TOPIC GUIDE: STV/Debating Matters The Referendum Schools Debate: Nationalism

"Nationalism is an idea that has no place in the 21st Century "

PUBLISHED: 18 Feb 2014

AUTHOR: Craig Fairnington

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In the run-up to the independence referendum, a recurring debate has broken out once again – the very nature of nationalism. Does it represent a narrow and parochial outlook, based on ethnicity and history? Or can it be a broader assertion of the commonality of a group of people sharing a particular geographic space, something outward-looking and positive. In August 2013, BBC presenter Andrew Marr, who was born in Scotland, voiced concerns about what he saw as a “toxic” anti-English feeling at large and at some of the language used in the independence debate [Ref: Scotsman]. Scottish writer Alasdair Gray caused controversy when, in a recent essay, he drew a distinction between what he called English “settlers and colonists” who held leading jobs within Scotland, with some claiming this showed an anti-English attitude [Ref: Express]. On the other hand, many have pointed out clear distinctions between the kind of nationalism associated with the campaign for Scottish independence and the nationalism associated with political parties such as the British National Party – contrasting an inclusive and multicultural “civic nationalism” with a monocultural and racist nationalism [Ref: Better Nation]. They say that fears over anti-English sentiments are overblown, and that the vast majority of people in Scotland engage with the debate around the independence referendum without engaging in—and free from the fear of—Anglophobia [Ref: National Collective]. Indeed there are a number of people born in England who live in Scotland who support and actively campaign for Scottish independence [Ref: Daily Telegraph].

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Same old nationalisms
For some, the claim that Scottish nationalism can be truly free from questions of ethnicity is a hollow one – that despite admirable claims to a civic nationalism, there still lies an undercurrent of the idea of a Scottish race or people who are unique amongst others. For example, they point to the SNP government’s Homecoming events, which called for those of Scottish descent living abroad to “come home” [Ref: Open Unionism]. This, they say, undermines claims that a sense of Scottishness is purely based around those who choose to live and work in Scotland. Others claim that there is a focus on the teaching of Scottish pre-Union history [Ref: British Future], and there were concerns of “brainwashing” at plans to introduce a Scottish studies course in schools [Ref: BBC News] (though others saw the proposals as rectifying a lack of teaching about Scottish culture and history [Ref: Newsnet Scotland]). Others say that the promotion of Gaelic as an “oppressed and suppressed” indigenous language is evidence of an ethnicised view of Scotland’s past, which fails to take into account the diversity of experience in Scotland [Ref: University of Huddersfield]. These aspects of a view of ethnic Scottishness remain and so tie Scottish nationalism closely with other types of nationalism such as British or English nationalism from which the SNP are keen to distance themselves. There have also been concerns over anti-English bullying, with the former head of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, claiming she faced criticism of her programmes due to her being English [Ref: Scotsman], and claims that there has been in an increase in anti-English racism in the run-up to the referendum [Ref: Telegraph].

Inclusive nationalism
However, others claim that it is a mistake to conflate Scottish nationalism with British nationalism. Scottish nationalism is a civic nationalism, and has no associations with the racism or jingoism that come with other types of nationalism [Ref: National Collective]. “Narrow nationalism” doesn’t have to be the case, but rather identities can be more inclusive and fluid – with Scottishness being decided by those who choose to live in Scotland, rather than by birthplace or ethnicity. They rebut claims that the SNP indulge in a narrow nationalism by pointing out that they are much less focused on immigration as a problem for Scotland than the Westminster parties are for the UK and that they have specifically reached out to otherwise ethnically defined communities such as Italians and Pakistanis living in Scotland. As for Scotland as a whole, the failure of the BNP and of UKIP is taken as evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, Scottish nationalism has a distinct nature and embraces the multicultural societies that the nationalisms promoted by those two parties decry [Ref: Wings Over Scotland]. The first non-white and first Muslim MSP in the Scottish parliament, Bashir Ahmad, represented the SNP [Ref: BBC News]. He was the founder of the group Scots Asians for Independence, and famously declared at the SNP’s national conference that “It’s not where we came from that’s important, it’s where we’re going together” [Ref: Scotsman]. Other nationalist parties in the UK struggle under accusations of being extremists [Ref: Spectator].

