The Jolly Roger flyingDuring a recent discussion thread one of the commenters admitted to not knowing what the difference is between a nationalist and someone that supports independence. Given it was Jeff, I promised to explain my position, which is, as the title suggests, in favour of independence but against nationalism.

Crudely, there are romantic arguments for particular territorial boundaries, and there are pragmatic ones. The arguments for and against independence can both be divided in this way. If someone believes that larger nation-states carry more clout on the world stage, that the costs of implementing Scottish independence outweigh the benefits, and that the Westminster system is the most efficient form of democracy ever devised, for example, they are certainly a unionist but not necessarily a nationalist of any flavour. Those are pragmatic positions, and their merits can be debated.

If, however, they believe that Britain has a splendid history, that Britishness is important to their identity, and that we therefore belong together, they are a British nationalist. It sounds unpleasant, because of the association with the British National Party, but it’s really no more logical nor any less savoury than Scottish nationalism. Nationalists believe in flags and anthems and symbols of collective identity. Unless it’s the Jolly Roger, I’m broadly against flags. Any form of nationalism is like a faith position, and it is hard to debate sensibly with a person who adheres to one of them.

Similarly, Scottish nationalism has independence as an end in itself, an emotional objective irrespective of any other political changes. Patrick and I once took a drink with an SNP MSP who shall remain nameless. Patrick asked what their campaign priorities would be after independence, and got the memorable reply: “what do you mean?” Another round of pressing still failed to elicit any secondary policy objectives, like perhaps tackling poverty, or even apparently an understanding of the question. Eventually the answer came that they’d leave politics – job done. That’s nationalism in its purest form, and it frankly baffles me.

Personally, I came to support independence as a pragmatic position, entirely devoid of any nationalist sentiment – only the 90 minute version has any effect on me. I look at Westminster politics and despair. I no longer think it likely that we will in my lifetime see an end to corporate politics there, or a fair electoral system, or a party of government opposed to privatisation, or a government prepared to make a positive case for immigration and honouring our asylum commitments. Obviously Labour started small, and the Greens couldn’t have a better bridgehead in the Commons than Caroline Lucas, but the inertia (at best) and copycat neo-liberal politics seen at a UK level is frankly beyond depressing.

So I don’t want to be offered an independent Scotland which would reproduce Westminster at Holyrood, something where the constitution won’t be written by the people, without a choice over an elected or a hereditary head of state, or where money politics still rules. I want to see independence for something, for a purpose. I want to see a fairer Scotland, one that relies on wind and wave, not oil and gas, one where money stops being wasted on motorways and is diverted instead into public transport, and one where politics is cleaned up and opened up. The list is enormous, and in general it’s what you’d see if you merged the last Green manifestos for Holyrood and for Westminster. Only a referendum on a truly democratic independent Scotland gives me any hope that I’ll live in a country like that.

The irony with this, of course, is that plenty of people who get called nationalists – SNP members, or even SNP MSPs – are not nationalists by this definition, or not just nationalists at least. Like me, they want independence for a purpose: some to deliver a version of social democracy, others to continue down a neo-liberal path. The leadership recognise the ideological and emotional strands in the pro-independence camp too, and so they use rhetoric that mixes nationalism and pragmatism, designed to have a broad appeal beyond the flag-wavers.

Another example further from home provides a footnote. Consider the 18th century American campaign for independence and the colonists’ famous slogan “no taxation without representation”. This was not a nationalist position, although it was part of the ideological foundation for a war for independence. It’s a pragmatic political position, and if George III had had any sense he’d have offered them representation. Who knows how that would have turned out? Similarly, if the unionists had been smarter and hadn’t blocked the assembly plans in 1979, who knows whether independence would seem so essential now?