Is this Jim Murphy’s big new idea: ethnic nationalism?

This is just a brief comment on the first moves by the newly elected leader of “Scottish Labour” as reported by the BBC.  Jim Murphy is quoted as saying:

“We are a socialist party yes, but we recognise that our political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character.

“It was there before our party in the ethics of Burns’ poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the Highlanders who took on brutal landlords. A belief that we stand together, look after those who need our help, and make sure that everyone gets a fair shout.”

Now, I don’t know anyone who thinks the current “Labour” party is ‘a socialist party’ (and certainly not with Murphy involved!), but leaving that aside for now, this appeal to something ‘ingrained in our Scottish character’ and referencing it as an intrinsic ‘belief’ is clearly an explicit move towards ethnic nationalism.  I could write much more on this (I research and write on identity questions, so will struggle to keep this brief!), but I thought sharing a first reaction might be of interest.  If we presume that Murphy is not just being a chance opportunist and resorting to Samuel Johnson’s cheap patriotism (‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’ etc.), then I think Murphy’s move is both worrying and fascinating.

It is worrying because one of the key problems with ethnic nationalism is that it is almost impossible to avoid chauvinism or ethnocentrism, in which one’s own national interests are seen to override the interests of others.  It is, I think, difficult at the best of times to avoid nationalism descending into ethnocentrism, but with ethnic nationalism that is virtually impossible, as it is centred on a belief in a shared heritage, common faith, and usually a common ancestry and language, as opposed to, implicitly or explicitly, the heritage, faith etc. of others – these things are used as markers of difference.  Even if Murphy doesn’t fully adopt the ‘common ancestry/language’ element, he is clearly pointing to these other factors as ethnic nationalist markers of difference (ironically, this comes at a time when Ed Miliband is discouraging his activists’ engagement on ethnic nationalist lines – perhaps Murphy didn’t read that memo?).

For many years, one of my hesitations about the Scottish National Party was its ethnic nationalism.  However, under Alex Salmond and others, since the late 1970s/early 1980s it moved decisively to embrace a much more open civic nationalism and thereby also adopt a broad social democratic stance (perhaps the SNP should more correctly be called the Scottish International Party in the meantime?!).  The ethnic nationalism that used to be at the heart of the SNP has been almost completely excised – a great achievement.

This is why I see the direction that Murphy apparently wants “Scottish Labour” to now take as highly problematic: ethnic nationalism is at core destructive, it harms inclusive prevailing discourse, and I therefore strongly oppose it.  Even though, of course, all of the things that ethnic nationalists regard as important are just constructions (such as a shared heritage, belief etc.), the ethnic nationalist makes them real to themselves and uses them against others, and that is where the potential for serious harm emerges.  Eric Hobsbawm cites Gellner before concluding (the sexist language is in the original):

‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent… political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-exiting cultures: that is a reality.’ In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations.  Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round. (E J Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, London 1990, 1992: 10.)

So that is all rather worrying.

What is fascinating about this announcement?  Quite simply, it is the astonishing paucity of new ideas: south of the border “Labour” has spent much of it’s time recently trying to out-UKIP UKIP (thereby becoming more racist, something that Miliband’s move perhaps finally recognises?), and now north of the border Murphy wants to out-SNP what he thinks the SNP stands for?  If so, he is simply one in a long line of “Labour” politicians who completely fail to understand that the modern SNP has more or less completely ditched the ideology of ethnic nationalism for a much more open and inclusive civic nationalism.  However, it took decades for the SNP to achieve that, leading me to wonder: perhaps Murphy isn’t expecting his party to be electable for decades?!



8 thoughts on “Is this Jim Murphy’s big new idea: ethnic nationalism?

  1. I think that you’re confusing ethnic nationalism with simple nationalism. If you think that a designated people have something ingrained in their national character, this je-ne-sais-quoi could be, for example, cultural.

    The smug fantasy that the whole of Scotland is more socially democratic than the rest of the UK is cultural nationalism (though when Glaswegians claim that they are more socially democratic than Edinburgh, this is not cultural nationalism.) When Leslie Riddoch speaks about some strange mystical affinity between, err, mostly white “Nordic” nations, this might be something slightly more than cultural nationalism.


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘simple nationalism’ – nationalism is an ideology, and ideologies, as, for example, Marx and Engels point out, are dominant ideas in an epoch that not only reflect the experience of the dominant class, but also serve its interests, in part by ‘inventing’ various aspects of social reality (e.g. reversing cause and effect) to make the social order seem inevitable or just. Karl Mannheim emphasises the social function of ideologies in opposing change and lessening apparent value conflicts. This is all the more the case with ethnic nationalism. A feature of civic nationalism, I’d say, is that it undoes some of this by placing the emphasis of identity on a broader populace – all those resident in an area, regardless of background – and that openness is what enables it to be more open to change.

      As for a ‘smug fantasy’ about Scotland being more socially democratic than anywhere else, I don’t hold with that at all. However, I do see Scotland mostly voting in parties with more socially democratic values than happens in eg much of England, and in that context, we do have much in common with the Scandinavian countries, as Lesley Riddoch quite rightly points out. I don’t think she’s saying we have some ‘mystical affinity’ as Nordics – she’s pointing to policy decisions.


      • Oh dear, yes it is Lesley, not Leslie (ouch!).

        I don’t recognise any meaningful distinction between cultural or civic nationalism, and, to cut a long story short, I think that to speak of left-wing nationalism is tantamount to celebrating a left-wing right wing. When it comes to Scotland and the UK, both have the same pseudo-capitalist economies, the same role for the state, the same post-ideological mainstream political parties, the same sliding turnouts at elections. Indeed, the SNP’s authoritarianism makes it effectively a New Labour think tank. There are significant differences between London and the rest of the UK, but, for me, that’s as far as it goes.


        • I didn’t speak of ‘left-wing nationalism’ or ‘right-wing nationalism’ – in fact, your comment is the only place on this page where this left and right distinction appears! 🙂 So I’m not sure what that part of your comment is really meant to be critiquing.

          Cultural and civic nationalism are usually held to be quite distinct. Even(!) Wikipedia distinguishes between them.

          And we’ll just need to agree to differ on the other questions at this stage, I think.


          • Apologies if I have misunderstood, but the implication is there. Nationalism was generally viewed in the UK as being a conservative right-wing ideology. You commended “civic” nationalism for its openness to change, which pulled, perhaps wrongly, at my leftist heartstrings.


  2. Complete intellectual bankruptcy I’d say. If the Saltire-waving Flower of Scotland shortbread-and-tartan whisky-and-salmon nation expired on Sept 19th, I for one am thrilled because I want no part of it and I don’t believe in it. I went down to the Parliament the night before the vote and watched a bunch of topless drunk guys in kilts waving bottles and singing FoS and being photographed by tourists and it made me feel sick. To think we actually used to be famous for being brainy. But I suspect Mr Murphy is struggling to grasp the sophistication of the post-indyref landscape, stomping round the TV studios like a T rex roaring and waving his claws and trying to sound tough while various warm-blooded indyreptiles are busy growing feathers and laying eggs……….


    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      I couldn’t agree more – I am horrified by such nonsense as you describe, but I wonder if Murphy thinks he is connecting to them? He’s certainly not picking up on the changes happening around him…


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