Scottish Nationalism and the Reinvention of British Liberalism

By Professor Lindsay Paterson

‘The strange death of liberal Britain’ was the portentous headline on the Independent newspaper two days after the UK General Election in May. Nick Clegg, resigning as Lib Dem leader, expanded on the apocalypse: ‘liberalism … is not faring well against the politics of fear. … the beguiling appeal of Scottish nationalism has swept all before it. … This is a very dark hour for our party but we cannot and will not allow decent liberal values to be extinguished overnight.’

These views are common, recycling misconceptions about Scottish nationalism that have been current since at least the 1960s. The Guardian referred to the threat to Labour from the ‘chilling current of nationalist separatism’. During the campaign, the former Labour cabinet minister David Blunkett said that in Scotland ‘people have stopped listening. I think their minds have switched off to even rational argument’. There is thus something of a consensus of views that Britain is descending into a maelstrom of competing ethnic nationalisms, led by what is supposed to be happening in Scotland.

The reference to Dangerfield’s 1935 book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, is not acknowledged in any of this, but – as then – the terms of the debate imply more than just the demise of a party that happens to have ‘liberal’ in the title. It was that merely partisan demise that Dangerfield was referring to, not the end of an ideology. It was the death of a party overwhelmed by the modernisation of its own ideological tradition – by women’s rights, by the democratic rights of the elected chamber, and by the rights of organised workers.

The old Liberal Party was overwhelmed, too, by the pressure for Irish home rule, even though the constitutional home rule tradition had been the principal parliamentary ally of British liberalism for the previous four decades. The essential liberalism of home rule campaigning is not invalidated by the later descent of independent Ireland into half a century of illiberalism: indeed, a strong case could be made that it was the illiberal reaction of the British state to moderate campaigning for home rule that triggered the intransigence and ethnic nationalism of Sinn Fein. That Ireland has finally escaped from that baleful legacy may have been confirmed a further half century on by the 2015 referendum vote to legalise same-sex marriage, but it was a long time coming.

So, despite the alarming parallels which some further media commentators have drawn between Scotland 2015 and Ireland 1918 – when Sinn Fein first won an overwhelming majority of seats – the place where we are now in Scotland, if it does have an Irish parallel, is rather closer to the 1880s, when the home rule parties first wiped out the Liberal Party in Ireland.

The key point for understanding Scottish nationalism is that it is a child of the Enlightenment. It is an instance of what Yael Tamir calls liberal nationalism. But so also has been British nationalism, as inescapable in this now very fluid context as whatever is happening in Scotland. Throughout most of the period of the union, Britain was equated in aspiration with being civic, liberal, and universal. Like most of the liberalism of the time, that was also equated with being imperial, the liberal contempt for what John Stuart Mill called ‘the half-savage relics of past times’, meaning people outside what imperial liberals (and nearly all socialists and Marxists) saw as the mainstream of history. But that was a viewed shared also by Scottish liberals, and in any case both the British and the Scottish versions of liberalism had transmuted into post-imperial social democracy by the middle of the twentieth century.

The debate now in Scotland is not about ethnic assertion against the universalism of a liberal state, but rather about which party and which community are truer heirs of the most universal moments of that state.

This sense of modernising a British liberal tradition was put eloquently by Nicola Sturgeon, in 2012, arguing that ‘the creation of the welfare state played an overwhelming role in giving the union a new purpose’, replacing the empire that had created a union out of disparate nations: ‘Britain lost the colony of India, but we all gained a new territory in the shape of free health care and social protection from cradle to grave. Alongside the BBC, these things began to define Britishness.’ Thus, in her view, it was not Scotland that was breaking away from the old Britishness but rather governments in London.

The claim to the liberal pedigree was also summed up by Alex Salmond, who said, when accepting the post of first minister in 2011, that the ‘voices of the past are now joined in this chamber by the sound of 21st century Scotland’, welcoming ethnic diversity by referring to newly elected members from both his party and the Scottish Labour Party, who had just taken the opportunity to swear the oath of allegiance in several languages.

Neither Ms Sturgeon’s nor Mr Salmond’s rhetoric bears any resemblance to ethnic nationalism or to xenophobia. So we have a contrast that is drearily familiar from half a century of puzzled response to Scottish nationalism – allegations of xenophobia against a movement whose leaders have always gone out of their way to emphasise its liberal credentials.

But that excessively sharp contrast is not enough, since liberalism has a cultural basis, and in a sense the argument now facing Scotland is whether that culture can any longer now be British, or – in the other direction – whether Scottish culture is big enough to embrace the universalism on which liberalism depends.

Ernest Gellner – in Reason and Culture (1992) – noted that the way in which rationality came to triumph as the dominant mode of thinking was by its becoming ‘a way of life’. We can say the same of liberalism, which is the political child of rationalism. In Gellner’s words (p. 159), ‘rationalism is our destiny. … We are not free of culture, of custom and example: but it is of the essence of our culture that it is rooted in rationalist aspirations’.

And at the foundation of this, Gellner notes, are David Hume and Adam Smith: these two sceptics of custom founded rational custom in Scotland first of all, then in Britain, and then, in due course, world wide.

This has specific implications for nationalism both Scottish and British. Neil MacCormick – legal philosopher, direct and distinguished heir to Smith and Hume, and also sometime nationalist politician – pointed out (in a paper in Political Studies in 1996) that there can be ethnic ways of being attached to civic institutions. Civic nationalism can be – perhaps has to be – emotional:

‘Civically identified communities develop cultural practices and institutions around them, and of course there will tend to be more or less long-standing familial and historical associations with given institutions, so that the community of allegiance will easily and naturally perceive itself as also a community of culture and of historical belonging.’

We might add – again following Gellner – that there can be cultural ways of being a socialist, or an environmentalist. Indeed, much of the mobilising force of these political movements has been every bit as emotional and cultural as the kind of emotional civic nationalism that dominates Scottish nationalism. But the emotion of none of these attachments makes them any less liberal. Perhaps, indeed, the Scottish Conservatives’ route back to influence would be to recognise that tradition can be liberal, and that they – as an impeccably liberal party, too – have a lot to gain from placing themselves firmly in the traditions of Scottish liberalism.

So this unprecedented situation in Scotland poses some questions of universal concern which go far beyond the minutiae of fiscal autonomy or how the SNP group will vote at Westminster:

  • To be politically effective does liberalism have to be culturally embedded?
  • If so, is that embedding now better thought to be in communities with the relative homogeneity of places like Scotland than in the old multi-national communities such as Britain?
  • But, on the other hand, if we might fear that Scotland is too small to guarantee universalism on its own, might Britain not be too small too, and might liberalism now depend on that most unfashionable of projects, a federal Europe?


Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh School of Social & Political Science.

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