Patriotism and Nationalism
Questioning the value of patriotism and nationalism (and the differences between the two) is not a new issue, nor one isolated to Scotland. Samuel Johnson declared “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” in 1774 and George Orwell famously looked at the effects of nationalism post WWII, when he argued that it lead to people behaving or thinking dishonestly, and showed concern over the effects rising nationalism had in Europe [Ref: Notes on Nationalism]. Education Secretary Michael Gove recently caused controversy by claiming that “Blackadder myths” about WWI “denigrate patriotism” [Ref: Daily Mail], leading to him being accused of “point scoring” and offering a “simplistic” narrative [Ref: Guardian]. During WWI itself, poet Wilfred Owen condemned Roman poet Horace’s lines “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” as the “old lie” [Ref: War Poetry]. The question of patriotism is not isolated to the UK even – for example, countries such as the USA often have internal disputes about the effects of patriotism [Ref: New York Times].

Scottish nationalism is not the only nationalism enjoying increasing popularity in Europe today – a recent independence march in Edinburgh was also attended by Catalan nationalists (who are also looking to hold an independence referendum in the near future), and also smaller numbers of Flemish and Venetian nationalists. This need not be viewed as an inward turn, but rather a spirit of integration – for example, wanting to be part of the EU – which, it is hoped, will act as a safeguard against sectarianism [Ref: OneEurope]. This can be compared to other nationalisms currently undergoing a resurgence, such as the Front National in France and UKIP in the UK. Both have much more traditional, isolationist styles of nationalism. UKIP’s popularity is insignificant in Scotland however. Leader Nigel Farage, on a recent visit to Edinburgh, was hounded by protestors who objected to UKIP’s policies [Ref: Independent], and the party’s poor performance in the recent Donside by-election was held up as further proof that UKIP style nationalism was not welcome in Scotland [Ref: Hope Not Hate]. UKIP’s position in Scotland suffered further collapse with the sacking of their Scots leader [Ref: Herald].

Can nationalism be more than narrow? Is Scottish nationalism truly a civic nationalism as has been claimed? Are fears of Anglophobia overblown? Does nationalism in Scotland offer an inclusive and progressive outlook? Or does nationalism inevitably lead to a closing off of minds?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Alex Salmond is peddling Scottish nationalism. And very little else

Jake Wallis Simons Telegraph 17 April 2013

We Scots should be ashamed of anti-English bullying

James MacMillan Telegraph 20 December 2012


Pivotal role of culture in talking up independence

Alan Riach Herald 20 February 2013

Yes vote vital to realise potential

Murray Pittock Scotland on Sunday 10 February 2013

Grown up and independent

Elaine C Smith Red Pepper October 2008


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Michael Gove, using history for politicking is tawdry

Tristram Hunt Guardian 4 January 2014

Integration through separation: Catalonia and Scotland

Hallvard Barbogen One Europe 21 October 2013

The Eclipse Of Scottish Nationalism

Christopher Silver National Collective 24 September 2013

A tale of ideologies: Scottish nationalism and unionism

Gerry Hassan openDemocracy 12 August 2013

Scotland doesn’t want UKIP

Simon Cressy Hope Not Hate 22 July 2013

Yes, Scottish Nationalism DOES have an ugly face

Gerald Warner Daily Mail 17 May 2013

Festival chief faces some home truths

Alan Taylor Herald 24 April 2013

Parochialism warning over demise of language studies

Andrew Denholm Herald 16 April 2013

Enough with the paranoia. It is time to be grown-ups

Magnus Linklater The Times 17 December 2012

The Cause: A History of Scottish Nationalism

BBC Radio Scotland October 2012

Ruth Wishart: ‘Why I’m coming out for Scottish independence’

Stewart Kirkpatrick Yes Scotland 22 September 2012

Scottish Nationalists recoil from militant Quebec parallel

Tom Gallagher 7 September 2012

New generation of Scots keeps parochialism off the podium

Gillian Bowditch Sunday Times 12 August 2012

Is Our Patriotism Moral?

Garry Gutting New York Times 3 July 2012

Why nationalists aren’t racists

Wings Over Scotland 31 May 2012

How civic is the ‘new Scottishness’?

British Future 27 April 2012

Alex Salmond? Progressive?

Willie Bain Guardian 24 January 2012

Salmond’s civic nationalism a problem for the Westminster elite

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain Slugger O'Toole 11 January 2012

Scottish Civic Nationalism: The Bhangra & Bagpipes Solution

Humza Yousaf Better Nation 4 December 2010

Obitury: Bashir Ahmad

Scotsman 9 February 2009

Notes on Nationalism

George Orwell Polemic October 1945


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Are Scots more tolerant of immigrant workers?

Scotland Tonight 8 January 2014

The Cause: A History of Scottish Nationalism

BBC Radio Scotland October 2012

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