The Politics of ‘Us and Them’

In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.

Usually it’s enough to wave the word ‘nationalism’ around, secure in the belief that it will conjure up the grim spectres of twentieth century Europe and obviate the need for further argument. If pressed, however, in place of argument a peculiar dogma emerges, which it might be worth holding up to the light. Those proffering it are confident that it is enough to convict anyone pursuing the dissolution of the current UK constitutional arrangements of fundamental kinship with – well, with Hitler, ideally, even if these ‘nationalists’ think their motives are rather more benign. And if you can’t get to Hitler cos you know it sounds absurd, then you can certainly use it to suggest that there is an identity with right wing populism of the sort practised by UKIP, the BNP, the EDL and any number of unsavoury continental parties led by other dodgy nationalists. It’s even, on this account, pretty much the same as racism. What a result! Have you had enough, Nazi? Or do you want some more?


So how does this dogma go? Well, it’s pretty simple – ideally suited to being coughed up in a few tweets, but susceptible to a long-form rendering too should the click-hungry Guardian be kind enough to offer you a slot.

Step 1: So, you want Scottish independence? Therefore, you are a nationalist.

Step 2: Nationalism is a politics of division. It relies on dividing an ‘us’ from a ‘them’.

Step 3: That’s like really horrible – you’re othering people, making enemies and scapegoats of them. In fact, that’s just like fascism and that.

Step 4: Oh, and obvs racist too. You racist!

Now you might think that you could reply to this by pointing to all the ways in which your advocacy of Scottish independence isn’t in fact racist, and your opposition to reactionary immigration policies, and the work you’ve done to support refugees in the UK, and even your lengthy record of anti-fascist campaigning.

Ha, you naïve fool! The reason I call this a ‘dogma’ is because it’s designed to be – strictly speaking – irrefutable. You can pile up as much empirical evidence as you like about your anti-racist credentials, but you won’t evade conviction. That’s because this is in fact a claim about what nationalism is necessarily, by definition. All nationalisms are implicated in this condemnation. You may not think that you hate the English, but actually, logically, you do. Sorry pal.

And it has a key corollary: if the cause of Scottish independence is a politics of division, of us and them, then those who resist or oppose it are – as if by magic – absolved of any such nastiness. Their politics is inclusive and all about unity and being stronger together and feeling all the love in the room. And it is as necessarily virtuous as the pursuit of Scottish independence is necessarily vicious. However many ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs they actually produce, and however many needless wars they start in the world, their credentials remain intact, just by virtue of not being nationalist. #Winning!


Now this, of course, is bollocks. And it’s bollocks at exactly the logical, necessary, level that the dogmatic assertion of Scottish nationalism’s ineradicable evils thinks it so important to operate. The main reason why it’s bollocks is that it presumes that you can oppose a politics of ‘us and them’ to some other kind of politics, or that you can espouse a politics of unity which is absolutely different from a politics of division. And this isn’t the case – necessarily. All politics is a politics of ‘us’ – which is to say it is about the organisation and direction of a collective or a community. And every politics of ‘us’ is also a politics of ‘them’, because you can’t meaningfully have an ‘us’ unless there are folk who are not us – unless, that is, there is also a ‘them’.

So the choice is not between a nasty proto-fascist politics of ‘us and them’ and the political equivalent of a big hug. If all politics involves relationships between ‘us’ and ‘them’, then the crucial question is how we constitute the ‘us’ and how we shape the relationship to ‘them’. And that can be done any number of ways – it can be inclusive or exclusive, civic or ethnic, cooperative or antagonistic. This is where the real differences between types of politics emerge, not at the definitional level asserted by the dogmatists. What lets the so-called anti-nationalists get away with painting themselves as just so many political Teletubbies is the fact that they are quite happy with where the borders between us and them now are, and with how they currently operate, so they don’t need to raise them as an issue. They are not really opposed to a ‘divisive’ politics of us and them, they just don’t have a problem with how that division currently operates.


And in portraying themselves as opposed to ‘division’ per se, they never have to talk about how the borders between any us and them might actually operate. So they don’t have to confront the nativism and xenophobia of the current ways of drawing the line that they are happy to support. And by the same token they can pretend that even the most inclusive, open and deracinated vision of what it might mean to be one of ‘us’ can be portrayed as exclusive, closed and blood-and-soil if it is currently a matter of political aspiration, pitched against the status quo, and therefore susceptible to definition as ‘nationalist’.

Borders are necessary, or at least inevitable – until, that is, one world government becomes a plausible ideal. And even then, when First Contact happens, there will be those holding out the hand of friendship and those alarmed at the prospect of all those bastard aliens, coming over here, demanding to be taken to our leader. So the choice is not between a politics of borders and a politics of no-borders. It’s about how borders work for those who live both within and across them. A fundamental quiescence in the face of existing national borders is very much a politics of us and them, and in current circumstances a pretty unsavoury one at that. It’s time that its defenders started to confront this fact about themselves – and stopped projecting.