What does nationalism look like?

Images of flags and people marching around them, collective weeping for the fallen, the seals and offices of state, the celebration of victories — lots of strapping young men marching, all strong and virile, to the same tune.

The stock standard is all very well, but if you want a definitive example of nationalism in action, simply lean out your tiny council flat window, or stand in your immense driveway, on a Thursday night.

The ritual of clapping for the NHS is nationalism incarnate — all classes, from paupers to princes, participate. It is exactly the kind of ‘mass ceremony’ that allows us to feel part of an ‘imagined community’ — linking us up for a momentary communion with millions we will never know, but with whom we share certain, often vague, bonds.

To be willed on by so many, simultaneously, even with a mere applause, is surely profound and must be seen as a positive: a ritual for remembering those people whose jobs we’d rather not do, but who we depend upon.

Nationalism has its uses, but its rituals can serve many functions. The Bourbon Kings of France continued to touch for scrofula into the nineteenth century: a practice that didn’t seem to improve their capacity for empathy with millions of diseased and malnourished subjects.

So the Thursday din is also the sound of people drowning out contradictions. Scottish politics has for years been animated by notions of the competing traditions and tendencies within Scottish and British nationalism. The challenge for the former is to come to terms with a new reality: a reality in which radical choices can no longer be deferred until after independence.

Compared to its sovereign counterpart, the Scottish Government has shown itself to be a more competent communicator, better at triangulation, continuity and control. The trade-off, perhaps inevitably, is a loss of the capacity to persuasively articulate what needs to change.


As on Thursday nights, nationalisms often provide messiness rather than clarity. There are children’s rainbows, there are neighbours convening on streets for the first time in decades, there is genuine solidarity and the expression of authentic commitment to the values that founded the NHS. But there is also plenty of self-aware middle-class guilt, awkward glances back up the driveway at all that amassed wealth, better guarded from the taxman than ever before. There is surely a fair bit of entirely oblivious noblesse oblige too.

The gratitude is plentiful but achingly apolitical. This is remarkable given that around half of the UK’s workforce did not have the option of working from home – cleaning offices and ailing bodies, stacking shelves and delivering parcels, or simply yielding to exploitative bosses and precarious contracts. Meanwhile society’s winners stay at home. Your lockdown experience is shaped above all by what you own.

The average nurse’s salary sits just under £25,000— many struggle to rent, let alone buy, near their place of work. We are a society that brands these people heroes, but that doesn’t see fit to make sure they have an affordable home.

This is a reminder that the current trajectory of post-crisis government policy — in Scotland and the UK — is not a revival of the spirit of 1945, but rather the appalling disappointment and waste of interwar austerity.

Playing our parts and doing our bit, it seems churlish, distasteful even, to reflect that wealth locked away in property is simply the other side of a crisis in which the poorest pay the most. Everything has changed, nothing has changed.

In moments of crisis you cast around for coherence with frantic desperation, building up existential stockpiles of the familiar. For British collective memory that means, as many have noted, the language of conflict, and war.

The metaphor is not simply a matter of convenient shorthand. War, the ultimate ‘state of exception’ is premised on the idea of a return to normality. As Walter Benjamin persuasively argued, “only war makes it possible to mobilise all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

If they hadn’t been chronically under-funded, would hospitals still be cast as frontlines or warzones? Would we be worshipping nurses like the unknown soldier, if their lives had not been placed on the line because we were incapable of sustaining a basic PPE supply chain?

Perhaps the great thing about heroes, as opposed to workers, is that they’re too self-sacrificing to ask for a pay rise. Perhaps if we cared about the chronic conditions of poverty still endemic in countries like our own (and alongside which COVID-19 seems to thrive): the language of redistribution would follow. We’d have to consider whether the amassing of private wealth, was really the great heroic and socially useful pursuit that we so breathlessly extol and incentivise.

The morality of collective struggle against an existential threat functions only in so far as it is temporary. Thus, evictions for rent arrears during the crisis are an abomination. With the return of normality, paying and collecting rent will once again be seen as a moral duty. We are, after all, still basically Calvinists: predestined to play the role of righteous creditor or fallen debtor.

