The Cultural Straw Man

By Stephen Bowman

There are some unionists who make the case that Scotland and England are not culturally different and, as a result, Scotland shouldn’t be independent. Both George Galloway and Alistair Carmichael have made arguments along those lines in the past, something which seemed particularly unusual for the Secretary of State for Scotland to say. Meanwhile, you sometimes get Ed Miliband and the faux socialists of the Labour Party arguing that Scottish independence and distinctiveness is incompatible with international solidarity.

Then, this week, the unionist journalist David Torrance wrote in the Herald about the cultural affinities between the peoples of these islands. These affinities of course exist (and I’ve written about them before) and, in fairness to Torrance, he doesn’t argue that cultural similarity between England and Scotland is enough to justify union. But his article nevertheless speaks to a narrative that is deliberately trying to play down Scottish distinctiveness in an effort to ensure a No vote in September.

But when unionists say Scottish and English people are the same and that this means that Scots shouldn’t vote for independence, what are they saying exactly? If it is that nobody from any one country is any better than anybody else in another country, or that parts of our history and culture are shared by virtue of living on the same island, under a variety of constitutional arrangements, then that’s fine.

Except, why does that mean we shouldn’t vote for independence? Humankind the world over is the ‘same’ – in the sense that we’re all of equal worth and, indeed, that people are just people. Anything else about a person is, to a lesser or greater extent, a social construct. Fine, whatever.

There are, however, two aims behind comments like those made by people like Galloway and Carmichael. Firstly, they want to suggest that Yes supporters are nasty nationalists who want to see difference in everything, and who think that Scottish people are better than everyone else. Secondly, they want to argue that because of the underlying sameness of people there is no need for independence.

Aside from wilfully playing down the evident political differences between the two countries (George Galloway might’ve reflect on these when he recently appeared on Newsnight Scotland for a debate with Jim Sillars – how many televised debates between prominent, bona fide socialists are being made in England?), this makes a very large assumption. It assumes that the independence movement is a cultural one – that’s to say, that there is a cultural imperative behind independence. This, however, is a bit of a straw man. Culture is something that has been notable by its absence from the Yes campaign. That’s because Scottish culture – broadly defined – is actually pretty healthy. It’s also very inclusive, something that would potentially be compromised by marrying culture to the nation’s independence. Rather, Scottish identity and distinctiveness seem fairly well safeguarded in or out of the union, despite what people like George Galloway say. There is, in other words, no cultural case to be made for independence. Rather, there is a practical and political imperative.

Something else can be implied from the comments made by those unionists who cry ‘culture’: that there is a cultural case for the Union. This is never really examined in all that much detail – and tends to rely on fluff about the NHS and the world wars – and for good reason. If it was, unionists would need to explain what makes Scottish and English people uniquely similar as to justify an incorporating union between the two countries. As a direct result of their ‘brotherhood of man’ rhetoric (granted, Galloway’s is more than rhetoric), they might, for example, need to explain why such an incorporating union doesn’t also have to include less Protestant, less white countries than England and Scotland. It has a tinge of latter-day Anglo-Saxonism about it.

There is indeed no pressing cultural reason for independence. But unionists should take care when suggesting that there is a cultural case for the union while simultaneously attacking the Yes campaign for a ‘narrow nationalism’ which is, paradoxically, implicit in Better Together’s narrow-minded denial of Scottish distinctiveness. If culture isn’t a legitimate ground of debate for the Yes campaign, nor is it a legitimate ground of debate for the No campaign.

If nothing else, it gets far too complicated.

No, Maybe, Yes!

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By Michael Petri – Michael is currently conducting a PhD at the University of Stirling, where he is a part of the School of Applied Social Science. As well as currently conducting his own research Michael is also teaching on a range of undergraduate Sociology, Social Policy and Social Research modules. Outside of university Michael works as a recruiter for a call centre outsourcing company, and has a keen interest in philosophy and eastern religions, particularly Zen Buddhism.

Back when the prospect of a referendum for Scottish independence was first becoming serious I was completely against it. The values of togetherness and unity are things which I consider to be fundamentally important for humanity, so the notion of separating from the rest of Britain did not sit well with me. Beyond that I will admit I was also a bit dubious as to our ability to successfully run our country by ourselves (an opinion which in hindsight was held without any real critical engagement on my part). I have however over the past year, whilst trying to be open minded on the subject and beginning to seriously look at the arguments made from both the Yes and No camps, went through a gradual but profound shift in my thinking.

The more I read and thought about questions such as our potential for a more environmentally sustainable energy future; our ability to stand on our own feet economically; the possibility of ridding ourselves of Trident, the unelected house of Lords, and our incessant following of American foreign policy; and the likelihood of moving away from the right-wing policies of Westminster which have become crystallised in British policies over the past decade or so, the more I began to not just take the Yes view seriously, but to see it as comfortably the most promising stance for the betterment of our country. Our Prime Minister (who the majority of Scotland did not vote for) argued in Brussels against putting a cap on bankers bonuses and lowered tax for the best off section of the population, whilst simultaneously hitting the poorest in society with the bedroom tax, making huge cuts across pretty much all public services and all the while having the audacity to repeatedly rhyme off the mantra that “we’re all in it together”. So the prospect of a sovereign Scottish government which has the potential and likelihood to move towards a more equal society reflecting the egalitarian roots of Scottish politics cannot help but fill me with optimism for a government that could at least have a serious shot at doing what governments are supposed to have been formed to do: protect and serve the people – and by that I mean the masses rather than the elite (which is what I believe our Westminster governments have been doing since I was born).

