[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

On Thursday, voters in Scotland will go to the polls and either choose “Yes,” meaning that they want Scotland to become an independent state, or “No,” meaning that they want Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. There’s a huge amount which could be said–and, for those who live in the UK or who are more closely tied to it than I, has been said over the past months–about this referendum. But being as I am a non-British resident of Kansas who has never gotten closer to Scotland than watching Rob Roy, there really isn’t much which I could add to any of those arguments.

Except, perhaps, one thing. The role of Scottish nationalism in this referendum is in some ways unclear: those on the “No” side condemn it as a backward, petty, borderline-racist bit of irrational chest-thumping, while those on the “Yes” either claim that Scottish national pride and desire for independence is a positive and inclusive thing, or deny that national feeling really has much to do with it at all. That last claim is a little hard to swallow, given that Scottish nationalism has been the primary animating ideology of the Scottish National Party, the engine behind the referendum vote, for 80 years. But just admitting that many Scots have great affection for their nation doesn’t, in itself, explain why or whether they should desire national self-determination, especially given the options presently available to them (which, if Labor leader Ed Miliband is to be believed, may even include transforming the UK into a genuine federal state). So what does Scottish national feeling constitute or point towards, politically speaking? Johann Gottfried Herder, the late 18th-century German pastor, educator, and literary critic whom many consider to be the father of modern nationalism (and about whom I have written a fair amount) may have a few things to say about that.

There is, admittedly, great disagreement amongst both Herder scholars and historians of nationalist thought as to whether Herder’s generally very literary and vaguely religious discussions of the moral worth of cultural and linguistic communities actually constitutes a defense of “nationalism” as it came to be understood, defended, and employed throughout the 19th century. This debate is further complicated by the taxonomy of nationalism(s): is it cultural or political, ethnic or civic, all of the above? Still, what cannot be contested is that Herder strongly defended the idea that ideally any historical human community can and generally ought to be understood as a “volk,” an anthropologically distinct and morally significant entity whose expressions and practices the broader sweep of humanity ought to recognize, respect, and learn from, which is clearly one of the primary roots of any nationalist self-conception. To the extent that the Scots themselves (as well as nearly everyone else who has commented on the debate on the referendum) acknowledge being “Scottish” as both an identity and way of life, it would seem that Herder’s reflections on nationality ought to apply.

Except that it’s not clear that Herder himself would agree. This isn’t to say that he would deny the historical value of the Scottish volk (like many early Romantics, he was captivated by the supposedly-historical-but-actually-only-marginally-authentic “Ossian” poems of James Macpherson), but rather that, on the basis of Herder’s own analysis, he might not give much credence to an insistence upon Scottish national particularity today. The primary problem is linguistic: the Scots overwhelmingly speak English, just like the English do. (Well, okay, obviously not just like, but given that even a majority of Scots themselves don’t consider Scottish a distinct language, the point stands.) And for Herder, this was extremely important; in his philosophical anthropology, it is the language spoken (and written, but generally he held orality, the publikum of preaching and discourse and story-telling, to be paramount) which primarily shapes how a people see the world around them, and what kind of moral and aesthetic insights–which could take the form of traditions or even “prejudices,” which Herder defended as well–they may be able to expressively contribute to human history and development. Consequently, it was the language spoken by a community which most needed recognition, respect, and cultural protection, perhaps of the sort that only political independence could provide.

But Herder was also sensitive enough of a translator and historian to acknowledge that the linguistic character of a volk could change over time, thus suggesting a change in how that human community ought to be regarded by others. For example, at a time when Germany was a collection of separate states which Herder, like many German romantics, wanted to see shake off the influence of the French Enlightenment and embrace their own distinct culture and language, he nonetheless strongly disputed the claims of some German nationalists that Holland ought to be absorbed into a greater Germany; in his view, Dutch was a linguistic take on and way of interacting with the world distinct enough from German that it would be ridiculous to conceive it as part of the German volk. Given that, and given the probably irrevocable decline of any truly distinct Scottish language, I think it is entirely possible that Herder might look at the United Kingdom today and suggest that, for better or worse, the empirical fact is that Welsh national claims perhaps have far greater moral legitimacy than Scotland’s (though the role of the Welsh language in Wales today, while clearly in better shape than Scots Gaelic, can be disputed).

If, however, we can set aside that one (for Herder, pretty huge) qualification, and simply credit the public perception throughout the United Kingdom that, even as English-speakers, the Scots constitute a nation, what should that mean? Again, for Herder, for all his fervent defense the legitimacy of nationalism, the answer is mixed.

For one thing, while it isn’t easy to translate Herder’s late 18th-century European arguments into a 21st-century globalized and multicultural context, there’s good reason to believe that, while Herder maintained that each volk ought to be able to protect, develop, and express their own distinct cultural perspective, his ideas do not therefore assume that all the members of any given national grouping can only belong to that one volk. Christianity provides a possibly important parallel here. Herder firmly insisted that the teachings of Jesus can only be made fully livable as each human community fully “translates” them into a “national religion” particular to the language and culture which the people in question are rooted in. (Thus did he see Martin Luther, with his German translation of the Bible, as about as much the founder of the German people as any other historical figure.) And as a corollary to that, he was not an advocate of evangelism, particularly of the colonial sort: Herder saw no religious imperative for one form of Christianity to spread around the globe. So one could, and one should, be a Christian of the German sort, or a Christian of the English sort, etc.

