By Tara Gulwell
Sadiq Khan really put his foot in it last week when he tweeted out his intended speech for the 2017 Scottish Labour Conference. The section that read “There’s no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race and religion” created a fierce backlash on social media. He was forced to clarify that he was “not saying that nationalists are somehow racist or bigoted – but […] we don’t need more division and separation.” But the damage was already done, and Khan’s controversial comments (coupled with some missteps by Corbyn and Dugdale) hung over the conference like the smell of rotten egg.
In the rest of the speech, Khan lumps the American protectionist nationalism of Trump, the British nationalism that spurred on Brexit and the independence movement of Scotland into one huge bag of things-that-are-bad. Putting aside the vast international differences between those movements for a minute, to suggest that the often xenophobic Donald Trump is in any way comparable to Scottish nationalism is downright insidious, not to mention grossly misleading.
Those in the damage control department might say Khan just chose his words poorly, but this runs deeper than that. His sentiment nods directly to the some of the most pervasive aspects of unionist rhetoric. Labour and the Conservatives alike have this great talent of suggesting that Celtic nationalisms are anti-English (and anti-English people). Take the ‘Better Together’ campaign of 2014, for example. It tended to evoke the image of Englishmen and Scotsmen standing side-by-side for the good of the United Kingdom, and suggested that an independent Scotland would fracture that jolly and mutually beneficial relationship. Scottish nationalism tends to define itself as broadly civic, standing for Scottish citizens and against the British state, not against English people.
It would, however, be unfair to say none of those who identify as Scottish nationalists ever display anti-English sentiment. With any large-scale political movement there will always be some who act like plonkers, and in this case they’re in the minority, but there has nonetheless been some despicable behaviour displayed by a few nats during the Khan controversy.
Claire Heuchan, a black feminist PhD candidate, had to delete twitter after racist abuse following an article she wrote in support of Khan. I disagree with her analysis, but obviously the reaction she got is abhorrent and is not the way Scottish nationalists should, or normally do, conduct their debate. Heuchan makes the point that nationalism by its nature creates an “us” and a “them” and she’s not wrong. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. When the “us” is a nation that continually served as subservient to the “them” (or as we might better put it in this case, the “it” of the United Kingdom/the British State/English Imperialism etc), that mentality is pretty empowering.
to suggest that the often xenophobic Donald Trump is in any way comparable to Scottish nationalism is downright insidious
Ham-fistedly comparing nationalism to racism? Not so empowering. In some ways the mayor of London swanning off to Perth to piss off almost half of Scotland is indicative of how this current Labour Party thinks about the public in general. Motivate an intensely loyal base and give up on people who disagree seems to be the strategy of Corbyn’s leadership. Despite Khan’s criticisms of the leader, he seems to be following in the same vein.
Labour weren’t on track for a comeback in Holyrood anytime soon, but this conference has certainly done them no favours. Instead of opening his mouth to blindly call civic nationalists as bad as racists, Sadiq Khan should have used his time in Scotland as a good listening opportunity.
Featured Image via Newsweek