Nationalism is a problematic ideology. Much like religion, it does, on one hand, offer identity and the ability to unify a subset of people with a common cause, but of course that will always be outweighed by the larger divisions that are necessarily also manufactured. Divisions within peoples, and divisions between peoples. Nationalism will pit against each other those who are of the same colour, speak the same language, and share a common history. Examples of such tension currently include Scotland and the rest of the UK, or depending on the context, between the Scots and the English specifically, and indeed also between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
Beyond the places with active independence movements, though, rifts can still be seen between the former West and East Germanys, and also between certain former Yugoslav republics. The former is perhaps a nationalism that harks back to a now defunct state, whereas the latter was, in part, destroyed by nationalist-based divisions. Indeed, another supra-national entity under threat is the EU, with populism an ever-present danger. Perhaps history will judge Brexit to be the result of an English nationalist illusion.
Perhaps an important lesson is that borders don’t constrain peoples. Borders are, in a sense, artificial constructs, and defining who an individual is and where they come from is a purely bureaucratic endeavour. Individuals will self-identify in infinitely varying ways, regardless of their passport, and for some, regardless of where they were born or where they currently reside. National identity can be as complex and as arbitrary as international borders.
That in mind, in a practical sense, it becomes hard to isolate a specific national identity from a wider identity and to reconcile that with the idea of self-determination of peoples. You can back the notion of self-determination for the Scots, and by extension you might also back the idea of Scottish Independence, but in reality, Scots live everywhere and Scotland is populated by people from everywhere. Nationalism is a tool used by independence supporters, just like nationalism has been used throughout history to justify all sorts of different divisions, but in the end, nationality is more abstract than geography. It means more to people than geography, but it’s ultimately less important. I am Scottish, but I’ve lived in England for 10 of the last 12 years, so my national identity is emotional but not practical. We are citizens of where we live.
So, there can be no self-determination for the Scots or the Catalans as peoples, but merely independence for the parliaments of Scotland and Catalonia from those in Westminster and Madrid, whilst bearing in mind that both aspire to dependence on the parliament in Brussels. While I do believe these positions are nonetheless valid, the undercurrents of the independence movements are driven by nationalism which I believe to be a false premise. It could perhaps be beneficial for these movements to be framed less by identity and more on democracy. Areas with divergent thinking should be able to apply divergent policy that suits their needs. For example, Scotland needs immigration, but its needs are outweighed by the wants of the electorate in England.
The democratic right of the people to choose the future of the place where they reside should be upheld; not just by the relevant sovereign states but also by supra-national organisations such as but not limited to the European Union. That means Scotland should not be forced to re-apply for EU membership if it should vote to leave the UK. That also means European law should allow for the evolution of internal borders by the means of legally-binding referendums — Spain should not be able to block Catalonia from holding such a poll, but rather it should be compelled to facilitate it and ensure that it is free, fair, and conducted according to the laws of the land.
Developed nations have rarely divided but if we’re to accept that democracy is paramount, we have to allow populations to decide, and we have to ensure smooth and peaceful transitions. Moreover, hierarchical localisation of power should be encouraged, within wider frameworks of cooperation. The EU, the eurozone, and Schengen are worth protecting but we’ll need to start defining the European project as a confederation of independent states. A United States of Europe is never going to be flexible enough to accommodate its diverse populace and their ever-changing needs, opinions, and identities.
If we make it possible, however, for areas within the EU to combine and divide over time, then we may see more sovereign states and new confederations. Belgium and Spain are likely candidates, solving long-running tensions. The evolution of the UK into a confederation would have been an ideal solution to the current divergences but I believe Brexit is more likely to cause different outcomes: an independent Scotland within the EU and a united Ireland. If the EU is to survive, it needs to embrace and promote constitutional change with the overarching theme of democracy.
Graham's blog: politics, poetry, and introspection