‘A bunch of flag-waving nationalists’? Why the media doesn’t get the politics of flags and social movements

Ben Wray

The recent independence march restarted a debate about the politics of flags in Scotland – CommonSpace columnist David Jamieson argues that the critique of Scottish nationalist identity and ideology in the media is confused and often hypocritical because of a poor grasp of grassroots, social movement politics

THE royal wedding is the acme of the kind of nationalism liberal minded people claim to detest. It is a deeply irrational display of public deference and adherence to the class system, that openly eschewes the concept of human equality.

Its is a state organised nationalist display and an item of official ideology, prostration before a special family supposedly emblematic of national greatness close to mandatory for anyone in public life.

Those angered by the massive waste expenditure or the social cleansing that accompanied it (with the homeless rounded-up and removed from the potential view of the great and good and foreign press alike) were mocked as bitter kill joys. The newspapers stands on Sunday morning were a wall of royal matrimony, with the couple’s kiss reproduced identically on almost every front page. This is what real ‘political correctness’ looks like. For at least a day, republicanism became an unacceptable viewpoint, and no media institution, least of all the public broadcaster, felt it necessary to carry critical comment.

Yet the element of the Scottish establishment and media so trained in hyperventilated warnings over the danger of Scottish nationalism fell solemnly quite for the bizarre goings on – the oversized union jacks, the children dressed as soldiers, the weeping tv anchors.

READ MORE: ‘Ignorant and insulting’: Anti-racist activists push back on image of the royal wedding as a beacon of progress

Rewind your memories to just a fortnight before.

Aidan Kerr, former STV digital politics reporter and newly appointed communications officer for Scottish Labour, summed up the thought of many in the media when he tweeted:

“The Yes movement is now destroying itself. Moderates are finding out those who spend their afternoons waving flags in a public park have no politics beyond emblems, differentiation and bitterness. A far cry from what was sold to people like me in 2014.”

So why the spasm over the Saltire and the marchers so absent from the royal wedding?

Kerr’s selective angst of course stems from an arch political concern. Grassroots pressure for independence is growing, and so are the capacities for mobilisation of the independence movement. The police estimates for the demonstration (typically downplayed though they are) were 35,000 – around twice the figure for the Glasgow demonstration less than one year before, and in no less charged political circumstances.

There can be little doubt that the independence movement, rather than being static or even fading as some had predicted, is at this point spreading deeper roots into society.

Speaking to the BBC, journalist Katie Grant (from whom more later) was quick to note the point: “They look like a body, when they are there [on the march], of people who all want the same thing. But of course, I think they’re not really all wanting the same thing.”

How astute. Nations are internally stratified, and flags themselves are a pretence, supposedly flying high above political or ideological concerns, uniting whole blocks of humanity into a single identity. But, regadless of what they say, the relative coherence of the march behind ideas for radical change is what the punditry actually fears.

READ MORE – Indy march organiser: ‘It doesn’t matter how many referendums it takes – we will eventually win’

The Saltire has become a symbol for the independence marchers of the society and progress and solidarity that most of them yearn for (and having reported on several of these marches and interviewed several dozen at random, this journalist can assure you most do have these beliefs).

For Manny Singh, one of the march organisers and a co-founder of its umbrella organisation ‘All Under One Banner’, the Saltire represents the opposite of the exclusive and chauvinistic nationalism he rejects in the UK.

“People carried all different flags and banners on the march, not just the Saltire. But the Saltire does represent something everyone can rally around, from any race or gender or sexuality.”

This idea of an inclusive or civic nationalism is common currency in Scotland, particularly since 2014. It also has its full share of critics ready to pick it apart, not all of whom Singh would disagree with (“we still have racists and bigots in Scotland, still have work to do”). But few would question that for reasons of history and positioning, a Saltire flag representing a stateless nation doesn’t represent the same social forces and ideas as many other national flags, including, perhaps especially, the Union Jack.

What the Saltire does represent for Singh though is an idea: “Scotland first. Then we can become a beacon to the world.”

In practice for Singh, this means a new type of internationalism.

“I voted for Brexit – I don’t want to be tied to any union. Scotland is very strong, we have great minds and great institutions, universities and so forth.

“We don’t want to be going into any wars , taxpayers shouldn’t be paying money to go into other peoples country. I don’t want that blood on my hands.”

The problem for the punditry and unionist politicians is not that they have failed to make an accurate comparison between Scottish nationalism and British nationalism. It is that they fail to recognise British nationalism at all. Like all items of hegemonic ideology, it is too much in evidence to be noticed, especially by a media and political set which shares in that hegemony.

READ MORE – Robin McAlpine: Nationalism – a trade union for the people

This is what Michael Billig called ‘Banal Nationalism’, and his general description could have been written specifically about the relationship between Scottish and British Nationalisms today.

“… there is something misleading about this accepted use of the word ‘nationalism’. It always seems to locate nationalism on the periphery. Separatists are often to be found in the outer regions of states; the extremists lurk on the margins of political life in established democracies, usually shunned by the sensible politicians of the centre.

“This is where the accepted view becomes misleading: it overlooks the nationalism of the West’s nation-states.

“… the term banal nationalism is introduced to cover the ideological habits which enable the established nations of the West to be reproduced.”

It is almost possible that the endurance and even the growth of the pro-independence grassroots have nuanced some minds towards this debate. It becomes difficult, given this persistence, for anyone on the left to believe in the straightforwardly reactionary character of the independence movement, as represented by the supposed evil of the flag.