I’m under no illusion that an independent Scottish Government will somehow herald a new utopian age for Scottish politics. We will always have problems, and a yes vote would do nothing other than signal the beginning of a never-ending challenge to do what’s best for the people of Scotland and all our brothers and sisters that we share this planet with. I am however confident that an independent Scottish government, with the ethos of looking after the more vulnerable groups and individuals in society, is the best way to go.

I’d also like to touch on nationalism. I understand that in writing a pro-independence article here I am clearly going to come across as a ‘nationalist’. However I’d like to put forward why that isn’t the case and how it is not contradictory to be actually against nationalism, yet still vote for an independent Scotland. Firstly I consider national identity to be a social construction (admittedly one with a lot of meaning and baggage to a lot of people, yet a construction all the same). We are all just human beings living on land, trying to make the most of our fleeting, confusing lives. You don’t need to be a historian to know that borders are not static. They move and come and go all the time. They are not, fixed, inherent or eternal. They are simply useful practical fictions which allow us to group together in relatively smaller groups in order to come together with a sense of common purpose for our collective benefit. This is where I think the practicality and usefulness of the UK as a single collective group does not hold, and the needs of the people of this island would be better served by having smaller distinct sovereign powerful groups which would be better positioned to reflect the divergent social and political needs of localised populations.

Einstein called nationalism “infantile” and the “measles of mankind”. I’m aware that many people on both sides of this debate feel patriotic and have a sense of pride in their country, and I have no issue with that, however I would agree that nationalism is a dangerous prerogative to follow. Flags can be useful symbols to rally behind, just as governments can be useful tools for safeguarding the welfare of the people, however like borders these are all transient and in an ultimate sense illusory idealisations with no concrete essence of any value. To me the vote isn’t about identity but more about the way we want to govern society, and from my perspective there’s far too many differences in general between how the Westminster government functions (neo-liberal policies, elitism etc.) and the direction an independent Scotland would take (increased equality and protection of the vulnerable). An independent Scotland will not kill-off the idea or identity of being British. The geographical and historical connection with the rest of the UK cannot be revoked by having a sovereign Scottish government any more than not having one can diminish the ability for someone to identify themselves as Scottish. A Yes vote would reflect a popular will to have a distinctly Scottish rule of government, but surely when we consider identity, our preferences for particular types of social and national policies play only a small role in the formation of our overall identity?

My values haven’t changed over the past year, however my understanding of the political structure of Scotland and the rest of the UK has. With the seemingly ever-growing popularity of UKIP in England and a referendum on EU membership for the UK starting to look like a serious possibility, I feel the best way to be united and connected outwith ‘oor wee bit hill and glen’ is to vote yes. This is the only way to safeguard our strong connection to the rest of the EU and become a meaningful player at the international table – something which in our era of globalisation is an absolute must. We will only be able to tackle the serious environmental, economic and social problems facing our world today in cooperation and partnership with the wider international community. As things stand the best way to do that is in my opinion to vote Yes in September.

Evil Villains Make Positive Case for Union

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By Stephen Bowman

On the day that Lord George Robertson has said that Scottish independence would be ‘cataclysmic’ for Western civilisation, a succession of film and TV villains from the 1960s, 70s and 80s have lined up in support of the former NATO secretary general.

The Intergalactic Empire’s Darth Vader has admitted that Scottish independence is for the people of Scotland to decide, but that he finds the country’s ‘lack of faith disturbing.’ Meanwhile, Davros – the leader of the Daleks – has explained that the Scottish people need to understand the consequences of voting no: namely, that Scotland may find itself either frozen out of Europe or ‘exterminated.’

Michael Myers has declined to comment on the issue, though he has been breathing heavily down telephone lines and standing in gardens wielding a meat cleaver. Freddy Krueger, meanwhile, has warned that the process of negotiating independence will be a bureaucratic ‘nightmare’, in which he may stalk innocent 1980s actors and actresses and slice them open with razors attached to his fingers. Echoing these positive cases for the Union, Hannibal Lecter has said that Scotland can ‘fly, fly, fly, fly’ if it wishes, but that he’ll ‘eat its liver with a nice Chianti’ if it does. The murderous psychiatrist then made an odd sucking sound with his mouth.

One of the Trident nuclear warheads has also broken its silence on the independence referendum. Speaking from Faslane Naval Base, the missile said that it felt that it was unfair that Alex Salmond was forcing it to choose between its Scottishness and its Britishness and that it feared that it would be forcibly sent back to England in the event of a Yes vote. It said that some of the rhetoric used by CND was dangerously right-wing and suggested that immigrant warheads would be targeted in an independent Scotland.

These statements from a number of anachronistic villains and inanimate objects follow a growing concern amongst Unionists about the dangers posed by so-called ‘Cyber-nats’. Half-human, half-robot, these Cyber-nats are allegedly pursuing an online bullying campaign against anyone who doesn’t support their efforts to ‘delete’ the Act of Union. Davros said that he and a number of other Daleks were afraid for their safety following comments made by Cyber-nats on pro-independence websites which criticise the Daleks’ involvement with Better Together.

Meanwhile, it is understood that George Robertson is planning to use a time machine to travel back to 1995, when he said that the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament would ‘kill nationalism stone dead.’ It is thought that Robertson will attempt to prevent his former self from saying these words, though it’s not clear whether this act – like Scottish independence – will result in a breach in the space-time continuum and the ultimate destruction of the entire universe.