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By focusing on the ‘other,’ nationalists risk tearing apart communities and disrupting lives

3 min read

Nationalism can take many forms. At best, it springs from a love of “people like us,” of our community, our way of life and liberties – a desire to improve and an instrument of human nurturing. At its worst, history has shown it can also be an “othering” – a rejection of others, an exclusion of difference and a damaging and chaotic separation from those who are not part of the same group.

Whatever form it takes, nationalism requires an “us” and a “them”. And this poses a problem to nation-builders: people and the lives we lead don’t fit simple, neat categories. 

Over three centuries, our union, a single tapestry of communities and people woven together through work and love and play, has blurred historic differences. Consequently, the notion of an internal land border is wholly unfamiliar to the residents of England, Scotland and Wales. Every day, people in our border communities cross long buried medieval divisions without thought, to go to school, pop to the shops or visit relatives. 

Yet, it is exactly these communities that are falling within the crosshairs of separatist agendas and distant political debates. 

Take Gretna as an example. Straddling the western extreme of the English-Scottish border, the Scottish community’s nearest large town is Carlisle, England.

“I’ve already been to Scotland this morning,” David Wilson, a local farmer, told me over breakfast, “the chickens needed feeding.” 

Mr Wilson’s farm is divided by the border and illustrates perfectly communal interweaving. Asked how many times he crosses a day he shrugs: “a dozen”. 

Like many people brought up in the area, the Scottish-born farmer thought little of the border as a young man. His farmhouse was on the English side, but it wasn’t as if he had moved abroad. “People don’t think like that,” he says. 

But times have changed. The idea of clearing customs to move his livestock from one part of his property to another might once have provoked a chuckle, but the prospect is no longer an absurdist punchline. If an independent Scotland was to join the EU, as Nicola Sturgeon has promised, customs checks could cut his business – and his existence – in two.   

Our union, a single tapestry of communities and people woven together through work and love and play

Other local businesses face the same threat. Hotels and pubs straddle the border. Under EU rules, a ham sandwich purchased in the town centre would have to pass customs checks to enter Gretna Chase Hotel, which edges over the English border by a few yards. 

Customs is just one of many threats facing communities like Gretna, as the recent pandemic has demonstrated. Determined to go their own way, the SNP administration, far away in Holyrood, set up its own test and trace system, its subtly different name (“Test and Protect”) reflecting its not-so-subtle incompatibility with those used by English and Welsh branches of the NHS. 

“It was a problem,” says Gretna’s Conservative MP David Mundell. “A lot of locals work in Carlisle. It’s also the nearest hospital, and many people go to college there.”

The folly of incompatible systems may have been self-evident to locals, but to some nationalist politicians it was a tantalising excuse to bring forward their ambition of a border and controls. 

To those dealing with the day-to-day consequences it was “unacceptable and incomprehensible,” says Mr Mundell. “People want to go to Carlisle and other parts of the north of England because it’s connected – that’s where their family is, where their job is, where they do their shopping and service their car. It’s one geography.”

A liberal-inclined nationalist would do well to prick up their ears at this observation. It yields a truth many are eager to bury beneath platitudes about openness and tolerance: whatever they might imagine a post-UK, European Union-bound Scotland to be, it can only be achieved by tearing apart settled communities, interwoven by centuries of connections and memories. 

A high price just to fit us into unwanted and unnecessary boxes labelled ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

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