Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum - Competing nationalisms?

Updated Monday, 2nd March 2015

A look at nationalism in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. 

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Huge stack of newspapers in the backyard Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Igor Stevanovic | The media, not least the media based in England (and at times in Scotland too), have sought to portray the entire Independence debate and the September Referendum as issues of Scottish national identity – presenting the SNP as an ethnic nationalist movement. Will Hutton, writing in The Observer was by no means out on a limb in making this comment:
'If Britain can’t find a way of sticking together, it is the death of the liberal enlightenment before the atavistic forces of nationalism and ethnicity–a dark omen for the 21st century. Britain will cease as an idea. We will all be diminished.'
In the period that followed the Independence Referendum, Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian on November 21, was only one of a number of English based commentators drawing parallels between the rise of the SNP in Scotland and UKIP in England.
Just look at the two surging movements in UK politics, the Scottish National and UK Independence parties, the latter now buoyed by winning its second MP in Rochester. The SNP insists that it represents a kinder, gentler, more civic nationalism than Ukip. But both mine national solidarity and the rising sense that a hated and distant capital – Westminster in one case, Brussels in the other – is thwarting the people’s true destiny. From The Guardian. 
However, such views, while not uncommon, seriously misunderstand the nature of the YES campaign and its wide support across different sections of Scottish society and beyond the SNP and other nationalists. 
While it is true to say that the overall YES campaign was not overly nationalistic, in the somewhat unique Scottish sense of nationalistic, it would be mistaken to assume from this that there is no evidence of some of the worst aspects of nationalist sentiment. On some online forums, it was of course possible to locate anti-English and anti-British sentiments – some of which were virulent and nasty. The tone was at times bordering on the racist. Suggestions that NO voters were ‘traitors’ to Scotland also reflected some of the worst elements of nationalist rhetoric and this has also been evident at times in the period since the September 2014 Referendum.
That these sentiments were largely marginalised in Scotland – and they were – is at odds with how the Referendum was portrayed in England – not least by sections of the media and as well as among more right-wing Conservative and UKIP politicians. The suggestion that the Referendum was driven by a ‘Scottish hatred of the English’ was a heard loud and clear across parts of England and among sections of the English electorate (and by some politicians and sporting and media personalities in Scotland too). 
During the entire campaign, the most virulent aspects of Scottish nationalism were rarely in evidence. This is not to deny that at times there were moments of ‘nasty’ nationalism from some pro-Independence elements in Scotland. But by contrast it was the NO campaign that had to play a nationalist card – both by over-stressing both their ‘Scottishness’ alongside their commitment to ‘Britishness’. 
However, in turn it is also clear that anti-Scottish racism and hostility to all things Scotland and Scottish was evident from some politicians and groups in England – as well as from some newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and this has continued in the months following the Referendum and into 2015.

British nationalism

It is important to remember that another type of nationalism played a role in the Independence Referendum debate – British nationalism. Many of those criticising pro-Independence supporters and the YES campaign as ‘nationalists’, were themselves less than honest in admitting to their own implicit nationalism, of their unacknowledged and uncritical acceptance of British Nationalism . This also has its virulent notions of supremacy and racist components, as has been long and well recorded. Some of this was evident in Glasgow on the evening of Friday September 19 as Loyalists, and assorted right wing groups and rioted in George Square in celebration of the NO result. 
With the success of the NO campaign in the September 18 Referendum, British Nationalism was declared triumphant and such triumphalism has characterised much of the No campaign over the days since the result was announced. Writing in The Observer only days after the Referendum, Will Hutton captures some of this quite well, echoing again the falsehood that the pro-Independence campaign was really an ethnic movement.
Divided islands, wherever they are in the world – Timor, Cyprus, Ireland, Hispaniola – mostly don't work. Economy, society and democracy become blighted by the notion that the blood and ethnicity that justify a frontier on the island trumps everything else. No one builds great societies on mystic appeals to human beings' worst instincts…. In the end, Scotland voted decisively not to divide our island. It was right…. The island must change as a whole or it does not change at all. All the arguments about currency, pensions and everything else boiled down to that. The union made sense in 1707. It makes the same sense in 2014. Millions of English – and two million Scots – find ourselves delighted that the noxious, destructive division of our island has not happened. From The Guardian. 
For others, however, such triumphalism simply betrays not only relief that the Union was saved almost at the last minute, but also that it is often at such moments when the longer-term fragility of the Union is also laid bare. The initial triumphalism lasted only a week or so as the question of additional powers for Scotland and the emergence of the ‘English question’ appeared to produce something of a constitutional crisis. Indeed, it is perhaps reasonable to argue that the future of the UK is now less certain following the Scottish Independence Referendum even if the outcome of that Referendum appeared initially to support that union. 
This article is part of a series of articles on the 2014 Scottish Referendum.




Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?