On Nationalisms, Christian, Scottish, and British

Can ‘nationalism’ ever be Christian? Brian Stanley has recently answered that question negatively in a blog for the Edinburgh Centre for World Christianity. He defines nationalism as ‘the elevation of one’s own nation over all others’, which I suspect many who call themselves nationalists would not recognise as an account of their position. He rightly highlights, however, that the two presently-plausible outcomes of the present Westminster election both involve a nationalist party holding some measure of the balance of power: If the polls are even close to correct, and if they do not shift significantly in the next thirteen days, then it seems that a Labour minority government, relying on the support of a large SNP block, and perhaps also the Liberal Democrats, is the most likely outcome. There is essentially no chance of a Conservative majority, or even of the current coalition having enough seats to govern, so a right-of-centre alliance is very likely to be dependent on support from UKIP. Further, today’s ‘English manifesto’ went some considerable way to defining the Conservatives as an English nationalist party that has essentially given up on Scotland and Wales, particularly in its repudiation of the Smith Commission.

Is there more, theologically, to be said for nationalisms? I think so; the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge do excellent work, and their resource material in the run-up to the election has been a wonderful example of intellectually-serious non-partisan Christian engagement. The most recent (as I type) example caught my eye: Adrian Hilton’s offer of ‘a plausible ethical perspective’ on a Christian preference for UKIP. Hilton’s language is more colourful than I find comfortable (‘Ukip becomes an army of protestants, defending British national culture and traditions from the latest threat to emerge from Rome’; umm, no…), but his basic argument is worth reflection: he highlights a real problem with a democratic deficit in EU decision making (a problem that, as I see it, is nationalistic in origin: the member states will not surrender power, and so important decisions are made by the council of ministers, not in the parliament); and suggests, essentially, that a revival of traditional English anti-Catholicism will be the solution. If there is to be a Protestant defence of UKIP’s English nationalism, I accept that this is the best line available.

That said, my basic response is this: I find it unconvincing, for exactly the same reasons that I found Doug Gay’s arguments in defence of Scottish nationalism in his (excellent) book Honey from the Lion eventually unconvincing.

Now, I know enough of Gay’s politics, and can guess enough of Hilton’s, to appreciate that neither will be at all grateful for the comparison. Further, there is an unpleasant and unworthy Unionist line in Scottish politics at the moment trying to link the SNP to UKIP, which I have no desire to give any support to. UKIP stand well to the right of the mainstream of British politics, and propose positions that to my mind are reprehensible; if I find the SNP’s current self-presentation as the standard-bearers of progressive politics somewhat unconvincing, particularly given their record in office in Holyrood, I nonetheless of course accept that they are essentially a party of the centre-left; I would rather they were rather more to the left, but that is finally a difference of emphasis not of direction.

That said, and this is my point, both pieces of writing assume that the a Christian defence of their position requires a defence of the ethical possibility of nationalism; that nationalism is properly applied to Scotland on the one hand or the UK on the other is almost taken as a given. (This is somewhat unfair to Gay’s book-length treatment, but the weight is certainly in this direction; he perhaps relies on others’ constructions of ‘Scottishness’ – I have on my shelf Storrar, who is important to Gay, judging by the references, and Smith.)

I have commented before in public that I have essentially no instinctive sense of national identity; I do not say this either as a boast, or as a confession; it is just who I am – a fairly peripatetic childhood (all, however, within England) might be the reason. I found the referendum campaign odd, in that I had neither the instinctive sense of ‘Scotland’ that fired the core nationalist vote nor the instinctive sense of ‘Britain’ that drove the core unionist vote. (And I think the ‘Yes’ campaign was much better run precisely because it understood that some of us who had a vote were in this position, and so it offered appeals beyond gut-level nationalism, something only Gordon Brown, late in the day, really managed on the ‘No’ side.)

In the present Westminster election, in my constituency of NE Fife, our Conservative candidate is presently campaigning almost solely on the line that only he can stop the SNP (a premise somewhat at odds with polling data…), and that he assumes all non-nationalists will vote for any unionist candidate. Sorry; no; there are many, many things I can imagine worse than the upheaval of Scotland becoming independent, and present Tory policy embodies a number of them (particularly the threat to withdraw from the EU, which I confidently propose as by a significant distance the single most economically-damaging policy proposed by a major party in my lifetime, and which, were it to come to pass, would make me strongly support a rapid and decisive further Scottish independence referendum.)

