Nationalism: why it’s a retrograde step in history
Andrew Wills is a dry-stone wall builder and film editor. At the Anderson High School he was cut a great deal of slack by Geordie Jamieson, and, like so many others, was inspired by the late Donald Campbell. Andrew then went on to study music technology at Rose Bruford College in London. After a stint as a video editor, and as an English teacher and volunteer overseas, he returned to Shetland in 2002 to work for Shetland Television, the Adult Literacy Service and Seabirds-and-Seals, to teach at Shetland College and to learn how to build dry-stone walls from Jim Keddie. From 2004 to 2013 he lived full time in the Czech Republic, and now divides his time between Prague and Shetland.
The theory of nationality, known since the late 19th century as nationalism, argues that the nation is a desirable unit of political administration of sovereign states.
In contemporary Europe its advocates typically campaign for the partition of multination-states to form small nation-states. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm the term Kleinstaaterei, or “small-state-ism”, has always been pejorative.
This must be due in part to the fact that small states cannot defend their own interests or maintain control of their affairs at times of international crisis. They require the protection of an international order, and when
that order beaks down, as all such orders do sooner or later, small states are left in urgent need of economic and/or military help from larger states.
Newly seceded European nation-states may lose their independence to the bureaucrats, diplomats or conquering armies of superior powers, depending upon prevailing geo-political conditions. The smaller a state is, and the later it joins, the more independence it must relinquish to become a member of the EU, but the EU cannot be a final guarantor of security, because it is an international order, not a state.
Great military alliances such as NATO seem to guarantee security, until one of their members is attacked, at which point a major war is likely, because all other members are legally bound to take military action. The best guarantor of security through the centuries is a large multination-state like the UK.
Every time a multination-state has been partitioned into smaller nation-states, in Europe since 1900, there has followed a deepening of racial and sectarian divisions, or xenophobia. Contemporary “civic” nationalists may also be true anti-racists and multiculturalists, in their own hearts and minds, but in practice their project of making their nation a state destroys the conditions that are most conducive to cultural freedom and pluralism.
This is because, across society, national sentiment in Europe is not purely civic, but also includes inextricable elements of religion, history, territory, language, ethnicity and culture. Therefore making the nation and state commensurate, in the form of a nation-state, intensifies conflict in society over exactly which ethnic, sectarian, etc., identity is truly national.
In a larger, multination-state, patriotic loyalty to the state implies no specific national affiliation, so ethnicity, religion, language, etc., tend to be relatively depoliticised. This is not to say that there are no sectarian or inter-ethnic divisions in European multination-states, only that when such states are partitioned on nationalist lines, their divisions are invariably worsened.
20th-century examples of this include the intensification of the repression of the Sami people through “Norwegianisation” after the partition of the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the ban on immigration into Denmark soon after the partition of the Kingdom of Denmark to form the Kingdom of Iceland, conflict in Northern Ireland after partition and the condition of ethnic minorities there to this day, the fires of racist nationalism raging through eastern Europe in the 1920s and 30s after the partition of Austria-Hungary into a lot of small nation-states, the classification of many Russian-speakers as non-citizens without voting rights in independent Estonia, the denial of citizenship to many Roma people after the partition of Czechoslovakia, the inter-ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and ethnic tensions in the Swedish city of Malmo – which have led to the departure of 60 per cent of its Jewish population in recent years.
As far as I know, there is no racism at all among mainstream nationalist politicians in Scotland today, or among the majority of their supporters. I believe they are decent people who are honestly mistaken about the consequences of national secession.
Scotland has no immunity from the forces of European history, but I don’t think anybody would expect the increased social tensions caused by nationalist secession to find expression here in the enactment by the state of repressive measures against minorities.
Rather, our history points to their informal expression through the increased social exclusion of sectarian minorities, street violence, and the racist bullying of south-spoken children in Scottish schools. We have made great progress in Scotland in the fight against sectarianism, but 23 per cent of Scots describing themselves as Catholic still live in deprived areas, whereas for those identifying with the Church of Scotland the figure is 12 per cent.
Violence associated with Orange Order marches has increased every year since 2003, and last year the Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney stated that Scotland is a hostile place for Catholics. I cannot see how anyone who has tried to learn the lessons of 20th-century European history could conclude that the partition of the United Kingdom on nationalist lines might help us to solve these problems in Scotland.
Surprisingly, some advocates of independence for Scotland think that they can campaign and vote for it without being nationalists. They can’t. However laudable or otherwise their political aims, if they seek to achieve them by making state boundaries coincide with national boundaries, they are nationalists.
Faced with this stark fact, liberal-minded nationalists often attempt to divert attention away from the poisonous effects of nationalism in 20th-century Europe, by holding up examples of “national” liberation struggles in South America, Africa or Asia.
This lacks historical sense. Unlike early-19th century Bolivia, Scotland is part of a democratic multination-state. The unifying programmes of Gandhi and Mandela were so fundamentally different from nation-splitting nationalism in Europe that it is misleading to use the same term to describe them. It is here in Europe that Scottish voters must look for precedents.
The Crimea is very close to Scotland, and we need to make sure that we know as much as possible about the people who live there before we vote in the independence referendum. Since the beginning of the EU, no existing member state has ever been partitioned.
If an independent Scotland were granted favourable EU membership conditions, that would establish a precedent which Wales, Northern Ireland, Jutland, Catalonia, The Basque Country, Wallonia, parts of northern Italy, Corsica and some others of the 30-or-more European movements for nationalist secession, might seek to follow.
The prospect of such a series of precedents emerging in western Europe must alarm the heads of government in EU member states in eastern Europe, because they know that by normalising secession, it would increase the plausibility of potential claims by Russia to, for example, predominantly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Estonia. They cannot prevent the first domino falling. They cannot interfere in the process of Scotland’s internal democratic constitutional settlement. So what power do they have?
The answer is simple: they sit on the European Council with the leaders of western-European EU member states. That council has the power to decide, by a simple majority vote, whether to accept or reject any proposal to renegotiate an independent Scotland’s relationship with the EU under article 48 of the Treaties of the European Union. If such a proposal were rejected, Scotland would have no option but to reapply as a prospective new member under article 49.
It is hard to imagine that EU heads of government would vote for renegotiation under article 48, thus setting an attractive precedent for the partition of the very states they lead. To the contrary, they would have every incentive to force Scotland to reapply, to revoke existing benefits, such as the UK’s EU rebate, and to impose such awkward and disadvantageous terms as might discourage their own nationalist secessionists.
The Schengen agreement might be imposed on Scotland, obliging us to establish passport controls on the border with England. Every new EU member state must now adopt the Euro. I see no reason to think that the European Council would make a special exception for Scotland.
What a gift to unionist leaders in Spain the opening of such negotiations would be! The harder they squeezed the Scottish fishing industry, the more they would gain for the Spanish fleet, and the further from reality all prospect of Catalonian secession would recede.
No mainstream politician in Scotland will take responsibility for removing us from the EU, because they know that the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people depend upon the investment that EU membership attracts. In the end, independent Scotland’s representatives would have to accept the terms dictated by the Council of Europe.
The way to solve problems in large multination-states like the UK is to democratise the state through devolution, not to partition it.
Eric Hobsbawm’s book Nations and Nationalism since 1780 is the source of many of the insights that inspired me to write this piece.