Douglas Alexander: We're proudly Scottish - but still British

Narrow nationalism is not what Scotland - nor the United Kingdom - needs in the debate about independence

Share
Related Topics

Meryl Streep's extraordinary performance in The Iron Lady has reminded many of us in Scotland of the last era when we were challenged seriously to choose between being Scottish and British.

Under Margaret Thatcher, values that helped to define Scotland's sense of national identity – those of community and of social justice – came under sustained attack, and the autonomy of Scotland's own civic institutions, from our schools and universities to our health service, appeared at real risk.

The author William Mcllvanney caught the mood of those times when in 1987 he said: "If we allow her to continue she will remove from the word Scottish any meaning other than the geographical."

Now, in a different era, the SNP comprises supporters stretching from the fundamentalist right to the far left – held together by their pursuit of a separate state.

Next week, Alex Salmond will deliver a speech in London in which, on past form, he will seek to argue that independence is an enlightened act that should be supported by progressives in England in supposed solidarity with progressives in Scotland.

It is a case that the Scottish left has, for decades, rejected, not least because the break-up of Britain would represent a defeat for progressive ideals and a retreat from a shared vision of a multiethnic, multicultural and multinational state.

With the creation in 1999 of the first Scottish Parliament for 300 years, Scotland's democratic deficit was eliminated and its distinctive institutions became for the first time accountable directly to its people. Given this historic change it cannot seriously be argued any longer that Scotland's culture, its distinctive institutions or its nationhood are today threatened by actions taken by the British Parliament. And in the past three centuries of Scotland's history, the quiet determination to maintain what is distinctly Scottish has never required the abandonment of everything that is British.

The first decade of devolution saw a decade of economic growth in Scotland that resulted in a resurgence of Scottish pride and confidence. And during this decade of transformation, the repository of emotion for many Scots moved from class-based institutions to national institutions.

In part this was because traditional symbols of, and repositories for, working-class identity – such as trade union membership and large-scale industrial workplaces – were declining.

However, simultaneously there remained a strength of national pride, reaffirmed in everything from the music of the Proclaimers' "500 Miles", sung on the terraces at Hampden, to Eddi Reader's musical reinterpretation of Burns's poetry and song.

And while the love and respect for the BBC, the NHS, the armed forces and the Royal Family have stayed strong, other distinctively Scottish institutions grew in the Scottish people's affections. The SNP saw these changes and increased economic strength and sought to annex the sense of confidence it generated to their definition of Scotland and its destiny.

In contrast, Scottish Labour failed to recognise the changed environment that, ironically, it had help to create. The party was left singing the old hymns and warning of the risks of Thatcherism at a time when these songs were increasingly unfamiliar to a new audience with no personal knowledge of the tunes. In truth, Scottish Labour never felt it needed to be New Labour because arguably that process of modernisation was not needed to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this complacency, in time, left us vulnerable to attack from a different direction from more nimble opponents.

Seen through this light, the SNP's victory in May – historic though it was – came despite, not because of, its desire for independence.

People felt they could vote for the SNP to run the devolved government, comfortable in the knowledge that "the independence question" would be dealt with later, if at all, in a separate referendum. And that helps to explain why the popularity in the polls for the SNP has not over recent years or months translated into a significant and sustained rise in support for separation.

Yet Scotland now faces that momentous choice in the years ahead. And in that time of choosing, our duty is greater and our responsibility is heavier. It's a debate that demands a different quality of imagination. Given the degree of economic integration between the Scottish and the British economies, profound economic questions will be asked. But this debate will, and must, involve more than accountancy. It will involve deep and profound issues about identity in the 21st century.

I am proudly and patriotically Scottish. I don't look at English people and see foreigners. I certainly see sporting rivals, but I also see friends, colleagues, and family. To my mind, just because we are to varying degrees Scottish, British and European, it does not follow that loyalty to one must come at the price of denial of the other.

And this debate will involve questions not just about who we are, but what we believe. Politics is about more than identity; it's also about ideals. Along with millions of Scots, I have long believed we are stronger together and would be weaker apart.

It's not just that our grandparents stood shoulder to shoulder in the fight against fascism, but that they then built the NHS and the system of National Insurance that enshrined the principle that sharing of risks by all of us provides rights for each of us. Those were forward-looking, radical, reformist acts.

To reject now the sharing of risks, rewards and resources among the 60 million people of the United Kingdom and instead spend the coming years erecting new barriers between the nations of these islands would, for me, represent a retreat from that progressive tradition.

Now is the time for progressives on both sides of the border to stand together in rejection of a politics of grudge and manufactured grievance. And to reject a politics that draws its energy from gleeful assertions of difference rather than expressions of co-operation.

In an age defined by greater interdependence and connection, narrow nationalism is the wrong path for Scotland – and for Britain.

 

Douglas Alexander is the shadow Foreign Secretary and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones