Destiny and civic nationalism

When I wrote a recent post about Alex Salmond’s repeated use of the phrase ‘The sovereign will of the Scottish people’ I mentioned as an aside

A cynic might even say that ‘the sovereign will of the Scottish people’ fits well with the idea that a nation has a destiny

which my dictionary told me is ‘something that necessarily happens in the future’ (my emphasis) and gives as an example

The hidden power believed to control future events; fate.

I noted that the concept seemed to fit ill with the idea of civic nationalism but said no more on the subject.

Something niggled in my mind and I thought I’d check the SNP web site to see if ‘destiny’ features at all.

To my surprise, a simple search threw up no fewer than 55 mentions on the site. Bar a few references to education, a community land buy out in South Uist and Iraq, they are all to do with the destiny of the Scottish nation or people. Typical examples include

Scotland needs to take control of its own economic destiny – Pete Wishart, 29 November 2004

We are six months away from a date with destiny and we have a great task in hand – Alex Salmond, 13 October 2006 (a speech incidentally that included the promise ’Scotland will join that arc of prosperity to our east, west and northern shores. Norway, Ireland and Iceland’ – one out of three. Not bad)

It is our duty delegates to make his [nationalist Sir Neil MacCormack’s] dream our destiny – Kenny MacAskill, 17 October 2008

[The results of a survey] signify a profound desire on the part of the people of Scotland to take charge of their own destiny – Nicola Sturgeon, 18 November 2011, and

Now we have our date with destiny – Richard Lochhead, 19 October 2013.

Six quotes. Six politicians. The SNP, you might conclude, are big on destiny.

Despite an earlier flurry of claims in the independence referendum debate they seem to be less big on ‘civic nationalism,’ with only five references to it on their web site, one of which comments on a spat with Alistair Darling. None of them offers a definition of the idea, but merely asserts commitment to it, like Nicola Sturgeon on 11 May 2012

ours is a modern, civic nationalism.

Well, that’s fine but the whole independence referendum is bedevilled by assertion and since the SNP don’t seem to say, it’s worth asking what civic nationalism actually is.

It turns out it has a longer pedigree than I thought and there has been a flurry of discussion on the web about it in the context of Scotland, from right-wing think tanks to Wings over Scotland, none of which I will grace with a link from No Thanks!

One basic definition widely accepted is that civic nationalism is nationhood defined by common citizenship regardless of ethnicity, race, colour, religion, gender or language. It is contrasted with a more traditional ethnic nationalism – nationhood defined by language, religion, customs and traditions.

Much of the online debate about Scottish nationalism centres on the extent to which the SNP was ever an ethnic nationalist party, and if it was, the extent to which it has moved away from that to civic nationalism. If Nicola Sturgeon, as quoted above, is to be believed the SNP believes only in civic nationalism, and a modern version at that.

My judgment is that  the SNP contains elements of both civic and ethnic nationalism. The former is evident in their formal policy positions but the latter comes through not only in all those references to ‘sovereign will’ I heard Alex Salmond use in FMQs this last week, but also in the theme of ‘destiny’ so evident in the speeches and utterances of their senior politicians.

I for one would welcome never hearing the word’destiny’ again from a politician, nationalist or otherwise. For me it harks directly back to ethnic nationalism. It suggests that somehow a nation is an organism that has its own life rather than just comprising the fluctuating collection of people who at any one time occupy the space labelled ‘Scotland,’ no matter how much they have in common. It suggests that there is something immutable and inevitable about that organism and its trajectory. It is deeply unpleasant.

Footnote. For those with a sense of irony at the notion that Scottish civic nationalism is somehow an antidote to something British and very different, the academic source I cite for the definition  of civic nationalism above notes

Civic nationalism is exemplified by the creation the of British nation-state in the late 18th century out of the English, the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish, united by a civic rather than an ethnic definition of belonging, and by attachment to civic institutions like Parliament, and the rule of law.

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