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.


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