IN last week’s Sunday National, the feature on Brian Cox, who supports Scottish independence, quoted him saying: “I don’t like the concept of ‘nationalism’ I am an internationalist.” This is, unfortunately, an objection to Scottish independence which I have heard many times, particularly from people on the left of politics.

It is one that can be difficult to counter because it is grounded in genuinely high moral principles. However, it is also grounded in a very narrow definition of nationalism and frequently a lack of historical knowledge.

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If you are equating nationalism only with the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine le Pen, Adolf Hitler, General Franco and the empires of France, Britain and others in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then it is undoubtedly a force for evil. But that is a very selective and pejorative reading of a phenomenon with a long history embracing many different political motivations. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, nationalism in tandem with liberalism were progressive forces of resistance against the rule of aristocracies and royal dynasties, of unaccountable tyrants whose political monopoly led to oppression and the holding back of material progress.

In 1848, Europe experienced a huge wave of revolutions against unelected and reactionary regimes, where both the middle classes and the labouring poor took to the barricades. Their rallying cry was centred on the idea of the nation as the organising principle and focus of popular interests rather than ruling families and an unchanging elite. Unfortunately, the bourgeois element of this short-lived alliance took fright at the extent of the demands for democracy made by the lower orders, and they and their liberalism abandoned the uprisings which were all eventually quashed.

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Bourgeoisie and liberalism swiftly entered into an alliance with their erstwhile aristocratic enemies, gaining freedom in the economic sphere in return for leaving control of the levers of political power in the hands of the ancient regimes, sometimes with a measure of political representational window-dressing. Unfortunately they also made off with liberationist nationalism and turned it into imperialist nationalism just as the great expansion of European overseas empire-building really took off.

This jingoistic nationalism was one of the most important driving forces which led not only to the colonisation of all of Africa and large parts of the rest of the globe, but also to the national rivalries which led to the First World War. When that carnage finally ended, the settlement imposed upon Europe in the Versailles Treaty actually invoked that very same nationalism but with an increased ethnic emphasis guiding its delineation of the boundaries of interwar Europe.

Cultural nationalism gave way to untrammelled racial nationalism in those many countries in Europe which had abandoned democracy in the 1920s and 1930s and embraced fascist and far-right authoritarian regimes, directing hatred against minorities. In the supposedly socialist state of the Soviet Union, Stalin too embarked upon the Russification of his empire, oppressing ethnic minorities and abandoning all the internationalism that Marxism proclaimed. These examples constituted nationalism of that dark and appalling nature which seems to preclude any other from the thinking of some otherwise well-intentioned people.

If we were to ask these same people whether they thought the secession of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine from the suffocating embrace of Russia in 1991 was a good thing, they would almost certainly say yes. And I’m sure they would defend the right of Tibet to attain independence from China, or of Taiwan to hold on to its sovereignty in the face of a threatening regime in Beijing. Yet all of these are movements for freedom and democracy have been carried in a vessel of national independence; or to put it another way – liberationist nationalism. Similarly all decolonisation movements against the British and French empires in the years following the Second World War from India to Ghana, from Vietnam to Algeria, were based on the creation of a nation state, a new nation breaking away from the self-proclaimed “mother country”. Every South American country also attained its independence in the early 19th century through the medium of nationalist movements.

These are all examples of nationalism as a force for emancipation. Nationalism is neither intrinsically bad nor good. It is what its advocates and its citizens make of it. Furthermore, unless you are a genuine anarchist who does not believe in the very concept of the nation, then your acceptance of living in a nation state as one of the top-level forms of political and administrative organisation means that you are a nationalist. That is to say in simply accepting the existence of the nation state and believing it is perfectly acceptable to be German, Egyptian, English, Scottish or British, then you are a nationalist.

It doesn’t make you Mussolini to identify with your nation. Fundamentally, nationalism is a descriptive term, a value-free designation, even if we have been acculturated to see it as value-laden. Like Brian Cox, you can be both benign “nationalist” as he is, and an internationalist, as he is too. The two are not mutually exclusive. I can even accept that there are benign British nationalists. What is not benign is when you insist on enforcing a union upon what is almost invariably a smaller nation than the one bent on keeping the ties. What is not valid is when people say their Unionism is not nationalism while arguing the case for a Greater Britain – that “magic nationalism” that is not nationalism as described so eloquently by Paul Kavanagh.

Brian is right, and Nicola Sturgeon has also said this, that it would have been better if the SNP had called itself the Scottish Independence Party and avoided the unfortunate pejorative understanding of that loaded word “nationalism”. It is, however, too late for that to happen, so we need to arm ourselves with arguments that are the antidote to the claim that all nationalisms are toxic. Civic, inclusive nationalism is decidedly a force for good.

Dr David White (Historian)