But even modest forms of redistribution, as demonstrated by the vitriolic response of Scottish Government ministers to Andy Wightman’s amendments to assist tenants, must fall. A tax break for private providers of student housing blocks, however, sailed through — buildings which happen to symbolise, for many, a rigged Scottish economy. Not homes for heroes, but homes for the children of a global elite, whose luxury rents float immediately offshore the moment they’re paid.


But as such buildings stand empty, there is a reckoning coming. There are mass evictions on the horizon, combined with mass unemployment not seen since the start of the eighties. In that decade, the SNP wasted years in the political wilderness as it struggled to contain contradictory visions of socialism and conservatism.

Then, as now, the demands of property will come into direct conflict with the bodies of the people. But the SNP today is primarily a party of government, bound up in complex ways with the mechanisms and logics of the British state.

The architects of devolution, deploying pleasing notions of a new ‘deliberative’ politics, equipped Scotland’s new democracy with vast acres of long grass. The story of a consensus driven, post-class Scotland, chimed with the broader cusp-of-a-new-millennium rhetoric: wherein reform and modernisation could heal the more divisive past.

Two decades on, devolution confronts a test not simply unparalleled in its own brief life — a global crisis whose parallels take us to the edge of living memory. The practice of Scottish democracy, under both Labour/Lib-Dem and the SNP, has been to paper over the inadequacies of the devolution settlement in the face of systemic issues. This mode of governance involves buying time by creating numerous commissions of the great and the good, medicalising the symptoms of poverty, passing the buck to councils — rather than enacting risky, radical, legislation or engaging in hard political wrangling with London.

In the devolution era, any social ill was conceived of as something that the right sort of people, with the right sort of know-how, can solve like a puzzle if everyone in the nation is represented. Deferring to lobbyists and institutions can all too easily be cast as part of sensible ‘representation’.

In short, after 13 years in government, Scottish nationalism is less interested in articulating what it is for, than in promoting the idea that everything in Scotland works well, offering competence and continuity, while raising a suggestive eyebrow at the shit show down the road.

But this crisis affords no time for the Scottish Government to kick awkward policy choices down the road. The aim of not startling middle Scotland, who remain the de-facto shapers of Scottish politics, is no longer feasible. Even placing the magnitude of the current crisis to one side: a decade of these awkward manoeuvres has made the purpose of Scottish nationalism ever-more vague and opaque.

The horses have bolted, the stable door swings freely on its hinges. The great immovable fact of the devolution era has been the relative comfort and increasing wealth of middle Scotland. It would have survived populist political challenges in the form of Scottish Independence or Brexit, and still had enough reserves of economic and cultural capital to prop-up the declining economic prospects presented to its offspring. But the virus threatens to extinguish all certainties — those of property owning democracy are no exception.

Soon, middle Scotland will have to break, either towards a new social settlement with redistribution at its heart, or towards a final concession that Thatcherism won in Scotland as thoroughly as it did elsewhere. Maybe the recalcitrant and fussy Scots just took longer to admit this.


Finally, there is one side to the conflict metaphor that is worth dwelling on. Quite apart from the decisions taken at Holyrood, people are already organising as the hardship bites. Out of that effort will emerge one question: what are we fighting for?

Contrary to popular narratives, Churchill’s wartime government was extremely reluctant to talk of ‘War Aims’ — fearing that the debate might undermine national unity. Pressure from below reversed this.

As John Hartley has argued, the 45 settlement was in large part initiated by the immensely popular Picture Post’s ’Plan for Britain’ campaign. As early as 1941, over a year before the Beveridge Report was published, many of the principles of what would become the post-war settlement were laid out in the magazine, which drew in an immense correspondence on the plan from millions of readers.

The Picture Post’s editor Tom Hopkinson summed up the salience of the campaign:

“What is the good of the courage and adventurous spirit of our young people — if after the war we are going to set them to selling one another vacuum cleaners? What is the good of the spirit of self-sacrifice so easily aroused in all of us — if we live in a society that pays respect above all things to successful greed? … I say that we cannot possibly afford this waste.“

Hopkinson’s was a nationalism with a clear sense of purpose.