I have a friend who grew up in Communist Poland, and holds a low opinion of any type of nationalism. She refers to it as tribalism, an inward-looking and other-fearing blind spot clung to by otherwise reasonable people. Europe in the twentieth century tore itself apart through fearful and militarised adherence to ethnic nationalism. We need fewer boundaries, she says, not more.
But I grew up in the United States, and while I see her point, I also see Scottish independence as an opportunity to create a constitutionally democratic project along similar lines to the USA. Such a project could invoke the same aspiration and idealism that inspired my country of origin when it declared itself independent from the British monarchy. That is not the same as believing that it will necessarily attain all those aspirations, or will exist free of anti-democratic internal forces; the USA certainly hasn’t and never did!
We’re all flawed humans, we have complex webs of identity and loyalty and motivation, and we will never, ever live in a utopia. We’ll always have boundaries of some sort – it is the human condition – so perhaps the best we can do is try to choose our boundaries for wise and well-meaning reasons, and hold ourselves as best as possible to honourable and generous aspirations.
When I grew up, I was taught that my country was the best one in the world. It was the best, the strongest, the wealthiest, the most morally upstanding and the place where everyone else wanted to live. Tribalism on a large scale. When I moved abroad, I stepped outside that constructed box and saw it through other’s eyes: admired but also resented; certainly not as morally upstanding as I had been led to believe; creating so many of the problems that it claims to be policing or helping with foreign aid. I became deeply cynical, all idealism stamped out of me by shame for my narcissistic, spoiled and bullying country. And gradually I learned to distinguish between my nation, my elected government and my state – three different elements of what is often regarded as a single entity. In the lead up to the Scottish referendum, I’ve allowed myself to feel some pride for American constitutional democracy, whatever its practical shortcomings. And whichever way the vote turns on 18th September, I am also proud of the liberal ideals which thrive here in Scotland.
A final anecdote: my brother and I were recently talking about the concepts of personal and political authority. He recounted something he’d once heard in a radio interview on NPR (America’s National Public Radio) at some point following 9/11. The guest speaker, a foreign national, was asked what he considered to be America’s most important global contribution, and the man replied “informality.” He went on to elaborate that the American democratic system – however imperfect in real practice – in principle allows for and encourages the challenge to authority. The US constitution enshrines the right of citizens to choose and to question their government and the responsibility of the various branches of government to check and contain one another’s power through systematic processes. This ‘informality’ of which he spoke is the confrontation of pomposity and self-aggrandisement; it is the voice of the child observing that the emperor has no clothes; it is the principle that people matter more than formal institutions.
Organisational systems – including families, clans, teams, tribes and nation-states – are living networks that grow and change constantly. Systems of governance exist for us, not us for them; institutions which exist for their own sake become calcified, bloated and indifferent. I would love to see a Scotland (independent or not) which thrives as a healthy network, not a rigid structure; a Scotland whose people live and work with all their hearts for a fair, respectful, inclusive, responsive, creative and compassionate social compact, not an implacable fortress of authority. Do I believe we can do that? Yes.