Making nationalism a wee bit more constructive

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is more than a political party, much less an insurgency. It is a social movement.

Left-wing, yes, anti-austerity, pro-economic intervention, seeking a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. Critical of all unaccountable, unrepresentative government, especially the one they have, and thus by that definition inevitably anti-English Tory.

Yet its small-r radicalism sits not so much in its political objectives, but in its reinterpretation of the idea of nationalism as self-determination. Populist but inclusive nationalism, based on open community and citizen engagement, rather than territorialism, fixed identity and selective exclusion.

It is ‘nationalist’ in a radically new sense for Britain – not so much nationalist as communitarian. It aims at reframing the ‘nation’ as a ‘community’. Nationalism as positive liberty, of inclusion in a shared space where citizens take meaningful decisions about actions that express national values, values that in turn support the positive liberty of individuals.

It is largely why the SNP felt comfortable shelving the idea of independence without abandoning it, and why those who voted against independence could vote for the SNP in the following general election.

Political theorists argue that successful social movements combine political opportunity, ability to mobilise and skills in framing their case. The SNP’s exploitation of all three gave them electoral impact, but promises much more.

The potential gift of the SNP model of nationalism is that it is concerned not just with what or who you are, but also with what you will do and can be. Nationalism on these terms offers so much more to the Scots people today than the prospect of independence tomorrow.

It also offers something to the English as, just as the Scots did, they ask hard questions raised by genuine fears about the local impact of globalisation and population movements. Labour’s Chuka Umunna made a start writing Sunday: “We need an approach in which no one is too rich or too poor to be part of our party – and politics that starts with what unites rather then divide us as a country.”

Unpopular this may be to all parties, this means in part reflecting movements like Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos, flanked and advanced by grass roots community groups, built on and buttressed by dialogue.

Labour asked its own questions during the campaign, but didn’t listen to the answers; the Tories thought they know the answers already, so didn’t ask; nobody answered the Liberal Democrats’ questions when they did; UKIP had only one question with only one possible answer.

Dougald Hine worked with the #dontjustvote tour, an art project that worked its way across the south of England starting conversations about the election.

“The stories they gathered along the way,” he wrote, “brought home to me the sheer confusion, mistrust and disconnect with everyday reality which is most people’s experience of politics.” Politics as a system is “broken in ways that go deeper than our political institutions or the people that inhabit them are able to reach”.

The SNP offered an alternative, positive, constructive response to the palpable disillusionment and disgust felt by citizens for the British political establishment.

Blairism and Thatcherism both argued that there would always be haves and have-nots, and that the divide was about opportunity not class. They settled for more haves and not none, but fewer have-nots.

But by controlling access to opportunity, they effectively institutionalised the national management of inequality. It’s these unaccountable national institutions – Thatcher’s corporate business establishment and Blair’s political statist equivalent – that the Scots are rebelling against, not England, or even the Union per se.

Cameron’s new Tory government goes into an aggressive period for British nationalism, dependent on saving, not reforming, let alone replacing these institutions. Hine had his own theories, but added: “While the kind of regrowth of a democratic culture that I’m talking about is not non-partisan in some detached, objective way, it can’t be on behalf of any one party, either.”

It’s a national challenge, however you define the nation. It’s why the country needs an English Nationalist Party of its own. Can Labour fill that space?

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