So I found Gay’s book and Hilton’s essay to be talking past me: I don’t really need to be convinced of the possibility of a Christian nationalism; that seems fairly straightforward to me. ‘Nations’ play a significant role in the Biblical witness – but Gay and Hilton offer two conflicting accounts of what my local ‘nation’ is, and I find neither account particularly plausible historically or culturally.

The UK defended by UKIP is a messy accident of history, finding its present borders less than a century ago as a result of Irish home rule. As the legal blogger Jack of Kent has pointed out, UKIP’s appeal to some common identity often relies on simple misinformation: his particular example highlighted the fact that their manifesto repeatedly speaks of defending ‘British law’. But there is no such thing as ‘British law’; Scotland and England have separate legal traditions, and Northern Ireland has a tradition of common law that is not dissimilar to England’s, but far from identical (Welsh law is largely the same as England’s, I understand). Defending ‘British law’ is like defending Rangers’s present title chances; the thing defended does not exist.

Further, as someone who has published relatively extensively in the area of intellectual history, it is simply obvious to me that the great intellectual, at least, achievements of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are achievements that have resulted from our internationalism, from deep involvement in what is sometimes celebrated as ‘the republic of letters’ – a scholarly community that recognises no national boundaries. To take this year’s cause célèbre, the leading light behind the campaign that led to the Magna Carta was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, a native of Lincolnshire who however studied and taught in Paris, and served a church in Rome. The Great Charter at its best (and it is rubbish at its worst…) urges ideas of the rule of law clearly learnt in France. This is normal; intellectual argument and advance is not restricted by national borders.

On the other side, what we now call ‘Scotland’ was, until rather recently, two cultures essentially at war: The Gaelic-speaking Highlands and the Scots-speaking Lowlands were not, to put it mildly, close friends, even into the nineteenth century. Some island cultures are more Norse than anything else (highlighted by the 2014 Shetland petition to be allowed a referendum on independence from Scotland should Scotland become independent from the UK, a request smacked down pretty firmly, if rather hypocritically, by Holyrood).

Presently within the UK, it is difficult not to see that the northern areas of England, which are composed variously of industrial cities destroyed under Thatcher gradually clawing their way to renewal, and depressed rural areas that are far more about subsistence farming than the Countryside Alliance, are much closer to Scotland than to the ‘England’ which the present Tory party (or UKIP) represents. Glasgow has far more in common with Newcastle than with St Andrews, and St Andrews has far more in common with Durham than with Glasgow. What used to be the Fife coalfield feels to me remarkably similar to what used to be the South Derbyshire coalfield, where members of my family once worked. And Fort William and Tobermory and Stornaway are another world again – but no doubt with parallels somewhere in England/Wales (Ynys Môn?). Politically, historically, culturally, economically, I find it hard to see the accidental boundaries that presently define ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’ as representing anything real.

Of course, I exaggerate to make the point. But every construction of ‘Scottish identity’, and every construction of ‘British identity’, is a politically-charged power-play, an attempt to insist on certain characteristics and to write out others. There are no hard lines that make every ‘Scottish’ existence separate from every ‘English’ existence, or every ‘Irish’ existence, just as there are no hard lines that make every ‘British’ existence separate from every ‘French’ or ‘Dutch’ or ‘German’ existence.

I know that some readers will have an instinctive sense of ‘Scottishness’ that I lack, and that other readers will have an instinctive sense of ‘Britishness’ that I lack; I do not intend to criticise either; I am just trying to explain why I do not find either position obvious or natural. I accept entirely that, within Christian ethics, ‘nationalism’ is a defensible category; but I have yet to see a localism that includes me that I find sufficiently convincing to invoke that ethical category. I would be happy to be proved wrong on this, as on almost all things; until I am, however, I find Christian pleas for a principled nationalism uninteresting, whether they be for Scotland or the UK.

get facebook like button