Sadiq Khan, British Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor, delivers his speech during the final day of the Labour party conference in Brighton, east Sussex, south England, on September 25, 2013. AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Some nationalists are more divisive than others

8 mins read
Sadiq Khan. Source: Huffington Post

Nationalism is a dirty word.

It seethes from the mouths of many a political figure with a quiet venom.

Common criticisms of the ideology based on constructing an independent country revolve around it causing unnecessary social separation, its irrelevance to everyday problems and being, by essence, exclusive.

One descriptive term that keeps cropping up is ‘divisive’.

At the spring conference of the Scottish Labour Party, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan – praised for rising above the dog-whistle politics of his main opponent in his election campaign – seemed to play the race card when trying to discredit Scottish nationalism:

“Now’s not the time to play on people’s fears, or to pit one part of our country, or one section of our society, against each other.

“In that respect, there’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”

Remarks like this are not only wrong but offensive to me, as a white Scottish nationalist who has great admiration and respect for the UK and its multicultural citizenry, especially in London.

How that is meant to persuade people away from the Scottish National Party and back to Labour, who are also dividing society up on the basis of nationality by refusing to hold a second independence referendum, I do not know.

When I pointed out how ‘apples and oranges’ Khan’s comparison is, to coin a phrase, a friend of mine responded by saying “Scottishness is as arbitrary a distinction on which to build a nation as whiteness is”.

The narrative of nationalism being nasty and divisive is, of course, nothing new.

In a Northern Ireland Assembly election debate last month, unionist DUP leader Arlene Foster seemed to enter a vacuum while trying to discredit the nationalist Sinn Féin.

“They will use their mandate to go to our own [UK] government and argue for a border poll, for example, which I think would be hugely divisive and destabilising for Northern Ireland,” she said.

“We’ve seen the way it has destabilised Scotland, this constant issue of independence, and I think it would be wrong for Northern Ireland if we had that as well.”

Just as well the issue of nationality never comes up in the top bit of Ireland, then.

Although the independence question does get complicated, and some people exclude ‘traitors’ to their cause, let’s not pretend the issue as a whole causes major societal fractures here.

The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 could have chosen not to allow England-born citizens to vote, just as most EU-born citizens were not allowed to vote in the UK’s EU referendum of 2016. But it didn’t.

Figureheads of the Yes and No campaigns of 2014, like John Swinney and Alistair Darling, could have chosen not to attend a reconciliation church service together. But they did.

Another friend told me nationalism “creates a proxy war over nationality rather than looking at the real problems”

On the contrary, people on both sides of the divide in Scotland have discussed issues like healthcare, the economy, education, the environment, energy and international affairs, with a view to ensuring the Scottish people got the best possible outcome from these.

In general terms, with some exceptions, the debate was constructive and inclusive.

However, the divisiveness question has reared its head again, including right here at Stirling.

PhD student Claire Heuchan, who did not mention she previously campaigned against independence, decried what she sees as the parallels between Scottish nationalism and racism.

Just because a trade unionist’s friends do not make racist remarks, she says, does not mean racism does not exist.

That is true, although it is also true to say that means they turn a blind eye to racism, and refuse to give it credence it does not deserve.

To her credit, she is right to say the narrative of Scottish exceptionalism often ignores its colonial past, and that nationalism relies on something of a ‘them and us’ mentality.

However, nearly all politics is like that.

By this logic, Labour must close down for trying to divide people by social class.

Crucially, Khan was painting the entire nationalist movement with the same brush, not just fringe elements of it. That’s what I take exception to.

The problems of racism and intolerance to difference of opinion will always be there, irrespective of which country one is in, irrespective of what one believes.

Certainly, looking up someone’s address because you disagree with them is unacceptable, and I condemn attacks on people’s race or religion.

However, in the broadest sense, the concepts of unity, separation and threats are regularly used as political devices.

Remind me who it was the Conservatives stoked fears about at the last UK general election?

Remind me how Labour responded to UKIP’s immigration rhetoric?

And now, remind me what this nation’s First Minister said to our fellow EU citizens after 2016’s Leave vote?

Scottish Government Transport Minister Humza Yousaf takes a rather different perspective on things, as you might imagine.

“When Sadiq Khan was subject to racist dog-whistle Mayoral campaign from Tories, I was amongst the first [to] publicly back him and condemn it,” he said on Twitter.

“To have him accuse SNP of being [a] racist party is deeply insulting and of course untrue.

“The first BME (black and minority ethnic) MSP was from the SNP – Bashir Ahmad.

“The SNP also appointed [the] first BME minister to government.

“We are pro-migration and are leading the fight to protect rights of EU citizens.

“So [I] will take no lectures on politics of division from a Labour Party that sold ‘controls on immigration’ mugs.”

Ahmad, incidentally, set up Scots Asians for Independence in 1995, and that year made the distinction between civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism clear, famously stating: “It’s not where we came from that’s important, it’s where we’re going together.”

As for the question of where we go from here, one might say opinion is divided.

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