Speaking for this article. arch Labour leftist and sometime Nat hammer Neil Findlay MSP:

“I would say to the marchers I welcome more and more people becoming involved and engaged in the political process and would urge them to look at the radical changes to the economy and society offered by Richard Leonard and Jeremy Corbyn – by redrawing a border we do not create a fairer and more equal society – we do that by radical political leadership driving change for the many not the few. We should work collectively to achieve that goal.”

Asked wether he didn’t think that those on the march were overwhelmingly leftwing he responds:

“I think the march was an expression of a desire by a group of people who want independence – I think some may support progressive politics and their support for independence is informed by an inherent conservatism.”

READ MORE – Neil Findlay: Joining Better Together “one of the biggest political misjudgements in Labour’s 100-year history”

In this picture then, even where left politics is present in the independence movement, it is limited by the desire for national independence.

Perhaps, at least in some circles, the somewhat dry and dogmatic debate about whether a march contaning nationalist sentiment or carrying national flags can be leftwing is settling in the affirmative, even if the argument maintains nuanced disagreements.

One hopes it now matures into a debate about social movements and about the ideological equipment they require to meet their goals.

Alongside the hand wringing about flags and nationalism, came the usual complaints about protesters. Katie Grant again: “…there they all are, they’re in Glasgow for the day and I think some people have viewed it as a bit of a holiday.”

Long before there was parliament and parliamentary politics, there were social movements. Long after parliaments have disappeared from the scene (hopefully giving way to something more democratic) there will still be social movements.

Indeed, without the mass social movements which preceded it, parliamentary democracy could not have come into existence, nor could a free press. And the maintenance of parliamentary democracy, free speech and a free press would all be impossible without the continual presence of mass social movements.

This is the force, the fountainhead of democratic life, that so many media actors who trade in the fruits of social movements, feel almost duty bound to mock and deride. But principally, to ignore.

The social movement has never been the newspaper or television’s prime terrain. They have focused instead on parliamentary back-and-forth and ‘high politics’, that lowly affair that rests near the bottom rung of real democratic life.

But there was a time when movements were taken more seriously in the mainstream media through the employ of industrial correspondents, and after pioneering experiments in campaigning journalism in the post-war decades.

READ MORE – Davie Laing: Understanding Tom Nairn

What we are witnessing now is the outcome of industrial decline (for evidence of which, see the shocking events at STV). In particular, deskilling. Your average journalist or pundit is simply not equipped to understand social movements, which require extensive knowledge and engender acute theoretical considerations. One march of tens of thousands is more intricate, complex and dynamic and would require more reportage than one full years’ worth of parliamentary correspondence.

The Scottish independence movement is a modern social movement, with roots in recent decades of the development and decline of British capitalism. It is not rooted in 300 years of history reaching back to the Act of Union, anymore than Brexit dates from the signing of the Magna Carta, as some British Nationalist ideologues seem to believe. It relates therefore, not so much to Scotland or the rediscovery of Scottish nationhood, but to Britain and the decline of British statehood.

In the 1970s, the New Left intellectual Tom Nairn developed a modern materialist perspective of why ‘neo-nationalisms’ had arisen in recent decades:

“Located on the fringe of the new metropolitan growth zones, they suffer from a relative deprivation and are increasingly drawn to political action against this. This action is analogous to old-style nationalism, above all in its ideology. But, precisely because it starts from a higher level and belongs to a more advanced stage of capitalist evolution—to the age of multinationals and the effective internationalisation of capital—its real historical function will be different.”

For Nairn, national questions had become the radical force in UK state decline, to the point of supplanting open class politics, at least as the immediate subject of political action:

“The fact is that neo-nationalism has become the gravedigger of the old state in Britain, and as such the principal factor making for a political revolution of some sort–in England as well as the small countries. Yet because this process assumes an unexpected form, many on the metropolitan left solemnly write it down as a betrayal of the revolution.”

It is certainly the case today that national questions, from Scotland to Brexit to Northern Ireland (and including, centrally, the English national question) beset the British state.

READ MORE – Analysis: Scotland’s 11 billionaires – did they really get rich ‘through their vision and tireless endeavours’?

It is also the case, of course, that the Scottish nation (or any nation) is not just the people on the march. The nation is also the 11 Scottish billionaires revealed in the Sunday Times Rich list, among whom are tax avoiders, political manipulators and exploiters of the public and environment. These people, and many besides, are not interested in sharing power, still less in social progress.

Were the vision of Scottish nationhood so evident in the recent demonstration to be put into practice, it would quickly come into brutal conflict with internal and external enemies. That would be a conflict ultimately settled on class lines. No ultimate ‘national’ solution can be found, as nations contain social elements with implacably opposed political interests.

Yet it remains the case that the independence movement remains the social movement of the political moment. The day after the independence march of tens of thousands, a May Day march of at most a few thousand took place. This is not a point made in any mood of cynical gloating – the political traditions represented by May Day must be nurtured and extended if the larger movement is to meet its goals. But attempting this at the level of supplanting the Saltire with the red flag is sub-culture war politics.

Like so much else in democratic life, the outcome of Scotland’s titanic ideological battle will be decided in the streets, workplaces and communities of the country. Better to listen to them than the confusion of the news rooms.

Picture courtesy of CommonSpace