Twenty years ago, the artist John Byrne took to the streets of Dublin, Belfast and Cork, armed with a microphone, a camera and a simple question: would you die for Ireland? In the resulting short film, Byrne – who was born into Belfast’s nationalist community – lets his subjects expand on their answer as much as they want. There are plenty of eloquent sceptics: “You die for a country that’ll do something for you,” chuckled one man; “this country doesn’t do anything for a lot of people.” “Family and friends, I would,” said another; “Ireland is too big a thing to die for.” Or there’s this: “if I feel strongly enough about something I would either die for it or go to prison for it, but I certainly wouldn’t die for a word, and Ireland is a word.”
There are many others, however, who offer a proud “yes” without hesitation. In Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson writes that “dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International can not rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.” Several of Byrne’s respondents emphasise their willingness under certain “circumstances”, like being called up by the state. But the real “moral grandeur” comes from the fact that all of those other gallant refusals would be far harder to sustain in the kind of vast, intoxicating rush to war that mobilises whole peoples into conflict.
Nations memorialise not just those martyrs who went over the top in full agreement with their government, but also those who had little real choice in the matter – who did it because it’s what their friends were doing, or because resistance would have meant prison, ostracisation or worse. “Ineluctable necessity” produces “an aura of purity and disinterestedness” around the nation, writes Anderson: the banal innocence of such a sacrifice – registered in every “tomb of the unknown soldier” – is what imbues nations with the symbolic authority to mobilise for the next war.
I was reminded of Byrne’s video recently by the outpouring of Western reportage from Ukrainian “frontier” zones, replete with the fatalistic musings of local civilians and soldiers. “I’ve no plans to flee,” one lawyer in Mariupol told the Financial Times as Russian troops assembled at the border; “I’d rather take up arms and fight. This is my home.” The Ukrainian government is providing combat training drills to its citizens, as Nato-aligned leaders and experts speculate about a Russian invasion leading to a prolonged insurgency. Ordinary people joining a deadly struggle is nothing new in a country that is still battling to consolidate its 2014 revolution against Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic, Putin-backed regime, whose snipers, riot police and Titushky thugs murdered or disappeared hundreds of protesters in the space of a few weeks.
Whether it’s Ukraine or even Ireland’s recent history, it’s important to reflect on the jarring comparison with more parochial territorial questions: would I die for Scotland? Would anyone? Broadly speaking, I have indulged in two kinds of Scottish nationalism over the years. The first was the common insistence that I was not, in fact, a nationalist, but simply wanted independence because we had to get out of a Tory-dominated UK, thus opening up a small, coincidentally Scotland-shaped avenue for improvement. But this escape raft is still inflated by a nationalist pump: it is at least parasitic upon the idea that Scotland is somehow kinder and gentler than England. If you’d asked me then if I’d die for Scotland, I would have said “no – and unlike Britain, Scotland doesn’t expect me to say yes, and that’s why we need independence”.
Years of tepid SNP dominance soon spoiled my appetite for that kind of smarmy national moralism. Nevertheless, I leaned into the underlying logic. While Scotland isn’t worth dying for, nationalism can at least demand something that is, and struggle against the actual nation towards that goal – “a liberated and revolutionary nationalism, worthy of the name and the times,” as Tom Nairn put it in 1968. A similar idea crops up throughout Byrne’s interviews, as wavering martyrs suggest they might consider it for a 32-county republic. It also appears in the 1995 film Braveheart, after one grimy Scottish conscript, observing his pompous generals from the front line, yells “alright lads, I’m no dying for these bastards – let’s go home!” It takes the last-minute arrival of William Wallace – and his rhetorical blast of real, popular sovereignty – to microwave their sacrificial porridge.
[See also: What does the SNP have to show for 15 years in power?]
So, a Scottish Socialist Republic – I still think that’d be worth it. But the problem with this, I realise, is that the martyrdom is lethally front-loaded. Achieving that holy trinity would require, if not quite death, then some quite substantial sacrifices on the way there. And there is little evidence that the SNP’s vision of independence is worth making any sacrifices for whatsoever: monetary sovereignty would remain with Westminster, defence would be pooled with Nato, and the government would expend its political capital flogging our ample green resources to the highest bidder. With every corner of Scotland nailed to the St Andrew’s cross, there’d be nothing left to save.
But this is not the kind of problem that can be answered by the classic radical-patriotic formula of overthrowing our own elites as well as the foreign ones. The SNP has not adopted this model because it is a neoliberal ideologue, but because it is the path of least resistance. The present limitations of Scottish politics are not, as they appeared in Ukraine, an imposition by corrupt elites on a noble people, of the kind that could enrage the nation into self-sacrificing revolt.
Scotland’s flaws feel more like a sign that representative democracy is working too well, with any real territorial conflict largely subdued by the local anaesthetic of devolution. The Scottish public, which is only as oppressed and exploited as any other capitalist democracy, is all too aware that things could get worse as well as better. Nationalist strategists have long understood that Scotland’s distinctive cultures and languages are either insufficiently different or insufficiently popular to sustain a mass movement against the phantom of “Anglicisation”. Its relatively secure middle layers – an electoral deadweight, if not quite an actual majority – have little appetite for the genuine risks that would have to be taken to properly address their political grievances. This is, as I’ve said, part of the “not-a-nationalist-but” argument for independence: you don’t need to worry about Scottishness being used to justify atrocities – its appeal lies in its relative weakness. Hence Sturgeon’s reluctance to pursue anything more disruptive than a legal referendum despite implacable opposition from Westminster.
The SNP’s timidity, in other words, is part of the deep structural contradiction that renders Scottish nationalism simultaneously safe and stuck; unlike Ukraine or Ireland, Scotland isn’t so much a cause as a complaint – a great dithering groan at the glum inconvenience of having thrown in our lot with a far bigger neighbour that is long past its postwar best, cursed by the prior enthusiasm that means we are now too closely entangled to extricate ourselves without making things at least temporarily worse. The result for most people seems to be that, even if they support it in principle, independence isn’t worth the sacrifice it would take to make it worth the sacrifice. Looking at the party those people continue to elect with apparent gusto, I find it harder and harder to disagree. I’m not dying for these bastards.
[See also: Why support is emerging for a “third option” on Scottish independence]