It might be stretching things to propose an equivalence between Christianity as an ethos and the United Kingdom as a constitutional arrangement, but it should be remembered that while Herder did felt that the “nation-state”–meaning a political body identical with a particular volk–was the only fully “natural” state arrangement, in fact the whole matter of states and constitutions was for Herder tied up with moral and cultural education and education. For him, as someone whose primary reference was the post-Westphalian world of western European states where established religions were the norm, the point of politics was good government, and good government is mostly a matter of whether a respectful, civilizing, usually-but-not-necessarily religious, “patriotic” education is made available to all. (Making Herder’s sympathy to republicanism even more clear, he makes the argument that such civic education is almost certain incompatible with imperialism, slavery, and hereditary authority, and probably incompatible with autocratic leaders of any sort as well.) The practical upshot of all this is that the national question for Scotland, for Herder, would very likely have to be simply: does the government of the United Kingdom, as–in theory, anyway, if not necessarily in practice–a source and a means of its own British patriotic linguistic, cultural, and moral development, accommodate the contributions of Scotland, or not? Because if it does, then that would be a case of British and Scottish nationalism in fact complementing each other. But if it doesn’t, then obviously it wouldn’t be.

So surprisingly, in the midst of all this talk of nationalism, which is supposedly an entirely romantic sentiment, it seems to me that Herder’s own assessment of this complicated issue would come down to at least partly where the “No” camp has always kind of wanted it to be: on the specific policies, benefits, and pitfalls–specifically in terms of opportunities for cultural expression and the availability of education–which Scottish national independence might involve. That doesn’t mean, I think, that Herder would vote to maintain Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom; he was a pretty mercurial individual, and given the clumsiness and arrogance of much of the campaign against the referendum, I could easily see him, were he a Scot, voting to break from (and, by so doing, presumably at least in part break up) the UK. And of course, there remains the fact that the United Kingdom continues to grant de jure (though not actual) sovereignty to a monarch, which Herder would very likely detest. But solely on the basis of his own framing of and defense of nationalist feeling, it would seem to me that, given that Scotland lacks the sort of linguistic volkish imperative which perhaps arguably exists in Wales (and which obviously existed in most of Ireland for centuries leading up to its final separation from the United Kingdom in 1937), I’m not sure he wouldn’t look at the 300+ years of existence of the united kingdoms of England and Scotland and say: well, but that is, by this point, a volk characterized by its own shared language and traditions and prejudices and possibilities worthy of national defense too. The promise of even further devolution of powers to the Scottish nation, perhaps something even approaching actual federalism, might tip his vote as well.

There’s no one voice in this whole argument, at least none that I’ve been able to find, that strikes me as fully Herderian….but I wonder if the words of Lord John Reid, a Labor politician and a Scot, who approaches this vote by focusing on the welfare of his volk and their ability to contribute to the larger whole, doesn’t come close:

We Scots have played a leading part in the intellectual, social, political, literary, sporting and economic life of the UK. But we have gained as well as given. Not just as part of an economy that remains one of the strongest in the world, but also in making our country a better place to live. The NHS, a Welfare State, pensions, national insurance, minimum wage, excellence in education, civil equality and a host of other measures of social justice and opportunity in which we led the world. The idea that we Scots have been held back because we are part of the UK is risible.

Just as I have a pride in our past–Scottish and British–so I have a faith in, and a positive vision for, our future. I reject the innuendo that those of us who believe that the brightest future for Scotland is as part of the UK are somehow less “Scottish”, or less caring about our country.

This is nothing less than an insult to the majority of Scots who say they will vote No in September. Of course, some people have the right to argue for separatism. But we also have every right to decide that, as a nation, the welfare of the people of Scotland will be best promoted and protected in partnership within the UK. That is the crucial question–what best promotes and protects the welfare of the people of Scotland. That is what defines true patriotism. And by that criteria, a No vote is the patriotic choice in the referendum.

Well, in a little more than 48 hours, we’ll know.


  1. “The idea that we Scots have been held back because we are part of the UK is risible.”

    Sorry, but that just is another example of the contempt the YES point of view has been received with, in Westminster, downplaying the fact that the Scots have been playing the political underdog lo all these 300 years.

    IMO, there is no specifically patriotic choice here. All the people who voted want a good future for Scotland. There is, however, the localist choice. And that is for devolution. As the No vote won, but the fantastic YES campaign got 45%, the clear preference of the Scots is for strong federalism. Will Westminster try to drag its heels and reneg on its promises? You better believe it.

  2. I believe it is the Labour Party you speak of, that Mr. Ed Miliband is leader. But I will not harbour any resentment nor colour you ignorant.

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