What’s the point of Scotland? Bob Dudley and Pericles debate nationalism

Bob Dudley, the Group Chief Executive at BP, has been airing concerns about Scottish independence. From his point of view, divorce from the rest of the UK makes no sense.

Making your own country isn’t a smart move

Dudley is a very distinguished representative of the characteristic modern outlook. Nationalism seems to him a retrograde and unhelpful concern. We have so many examples of nationalism gone wrong: Germany in the 1930s, the catastrophe that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, Russia and Zimbabwe. The point of a country – Dudley says – is to create a strong economy and stable environment for business. And a newly minted Scotland isn’t going to help with that. So there’s no point in doing it.

But there’s someone else who should be brought into the discussion. The ancient Athenian statesman Pericles.

Nationalism can be very helpful – so long as its good

Pericles is the defender of good nationalism. His argument is that we often don’t how to behave well, we don’t know what sort of people we should be – and that a good country functions as a collective role model of a very important kind. We look at what is ‘normal’ and esteemed in our society (the nation’s ideals) and thereby form our attitudes to family life, kindness and money. The nation guides our ideas of right and wrong: how much to approve of violence, bigotry or greed, how much weight to give to charity or patience. We are social animals and are therefore hugely susceptible to the cues sent by our environment. Ideas of how one should behave and feel influence us to the core. Nationalism illustrates the power of social pressure.

Obviously, influence can head in disastrous directions. But if a country can shape people badly then it must necessarily also possess the power to shape them well. If you can get people to maltreat a minority, or loathe people they’ve never met, think what can be done when a nation is in good hands.

So, for example, in Holland social pressure encourages people to ride bicycles (despite the fact that it rains a lot) in a stylish and safe manner. In France, it leads young people to drink only in moderation and to respect philosophy. In Italy, social pressure helps families spend more time together over dinner. In Japan, it encourages children to do their homework. In Germany, credit card debt is seriously frowned upon. In Brazil, there is an expectation you will be patient with delays and not feel your life is falling apart if a train is late or a plumber does not turn up at the appointed time.

The big question is not actually whether Scotland should be independent or not. But, rather, if it is independent, what kind of country could it become? There are many different answers, some wonderful; others very depressing.

Robert the Bruce, brilliant at fighting the English – but not the best role model nowadays

Let’s consider the depressing ones first: Scottish Nationalism looks a rather sad prospect when it is routed through pride in the Battle of Bannockburn, haggis and long-haired men draped in tartan shouting at football matches, that is, when it stokes aggression and encourages aggrieved defensiveness.

It isn’t just the Scottish economy that’s at stake, it’s Scottish psychology

The one that excites us here, predictably, is a little different. A national ideal is not entirely flexible. There are some constraints set by weather, traditions, history. Scotland can’t reinvent itself as a nation of barbeques and surfing or as the home of wine-making and al-fresco dining. However, it could very plausibly invent itself as a society based around values like reason, dignity, and grace – with Edinburgh as the capital taking back its old 18th century name, the Athens of the North. David Hume and Adam Smith would be its heroes (which doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they said). With Edinburgh’s New Town as its inspiration, the new country would place great and graceful urban architecture at the core of its identity.

Edinburgh New Town: there would be a New New Town

A future Scottish government would use every means to promote its updated version of Athenian ideals – the finest architecture, museums and public art and a national broadcaster with high ideals.

The issue of nationalism arises right now in relation to Scotland. But in fact, it applies to all countries who are contemplating independence or merely thinking through what their national identity is. History is so full of examples of bad nationalism, we forget that the real focus of debate shouldn’t be about whether to go it alone or not. It should be about how to create a national identity that can help citizens to grow into the best versions of themselves.