Five hundred and twenty six years ago we were at war. I say “we” because I happen to live on a scrap of ground that was, in 1490, part of the nation of MacLeod of Dunvegan. I say “nation” because that is what it was: land populated by people who lived under the rule of law administered by a central power.
Our adversary was the nation of MacDonald of Sleat. There is some dispute as to whether the Battle of Glendale was actually fought in 1490 but regardless of the date, the death of hundreds of men on the hills around Loch Pooltiel was a grandstand event that epitomises centuries of cross-border thieving, murder and territorial dispute that once plagued these beautiful islands on the edge of the Atlantic ocean.
This was the twighlight of the Hebridean micro-nations. The slow absorption of the MacLeod and MacDonald power bases into the nation of Scotland began at the start of the 16th century, just as a hundred years later the Kingdom of Scotland itself began to be absorbed into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The people who made their homes in the clachan of the 1490s where The Boatshed now stands would have lived lives of insularity and hardship. Survival would have been a perpetual battle against hunger, weather, disease, back-breaking labour, and routine violence. Those of us who live on the former lands of MacLeod 500 years later enjoy material comforts, peace and security that are beyond the imagination of our 15th century predecessors.
These blessings came to us not because “we” the people of the nation of MacLeod developed the technology and bureaucracy on which modern life has been built. Had we remained in 15th century isolation “we” would still be grubbing a subsistence living from the land and sea, routinely dying from sepsis, measles and slit throats. The dissolution of our little nation pulled us into the wider world where we participate in, and benefit from, developments in technology and society that have made life on earth so much more tolerable than a local struggle for survival.
Being absorbed into the nation of Scotland was a painful process for the people who came before me on the land of MacLeod. So too was Scotland being absorbed into the UK, and so too is the process of post-imperial Britain being absorbed into Europe and the rest of the world. But despite the pain, the results of these centuries of co-mingling of cultures are truly astonishing. Peace and plenty abound across more than half the planet, and are within view for most of the rest. All that is required is more vision, more compassion, more collaboration.
In the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 I heard a lot about how “we” should break free from the foreign power that controls us. I am hearing exactly the same thing from those supporting the Leave campaign as the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union approaches. The “we” in 2014 were the people who happened to live on the Scottish side of the border. The “we” of the Leave campaign are the people who happen to live in the UK. In both cases, for both sets of enthusiasts, it is the nation state that defines who “we” are and where the boundaries of democracy legitimately lie.
But the borders that define Scotland and the UK today are the result of multiple accidents of bloody history. The idea that the millions of people who happen to reside on one side these arbitrary lines form some sort of cohesive, democratic “us” is illogical. The cultural, social and economic diversity of communities within Scotland alone renders this notion of nation absurd, never mind the rest of the UK. And when we consider the remote centralised autocratic elites that presume to govern us the whole concept of nation as the natural unit of democracy crumbles.
The very idea of nation is oppressively anti-democratic. What is a nation other than a heavy grey blanket thrown over a random piece of territory by those who seek to control it? What of the people who live beyond the blanket? They are excluded from engaging democratically with their blanketed neighbours, excluded from the benefits of collaboration. Nation is all about exclusion, exceptionalism and control. Nationalism is the rhetoric that builds faith in the righteousness of the nation state and the exceptionalism of its inhabitants, which is a cheap and easy way of keeping the nation’s subjects in line, keeping them keen to do the bidding of those who exercise control.
When we take the trouble to poke our heads out from under the blanket of nationalism we see that human history has contrived, by accident or design, to shrink the world. The horizons of the descendants of MacLeod have expanded beyond the Hebrides until they circle the globe. And now we see the truth of our existence: co-habitees of a tiny island planet with limited resources, floating all alone in a vast unfathomable universe.
The only logical response to this knowledge is global co-operation and collaboration. The only legitimate “we” is humanity, as a whole, and the only meaningful work is that which helps our neighbour, and their children’s children, to live in peace and prosperity so that they can do the same for us and ours. Withdrawing behind the lines of imaginary national borders and seeking advantage over those who are on the outside is not only morally wrong, it is stupidly, idiotically impractical.
There were glimmers of ideas for an independent Scotland that might have, in time, developed into better ways of managing our contribution to the business of making the world as a whole a better place: voting Yes was not necessarily about nationalism. But the Leave campaign is all about petty, selfish, insular exclusion that drags us drearily backwards towards the 15th century.
The European Union is never going to be perfect. It will always annoy you in one way or another but it is the biggest and best example of peaceful collaboration that the world has ever seen and to withdraw from it because you don’t like immigrants or bureaucracy is tragically myopic, not least because there will always be immigration and there will always be bureaucracy regardless of whether we’re in or out of the EU.
The European Union is not about bureaucracy or immigration or fat cats or gravy trains or bent cucumbers. It’s about pushing humanity forward to the point where “we” includes everyone, where all of us are able to concentrate on making our future on the planet peaceful and secure. It’s about ridding the world of the insanity of war and the fear of want.
I know, it sometimes feels like we’re never going to get there, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction. In 1490s Skye the fear of getting your throat cut in the night while you slept was very real. Such fear is now unthinkable because the micro-nations of the clans and their competing claims of exceptionalism have long ceased to exist. Over the last 500 years the idea of inclusive peaceful international democracy has taken root around the world, and its greatest manifestation is to be found within the European Union where a shared history of national conflict has been replaced by a shared vision of a peaceful, prosperous future.
Please don’t be a nationalist neanderthal. Turn out to vote on the 23rd of June, and vote to remain a member of the EU.