“What do you think of Scottish Independence”

“You must be Scottish with your name. What do you think of Scottish independence”. I’ve been asked this question several times recently. I am not Scottish. My father is from Ireland. With many of his generation he left in in the 1950s, in his case to study in Canada. My mother is Scottish but she also left for Canada at the age of 24. My parents eventually settled in the South of England and I was born there. I have always lived in England, for half my life in Manchester. Nevertheless, I have never felt wholly English. If I am asked to define my national identity, I hesitate. ‘British’ is the shortest way to express it, but it hardly sums it up. I have strong affective and family ties with Ireland and Scotland, but my strongest feelings are for a certain kind of non-English Englishness, the kind of Englishness you find in England’s multicultural cities, such as London, Birmingham, or Manchester.

For most of my life, English cities have been the most open, tolerant, and welcoming places in Britain for migrants, whether from other parts of Britain, Europe, or the former Empire. I’m not naïve about the prejudice and racism many migrants have encountered. I know that as a white, privately-educated man I have had a privileged experience. But I am proud of the struggle of the English and the non-English English to create an inclusive, multicultural society where most people rub along. It’s the culture of conviviality I first encountered in the 1980s in campaigns against Thatcherism and the far right. It’s what we on the Left defend when the ‘war on terror’ and UKIP makes up new imaginary enemies for us to hate. It’s the culture I would like the next generation to think of as normal.

This belief in non-English Englishness makes me wary of Scottish nationalism. The Scotland and the Ireland my parents emigrated from were sectarian and parochial. My Scots and Irish friends would say that England wasn’t much better in the 1950s, and anyway things have changed. I would agree. Scotland has pioneered a model version of civic nationalism – a nation for those who live in Scotland, or come to live in Scotland, rather than a nation for an ethnicity or a religious tradition. Glasgow and Edinburgh are multicultural cities now. The SNP is more open to migrants than Labour or the Tories. But would national independence create the kind of inclusive culture where I would feel at home? Or would the new Scotland re-invent a smaller, more inward-looking version of the old British establishment?

I don’t think Scottish independence is the answer. In the age of globalisation, I don’t think any kind of nationalism is the answer. Local structures of governance are important, but they are meaningless today unless they placed in an international framework. In effect, the movement for Scottish nationalism is symptomatic of two crises of international governance. The failure to create a British constitution that gives representation to every part of our multinational state; and the failure to create democratic European political structures. The upcoming referendum (officially a ‘consultation’ because a referendum would be illegal in Spanish law) in Catalonia in November has gone virtually unnoticed in the British press, but the movement for Scottish independence represents more than a local phenomenon.

To answer the question “What do you think of Scottish independence”, I have to think about what kind of Europe I would like to see. For me, it would be democratic, socialist Europe of the regions, a United States of Europe, where those states are not Britain, France, or Germany, but Scotland, Catalonia, Brittany, Flanders, Bavaria etc. A far-off dream, I’ll admit, but not one Scottish or Catalan independence will bring any closer. Paradoxically, the new nationalisms have been enabled by the European Union, but they do not have a vision of what the new Europe might be. As a consequence, an independent Scotland or an independent Catalonia will be a mini-me of the big European states. Neither will be equipped to deal with the power of international capital. Nor, on their current programmes, will their new ruling classes be interested in giving their workers the rights and protection they deserve. The SNP’s economic plan is to cut taxes for multinational companies in the hope they will flock to Scotland. Catalan nationalists, like the Northern League in Italy, are more concerned with insulating their wealth from the poor south than redistribution.

European socialists, should not jump on board nationalist bandwagons in the hope of creating a mini-utopia cut off from the rest of the World. They would be better advised to focus on creating federal democracies in their own states that give autonomy to Europe’s historical regions, while campaigning for a European government that takes its cue directly from the people of those regions and not Europe’s national elites. Atavistic nationalism will give us neither the inclusive and convivial culture we want, nor the political structures we need.

What do I think of Scottish independence?. I think – Scotland, Please don’t go!


I Predict a Riot: The New Young British Artists

The backlash that has followed the English riots of August 2011 has focused less on the memorable images of civil disturbance that announced their occurrence and more on the demonisation of those involved. The pictures of smashed and looted shopfronts, buildings in flames, masked and unmasked youth gathering in city streets, burning and burnt out vehicles, have given way to legal narratives about prosecutions for violence and theft, convictions for crimes as petty as stealing a bottle of water, and imprisonment for licking an ice cream stolen by someone else.

This shift from images of destruction to tales of criminality is significant. The power of a ‘riot’ is spatial. It involves the occupation of public spaces usually governed by norms of civility, commercialism, and property rights. What are now being represented as wanton acts of destruction are better understood as the imprinting of the fleeting moment of occupation on urban space. Such acts are aesthetic rather than attacks on property per se. The opportunistic appropriation of goods, liberated from their confinement in shop windows and warehouses, is a secondary phenomenon, not the primary purpose of the riot. Less acquisition, looting is more a form of trophy-hunting, akin to the artist’s collection of found objects, hence the low-value of many of the items taken. Power over space is asserted through visible signs of damage rather than destruction for its own sake, by gathering and re-arrangement rather than possession. These signatures of a brief presence preserve the moment of empowerment in memory, and it is this memory that the backlash seeks to erase.

The response that demonises and criminalises the moment of occupation is a recognition of its aesthetic power. But the backlash seeks to fragment and isolate the images left by that which it fears, translating them into narratives of individual criminals and a feral underclass, and counterposing tales of individual heroism – of those who stood up to the mob.

It is not difficult to fragment a collective that has already dispersed. It is more difficult to erase the signs of its presence that remain. In this respect, the small armies of the brush-wielding bourgeoisie that appeared on the mornings after were a more honest response: a class riposte to the artwork of the disenfranchised (or a reclaiming of the streets for civility, depending on your point of view).

It is unlikely, however, that the exhilarating memory of the moment of occupation will be easily swept aside. Given, as was truthfully reported, that most of the cuts have not yet fed through, and so cannot in themselves explain the aesthetic of the new young British artists, I predict this will not be their last exhibition.