On Scotland’s national day, Andrew Marshall argues that the left should embrace national identities and use them to construct a progressive, inclusive nationalism.

Andrew Marshall Europe, Scotland, UK, Refugees
The front page of The National newspaper used romantic nationalist imagery to send an inclusive political message

The front page of The National newspaper used romantic nationalist imagery to send an inclusive political message

On this St. Andrews Day, amidst a political climate marked by recent tragedies and tensions, it is vital to send a clear message that the community of Scotland is inclusive and welcoming, one which will not tolerate racism, religious persecution or prejudice of any kind. Some have expressed this message through nationalist terms and symbols, with The National newspaper printing a headline welcoming refugees to the country while Saturday’s STUC St. Andrews Day March in Glasgow expressed the same message with the Saltire.

This is a welcome approach; rather than abandon the ideological territory of nationhood to those who aim to use it to spread division and racism, nations are instead positioned as welcoming and peaceful communities, inviting and thriving upon cultural diversity, extending solidarity beyond open borders. This is an approach which can be a beneficial part of a strategy of opposing the tenets of creeping fascist attitudes.

Scottish trade unions celebrate the national day

Scottish trade unions celebrate the national day

It is first necessary to recognise that what makes a nation is inherently subjective; at the public level, they become reflections of the most popular values and myths projected onto them at any one time.

Imbuing nations with strongly held human rights principles can then form a cycle of cultural evolution; for example, Scotland as I conceptualize it has since childhood always been multicultural in character and in principle. The nation as I experienced it was a community which was both indebted and bound to a concomitant global community; any notion of the nation as an ‘us’ of higher value than a ‘them’ was impossible. Scotland was, and is, an indivisible part and product of the fabric of global multiculturalism.

Nationalism is obviously not a requisite of solidarity. There is value apart from anything else in building a shared sense of common humanity in states hosting refugees, as there is in all states. This is always a given.

There is however further value in additionally tying that solidarity explicitly to national identities. This sends a clear message that nations are self-determining communities which will not serve as fodder to those who seek to use them to sow division and hostility between and among peoples, but do in fact welcome and invite diversity. We then stand to better avoid alienating those who already identify with positive and inclusive national identities, support those who do so in spite of the objections of racists and xenophobes, or assert such identities ourselves.

This process must however be mindful of the implications of subjectivity. For many, nationalist terms and symbols may only represent the legacies and ongoing realities of colonial and imperialist violence. For others, nationalisms may serve as a vehicle of resistance to oppression, such as Black Nationalism, or formerly colonized states asserting their own cultural identities. Recognition of the right to either claim or reject nationalist labels as part of one’s liberation is vital. Acquiescence with positive nationalisms must never become an implicit prerequisite of ‘full access’ to cultural and political participation.

This principle should also extend to interrogating a nation’s shared history, carrying out as best possible any due reconciliation or reparation. Any conception of Scottish nationalism must for example face the ways in which parts of Scotland historically profited from the slave trade, the Merchant City serving as a constant reminder of how that wealth shaped Glasgow. The shared mythology of Scotland must not be ignorant to these kinds of cultural scars; if inclusivity is to be a reality which reaches those directly or indirectly affected by oppression, so those of us within a community who have benefited directly or indirectly from that oppression must recognize and honour the victims of those crimes and their legacies, as well as support political and cultural measures to overturn them.

Given history, it is obviously right that expressions of popular nationalism be considered with caution. But so we should also bear in mind that recognition of the right to peaceful self-determination is important in mitigating the fuelling of exclusionary conditions which can leave communities more susceptible to isolationism. In recently and drastically politicized Scotland, nationalism has been and continues to be invoked as a vehicle of self-determination foisted in some cases on a range of varying ideological principles. We cannot however meaningfully debate those pursuing self-determination on the parameters and consequences of that process as they see it, if we do not first acknowledge their right to pursue it.

From this point we can also challenge the dangerous notion that protecting national identities requires acquiescence to concentrated state authority. If those identities are realized through engaging in healthy cultural practices, so the realization of those identities is contingent on first securing the freedom and resources to meaningfully engage in such practices. So then we can marry positive nationalisms with the pursuit of the decentralization of power; my own support for independence never threatened my conceptualization of being British, just as I would continue to consider myself Scottish if voting for regional decentralization.

Scotland can and should be an inclusive and welcoming community which thrives on cultural multiplicity and synergy, especially in current times. While opportunist bigots and inflammatory headlines each continue to attempt to stoke racism and Islamophobia, it is vital that the peoples of European nations show clearly that the communities which fascists seek to split are built on a foundation of unshakable multiculturalism and inclusivity.

I’m thrilled that many Scots have already made clear that their nation fits this description.


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Andrew Marshall

Human rights activist based in Glasgow. Interested in finding ways to make activism more intersectional and campaigning uses of social media. Loves the outdoors and stargazing.

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