was born within the British empire, and at various moments in its development its advocates have associated themselves with both sides of the imperial coin-toss depending on where it seemed likely to land. In the earliest days of “Home Rule” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some campaigners sought a version of dominion status for Scotland that mirrored reformist visions of Irish self-government; other nationalists, however, wanted a self-governing Scotland to retain its status as a co-leader of empire. Rightly so: Scotland was at the very least a “junior partner” of Britain’s imperial project, and provided many of its most efficient administrators, its greediest entrepreneurs and its most feared enforcers. 

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This early, imperial nationalism sought to hang on to some of the worldly opportunities that Britain had granted to Scotland’s elites, but the embryonic years of nationalist ideology offered other, more radically universalist visions of national breakaway. In the final years of his life, the revolutionary schoolteacher John Maclean – who was imprisoned for his opposition to the First World War – saw independence as a vital part of Scotland’s contribution to world revolution, and was appointed by the Bolsheviks to run their unofficial Scottish consulate in Glasgow. 

After the Second World War, however, decolonisation and the rise of the United Nations offered a new kind of global identity for Scotland: statehood was increasingly portrayed as the “normal” political expression of nationhood, while the benefits of empire were vanishing. New nationalist models of state-driven modernisation and development, often rife with their own forms of exploitation, offered a tantalising alternative to the UK’s crumbling order. In 1962, the socialist and future trade union leader Lawrence Daly wrote that “if the Israelis can develop the desert and the Brazilians the jungle, the Scots if given half a chance can develop new enterprises in Scotland”.

One underappreciated element of Scottish nationalism’s cosmopolitan imagination is its uneasiness with full-throated nationalism – a fact that lazier critics wilfully ignore. For Tom Nairn, one of the most important elements to consider in supporting any nationalism was how it would be shaped by external factors. Scottish nationalism fared well in this regard, he argued, because it was emerging at a time when it was likely to be forced “outward” by overwhelming international pressures. Among these pressures was the rise of the European Economic Community (EEC), which would encourage a multilateral, cosmopolitan nationalism rather than an insular and chauvinist one. While the SNP of the 1970s remained Eurosceptic – resisting EEC membership on “London’s terms”, at least – Nairn’s support for “independence in Europe” was ultimately adopted by the party in the 1980s.

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There were, however, dangerous contradictions in all of this. Membership of international free trade blocs is difficult to combine with more autarkic visions of state-driven economic development, and Scottish nationalism has usually tended more towards the former than the latter. The irony of nationalists protesting marginalisation within one union while embracing it within another, even larger unit has not been lost on critics – but this has usually been glossed over with the help of Scottish nationalism’s favourite One Neat Trick: the magical figure of the small, successful country. 

This has been articulated in radical terms through dubious comparisons with anti-imperial struggles in Ireland, Cuba and Vietnam. Strategic lessons have been learned (or not) from other “misfit nations”, such as Quebec and Catalonia. The small-state model has also sustained visions of solidarity, especially in the 1980s, with the downtrodden peoples of central and eastern Europe, where the struggles of civil society against an overpowering Soviet state offered heroic analogies for Scotland’s own protests against Thatcherism. Yet it has been most influential in a more technocratic form, where global minnows such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand offer examples of small states using their size to adapt quickly and intelligently to global transformations that leave larger, more cumbersome units behind. 

Throughout all of this, certain patterns can be identified. There has been an obvious shrinkage of ambition since those early days, when the horizon and potential agency of Scottish self-government was imperial or world-revolutionary in scale. Today, Scotland is portrayed by nationalists as the most convenient vehicle for a more humble cosmopolitan liberalism, preserving and expanding what Yale professor Samuel Moyn has called the “last utopia” of international human rights. 

There are two noticeable absences from nationalism’s worldly imagination. The first is Scotland itself. Some of the more eccentric nationalists have been interested in Scotland’s own native social and political models, reinventing old ideas such as the “three estates” or the “communism of the clans” from the country’s past; the poet Hugh MacDiarmid even proposed a “neo-Gaelic economics” of national self-sufficiency. But generally speaking, Scotland has found its inspiration elsewhere, lusting after off-the-shelf nation-state “models” – the “Nordic model”, for instance – that hint at a more consumerist and market-based understanding of how politics works. This suggests, wrongly and dangerously, that independence would be a clean slate on to which new ideas or models could be imposed. In reality, an independent Scotland will have to work with what it’s got, going with the grain of its existing geopolitical associations and a political-economic model that has developed over several centuries.

This brings us to the second and most striking absence from Scottish nationalism’s international vision: England and the union. The country with which Scotland really does have the most in common – with which it shares an economy, a government, a whole host of institutions and common cultural practices – is almost entirely absent from nationalist futures. Nobody supports independence so that we can be more like England. Indeed, the whole point of Scottish nationalism – perhaps even of Scottishness itself – is not being England

Nationalist ideology has not grown from any overwhelming differences between the two sides of the Treaty of Union, but from the profound fragility of what difference does exist – from the danger that Scotland could be assimilated and absorbed at any moment, precisely because behind the formal institutional distinctions there isn’t much to meaningfully separate us from England beyond the stubborn conviction that we’re different. In Scotland’s search for other countries to model ourselves on and other unions to join lies a desperate need for some other gravitational force that might pull us away from England’s orbit – a recognition, in other words, that the reality of Scotland is not enough to do the job by itself. 

It makes a sad kind of sense, then, that Scottish nationalism’s global imagination has settled on the Arctic as the new destination of choice: after decades of globalisation and neoliberalism, not to mention centuries of union, Scottish nationhood has been so stripped of substance and native meaning, so voided of any inherent material reality with which to build an independent future on our own terms, that we are left dreaming of a future in the frozen wastes of the far north. And even that’s melting.

[See also: The Scottish Yes movement needs to rediscover its sense of fun]

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