But One Nationalism?
Posted on June 10, 2012
In The Herald this weekend we hear from Peruvian-Spanish Nobel-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa that ‘When nationalism becomes power, it is always very negative, very pernicious. It produces a provincial vision of social and political problems’ (‘Interview’, Arts, The Herald, 9th June 2012 [summary of article by Jackie McGlone with readers’ comments available here]). Vargas Llosa’s central argument is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the very idea of nationalism: ‘The basic idea of nationalism is wrong. The idea that to be born in a given place is a value in itself is ridiculous. Totally ridiculous!’
If he were listening, now would be the time to ask Vargas Llosa what he might regard as generative within and towards his own sense of self as a result of his dual nationality. Just as no one will quarrel with the technical observation that offspring do not emerge with full-blown credentials as value-laden nationalists, fundamentally distinct from offspring emerging, let’s say to force the point, 10 minutes down the road across the border, no one will quarrel with the idea that one’s national domain to a greater or lesser extent will have substantial formative influence, positive and negative, on one’s sense of self and on one’s behaviour in the world. Ask any Peruvian or Spaniard, wherever they may reside.
Although Jackie McGlone’s interview did not permit it, really it must be a particular type of national self-identity from which Vargas Llosa recoils. And, once again, no one will quarrel with him that the type of self-identity which would regard other selves and other nations as inferior is an intolerant and contemptible type. Moreover, as Vargas Llosa justly underlines, that repugnant and complacent self-identity is very much at odds with the march of time – ‘the march of time is for the dissolution of frontiers, integration, common denominators’, he argues persuasively.
The fascistic self-identity which proclaims superiority, and which must resist political and social dilution as a strategic necessity, is one which must be consigned to the quarantine of history. On this point Vargas Llosa is clear: ‘Never forget, nationalism has produced the most brutal and cruel wars in history’. McGlone, understandably, could not resist this right-headed reminder as the bold headline for the interview, but the credibility of the link from the headline to Scotland’s current context is less conspicuous, or, perhaps, the link that is credible remains dormant in the article.
To bridge to that latent point of interest in McGlone’s interview, that is -in advance -the potentiality of Vargas Llosa’s love of literature and the imagination as components of a reimagined national proclivity, there is something first to be registered (and doubted) about the populist formation of a prevalent criticism of Scottish nationalism.
Brian Wilson writing in The Scotsman the other week (‘No mistake, bad things will happen’, Wednesday 30 May, 2012) pours scorn on the launch of the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign, and presents a fully-formed version of the prevalent criticism which bothers me. The ‘Yes Scotland’ event was repellant, ostensibly in Wilson’s argumentation, because of its appeal to something (anything) other than what Wilson determines on our behalf to be hard-headed.
‘These events are a lot less relevant than the participants like to think because nobody who knows the polling believes that sceptical Scots are in a mood to be told by wealthy actors living abroad or political hangers-on what they should think or how they should vote. The battleground is more economic than thespian, less Braveheart than hard heads.’
The problem for Wilson and other anti-Independence voices who take this populist line is that as much as they tell us with their hard heads that the real battleground is purely economic, it isn’t. And, of course, they know it: hence the hard-headededness with which they self-proclaim hard-headededness.
The anxiety felt here by the anti-Independence proselytisers in the face of Yes Scotland-style events results in two common responses. Firstly, as indicated, there is quick recourse to hard-headed speculation (sic) that all is lost economically if independence comes about. Secondly (and surely with secret acknowledgement-to-self of the centrality to the debate of what they must label for hardman consistency ‘softness’) there is quick recourse to a sarcastic imaging of Scottish culture as being merely that peddled by offshore actors in tartan helicopters. The first response is designed to scare, the second designed to mask deep-seated cultural formations that might indeed constitute the hard foundations of something else.
To take a step from this skit on populist, reactionary anti-Independence hardism back towards hidden interest in the Vargas Llosa interview, consider recent and related discussion in the press of Englishness. Last week, Owen Jones in the Independent posited that ‘England, Miliband’s England, is a lost country’ (The Independent, Friday 8 June, 2012). Jones makes some good points which cast doubt on the plausibility of Labour’s current attempt to find a story, a guiding narrative, especially as it was ‘Englishness’ which Miliband selected to ‘fill the vacuum’.
Jones puts it that a 2012 report by the IPPR which revealed that nearly a quarter of English people saw themselves as more English than British is in part, along with developments with Welsh devolution and the independence debate in Scotland, driving Labour, and others, to find ways to appear more receptive and appealing to English voters.
This is easier said than done, and Jones concludes with a point not distant from Wilson’s position. ‘There is no clear and cohesive “Englishness”‘, he states. ‘It is a catch-all term for all those who live in England’s borders, who have a range of identities, interests and histories’. Jones spices the mix by suggesting that Labour would do better ‘to talk about championing the interests of the people it was set up to represent: working people, regardless of their national affiliations’.
