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. 

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“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.