‘For me, this debate isn’t about identity,’ she says. ‘I don’t feel we need to be independent for me to feel confident in my Scottish identity. I think Scotland is pretty comfortable in its identity. We won’t need independence to preserve it… If we don’t become independent it won’t disappear, it isn’t under existential threat.’
Nicola Sturgeon, deputy First Minister.
Guardian interview. August 24, 2013.
At other times, ‘identity’ has a much more specific meaning, referring to the ways in which people subjectively understand their place in the world, who they see as being ‘one of them’, who they see as different, and who they see as being against them. According to this approach, ‘Scottish identity’ is not an objective description of what Scotland is, but rather a psychological sense of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we value’...
Steve Reicher, David McCrone and Nick Hopkins:
‘A strong, fair and inclusive national identity’:
A viewpoint on the Scottish Government’s Outcome 13.
(Equality and Human Rights Commission research report 62, Autumn 2010).
The Yes campaign has grown wary of the word identity, no doubt because Unionists like to treat ‘identity politics’ as a term of abuse. If it can be yoked to ‘grievance’, so much the better. Then the claim of independence becomes the preserve of the parochial, the obsession of the self-interested. The politics of identity is reduced to the small-minded creed of the selfish. It is also, says the perennial heavy hint, one step away from racism.
Much of this is regarded as self-evident by Britain’s adherents. When Jeremy Paxman compared Alex Salmond to Robert Mugabe the talking head did not believe he was being absurd or particularly offensive. He thought he was indulging in one of his neat but tenable provocations. When Labour types arrange their consonants to link the SNP with the BNP they think they understand the limits of innuendo and insult. They presume, always, that the atavistic nature of nationalism is well and universally understood. You know the script: the Nazis will be along shortly.
It’s dirty pool, as the American cousins would say, but hardly surprising. The surprise comes when you notice how badly nationalists cope with this version of ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. People contort themselves to explain that they don’t hate anybody; that old wounds are unimportant; and that – as Ms Sturgeon had it – ‘this isn’t about identity’. We’re all so ‘civic’ it hurts.
No offence, but I’ve grown pretty tired of the politics of reassurance, of apologetic nationalism, of forever conceding ground for the sake of a simple message. Identity is hugely tricky: that’s not news. It involves odd mixtures of circumstances and choices. It has to do with old stories, new stories, and stories as yet unwritten. The future will always count for more than the past: I get it.
Still, even if the bath water is murky, keep hold of the baby. I want Scotland to be independent again because I am a Scot. That’s on the first page and the last. Identity is at the core; identity is explanation and motive. Who decided it was ‘secure’, in any case? Unlike Nicola, I happen to fear that a No vote will amount to a real ‘existential threat’.
If a Yes vote happens to bring down the British state, meanwhile, that will be just fine with me. I’m not in this, with my one vote, just to rearrange the furniture or pretend that I don’t know why I am who I am.