Siol nan Gaidheal

Scotland the Counterexample

A survey of academic theories of nationalism and their inadequacy

A bewildering array of theories have been presented by academics to explain nationalism, and in doing so, the implied object of the exercise is to "explain away" nationalism, to render it dismissable as merely the product of economic forces, or as a linguistic accident, ultimately as something to be transcended, invariably as something negative. And yet the reality of the experience of Scots is always at variance with the prognostications and pontifications of these theorists: Scotland actually serves as the most potent counterexample to academic theories of nationalism. On the one hand there is the relationship of a nationalist Scot with the land - in itself a source of transcendant awareness. On the other hand the historical, cultural and economic circumstances of Scots throughout the ages almost always contradict the circumstances proposed by the theorists as predicating the "sentiment" for which they are trying to account. In fairness the data which these theorists adduce to support their arguments pertain mainly to events and ideas causing catastrophic upheavals, such as the 20th century witnessed in Europe. This however renders them the prisoners of agendas relating to particular times and places which it is their implicit aim to escape from by understanding them. Nevertheless they cannot resist the urge to generalise to situations where their findings are inapplicable, such as Scotland.

One tactic employed by critics of nationalism, such as Elie Kedourie, is to suggest that the great diversity of ways in which nationalism manifests itself in history indicates an inherent inconsistency that undermines it. Separatist movements finding nationalist inspiration are contrasted with similarly inspired unification movements. National liberation is contrasted with the Risorgimento, bizarrely. However the fact that nationalism can be so variously manifested can also be taken to support the priority nationalism has over the claims on one's loyalty made on the basis of petty dynastic squabbles, the attendant territorial disputes, and the impact of these on state formation. Elie Kedourie deploys a circular argument, finding her assumption of the inconsistency of nationalism confirmed by data which could as easily be used to demonstrate that the claim of state and nation on an individual's loyalty are not co-eval. Indeed the claim of nation is more compelling as part of the individual's essential nature. It is interesting to note that the existence of the UK itself is the result of an English nationalist project (see SnG article "The Neo-Galfridian Conceit") as much as the consequence of the capitulation of a small group of Scots concerned with a barely insoluble constitutional crisis (see forthcoming SnG article "Scots and the contrivance of an Anglo-British Identity") and a large chest of English gold. The critics of Scottish nationalism who attempt to undermine it by a general attack on nationalism (the only politically correct course of action available to them) would do well to remember this implied support for another nationalist position when they advocate a continuation of the status quo. All too often critics of nationalism adopt a position without having the benefit of the knowledge of having had their own identities marginalised.

Claims are made by Marxist historians that differentials in economic development across regional boundaries, when severe enough, give rise to nationalism. Others state that there is a critical rate of development which gives rise to nationalism when exceeded, as a resort to an invented tradition in the face of a bewildering pace of change. Alternatively nationalism may arise through linguistic uniformity, or as a result of universal literacy in a region allowing all inhabitants access to governing institutions, or as a result of ethnicity, itself a problematic concept for these theorists. At any point the circumstances of Scots and Scotland can be taken as a counterexample for all these. As ever, doctrines that are appropriate to, indeed, thrive in the soils of 19th century Eastern Europe wither when transplanted to our more rigorous climate by their eager if ill-informed advocates. The transplanting of spurious notions of what nationalism is, ideas specific to one time and place being advocated in another, is a tried and tested method of imperialism and a means of maintaining post-colonial hegemonies. The consequences are invariably disastrous. National consciousness must arise in a way determined by the unique contingencies a nation experiences. One regards the consequences of the importation of francophile or germanophile nationalisms in the Arab and African world with dismay. Such importations are deemed possible because of the notion that nationalism can be synthesised, if only one can devise the right "recipe", from considerations of ethnicity, linguistic uniformity, a common economic life, and so on, when in fact national identity is more fundamental and pervasive and does not conform to a narrowly rationalistic equations with which some try to enmesh it.

The negative experiences of some theorists of the chauvinistic developments founded upon European 19th century nationalisms have led them to veil their partiality and venom in the impartial tenor of academic language. Their bitterness is however revealed by the inconsistencies which riddle the assumptions informing their work. These are overlooked primarily because their work is politically correct in the narrowest and most corrosive sense and serves to legitimise globalisation and undermine an important basis for its criticism. Nationalism is portrayed as invariably negative in content despite the fact that in Scotland it has always been associated with progressive policies, from the mighty assertions of the Declaration of Arbroath to the Radical Wars in support of "The Rights of Man". It is portrayed as always narrowly chauvinistic when in Scotland it has historically been a foundation for internationalism, as in the case of John MacLean, and other nations regarded as equals and admired for what makes them distinctive, an admiration founded on a secure confidence in our own distinctiveness. As ever, our accusers are the most eager to impute us with sins of which they are the most guilty, and therein lies their familiarity with them.

The academic theorists approach the question of formal definition of what nationalism is with varying degrees of sophistication but always fall into the same error which Stalin exemplifies in his rigid and oppresively formalistic definition, that of treating it as some identifiable substance that can be isolated and viewed in some forensic sense as one might regard a substance in a test tube, as something that can be concocted if the correct recipe is used. One is reminded of the proto-scientific approach to fire, which attributed the phenomenon to a fictitious substance, which was termed phlogiston, escaping from the burning body. Gaston Bachelard has claimed these proto-scientists were more guilty of bad poetry than bad science in his excellent book, A Psychoanalysis of Fire. Nationalism is for these theorists a phlogiston of the soul. They would prevent a conflagration by eliminating it, or by denying its existence they would deny the very existence and validity of nationalism itself. However the downfall of phlogiston theory did not extinguish any fires, and similarly the complex reality of nationalism cannot be denied, as a fire that burns in the soul and courses through the veins, whose origin cannot be rendered manageable so that those stirred by it can be made compliant with soulless projects, antagonistic to national interests, promulgated by faceless and unaccountable plutocrats, aiming at the extinction of part of our essential nature. We will not be reduced to economic atoms. We in Siol nan Gaidheal will ever remain committed torchbearers of that cause.

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