But Jones and Wilson seem too intent on countering the nationalist tenet which sits underneath the pernicious forms of fascistic and parochial nationalism which so trouble, and rightly, Vargas Llosa. That tenet is indeed one which would homogenise national differences in the name of a sanitised and uniform pitch on National superiority. But to approach from this direction is to overlook the constructive soft side of Scottish nationalism which is, conceptually at least, as much about discovering and redescribing a national identity, a political practice more about the formation of a national politics and wider modi operandi than about the posturing of a ready-made Scottishness which magically applies to all in-border residents despite the diversity which Jones sensibly foregrounds.
This programme of self-determination is valid, and appealing, but very difficult to put into practice. Today’s announcement that the Scottish Greens are to walk away from the Yes Scotland campaign is, for this blogger at least, more of an assault on the prospect of an intelligent nationalism in Scotland than the arguments offered by Wilson, Jones and even Vargas Llosa. For the soft, no, let’s say instead, for the constructive type of Scottish nationalism must be exemplary (and perhaps, in time, sui generis) in its upholding of properly inclusive and imaginative practices of politics and policy formation.
If Patrick Harvie is right on the reasons for his party’s withdrawal from the Yes Scotland adventure, then the SNP is not so keen on involving others in the decision making process for the campaign and the future direction of the independence discussion. Nationalism linked so closely to the specialist interests of a party political power formation is veering away from the constructive nationalism which might win out against the fear creation and Aunt Sally picturing of many of the anti-Independence voices.
Notwithstanding today’s snag for the credibility of SNP big-tent, anti-parochial-party-politics, constructive nationalism is not a bogus project. The point at root in this bloggy re-engagement with the issue is not that Scotland is a nation already formed in great specialness, superior to all neighbours, even those within a ten-minute geographical radius. Of course not. The point is that the opportunity for a type of generous and constructive nationalism presents itself now to all in Scotland. If there is but one form of nationalism, then count me out with Vargas Llosa, but if our nationalism can be about making good things happen with prominence in the process for our cultural heritage and our constant and collective re-imaginings above and beyond the hard-rock fiscalism of blandly uniform capitalist benchmarking, then count me in.
And here we are again with Vargas Llosa, but beyond his pat castigation of demonised nationalism. The most striking thing about The Herald interview was not his assassination of the darkest from of nationalist enterprise, it was his powerful description of the force of literature in the formation of his worldview. Scottish hardmen in Wilson’s gang take note. Vargas Llosa is a little bit famous for saying that great art is a bit like the planting of a bomb – something that can explode and deeply affect the mindset of the reader or beholder. With reference to literature he put that point to McGlone once before in this way:
‘[Great books cause] a certain disruption in the mind. You finish these books and you are no longer the same person. Literature changes you. It is the supreme pleasure, a great escape. I am much happier, more complete when I dream through fictions: I can live other lives, have adventures. The real world is often a very mediocre place. It makes you feel only half alive. I come to life when I am in the fantastical world of books or in my imagination’.
The disruptive force, of course, can work effectively for constructive empathy with the lives of others, not simply as escapism. A nationalism which is in part about the levelling of unimaginative hierarchies (whatever their celebrated duration) as well as an unimaginative hardness (which would have everything frozen in the patterns of normative struggle) at the service of a greater understanding and celebration of resident difference with a practical improvement in the inclusiveness of civic life appeals.
Lastly, with reference to topical press comment once more, this time apropos Ireland, we might see a pragmatic Scottish nationalism accompany the soft trajectory. This from Times commentator, Fintan O’Toole (‘Independence is having no one else to blame’, The Times, Tuesday 5 June, 2012):
‘Scotland, admittedly, has some advantages that Ireland did not possess at independence. It has the same sectarian divide but at least it doesn’t map easily on to political loyalties to create a toxic fusion of religion and politics. Its debates on independence do not risk teetering into civil wars. The emblems of an ethnic Scottishness (kilts and clan tartans) are so daft and bogus that nationalism has had to take a more rational, civic, shape. There’s an admirable element of hard-headedness in the Scottish position: thanks a lot for the empire and the industrial revolution but now that they’re gone, we’ll be off too. It may not be as heroically romantic as the Irish struggle, but cold pragmatism may be more useful to a new state’.
Whatever the case, and whatever the current state of the Nationalists’ endeavour to construct ‘Yes Scotland’ as something for everyone, O’Toole’s optimistic view on the independence debate is a refreshing counter to Wilson’s thespianised hardism. O’Toole indirectly allows great scope for the play of our art and literature when he writes about the collective shifts involved in independence:
‘You have to take responsibility for the choices you make. You end up feeling more disillusioned but also more grown-up. It’s a bittersweet outcome. There are still follies and delusions, but at least they’re your own. This is the real choice. The options are not economic misery under the Union or permanent boom-times under independence. They lie more in the realms of collective psychology. Do you want to have the safety net of an Auld Enemy to rage at when policies don’t work and the world turns mean? Or do you prefer to look at yourself in your own mirror, in all your glories and stupidities?’
Call me a softy, but Vargas Llosa’s appeal to the force of art and literature in the construction of a greater sense of self- and national-identity has a ring about it which chimes well with Scottish independence potential. Now to find the practical political formations which will ensure that that spirit is not eclipsed by small tent and big ‘N’ nationalist encampments…