By Tomas M. Creamer
Those following things in Europe might have noticed the increasing popularity of nationalism within different regions of the established European states: Scotland in the UK, Catalonia in Spain, Flanders in Belguim, Brittany of France and even Venice in Italy.
There has been an increase in popular support for nationalistic parties of various political hues, from the centre-left orientation of Scottish nationalism to the visibility of elements of the far-right within the Flemish nationalist movement, or even a broad movement spanning the political spectrum, as in Catalonia. For now, let’s focus on the two most obvious examples: Scotland and Catalonia.
Scotland may have rejected independence, but it has witnessed a political awakening unrivalled in the English speaking world. At 85%, turnout for the referendum was the highest for any vote in the English-Speaking world for over 25 years (excluding those with compulsory voting and Quebec: which is French-speaking).
A whole generation of Scots (including 16 and 17 year olds, who got the vote for the first time in British history) have, at least temporarily, been lifted out of political apathy; in no small part due to the energetic grassroots campaign ran by the nationalists. Also, despite the defeat of the nationalists in the polls, there has been a huge surge in membership of the Pro-Independence parties in Scotland since the vote.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) alone has more than tripled in size, growing from under 25,000 members to over 75,000 within 13 days of the vote. Smaller pro-independence parties such as the Scottish Greens have seen similarly dramatic rises. One thing is certain: the Scottish question will not be going away any time soon.
Similarly, the Catalan nationalist movement in Spain has been characterised by mass participation. On the 1th of September, up to 1.5 million Catalans (according to the local police) marched in support of an independent Catalonia. Despite the efforts of the Spanish government to downplay the attendance of this mass demonstration (such as claiming that the attendance was ‘only’ 600,000), the world’s attention rightly was captured by the massive spectacle.
Shortly after, the region’s Premier, Artur Mas called a snap election, so as to gauge public support for a referendum on outright Independence.
In contrast to Scotland, where the SNP is the dominant political force in Scottish nationalism, Catalan nationalism is distributed across the political spectrum in Catalonia. So despite a decline in support for Mas and his party, overall support for the pro-independence parties had risen (and continues to rise), as demonstrated when the leftist and ardently nationalistic ‘Republican Left of Catalonia’ (ERC) almost doubled its support from 7% to just under 14%. And if the European elections last May are any indication, the ERC is now the most popular party in Catalonia, with just under 24% of the popular vote.
At least in Scotland and Catalonia, it is clear that the aspiration for a separate nation state is one shared by many (if not most, at least in Scotland’s case) people within those respective region. This has left me somewhat confused when I would hear the opinion that nationalism is uniformly an archaic, insular, even xenophobic ideology that should have no place in the modern world.
Surely that description could not realistically be applied to 45% of the Scottish population, or to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Catalans that participated in some of the biggest public demonstrations in recent history (and the majority of whom voted for pro-independence parties that could not, at any stretch of the imagination, be constructed as xenophobic)?
On the contrary, it could be argued that nationalism is part and parcel of modernisation. Since the early 20th century, the number of states in the world more than tripled, from less than 60 to around 200 in today’s world. That has partially been from the dissolution of the colonial empires of countries such as that of Britain, but it has also been due to the formation of numerous nation states in Europe such as Hungary, Finland and Ireland.
Due to the emergence of trading blocs such as the EU, and general trade liberalisation via the World Trade Organisation, borders are no longer the barrier to trade or, arguably, migration that they once were. And this actually weakens the argument that a smaller country is doomed to fail due to the lack of a large internal market. Nowadays, countries no long need large internal markets to succeed. So what benefit is it to the likes of Scotland of being part of an internal market of around 60 million when it can trade freely with the rest of the UK as an Independent state anyways.
Despite some who say that the ‘destabilising’ effects of nationalism within established states are a threat to world stability, the biggest danger to world peace and stability has always come from large empires or countries that want to exercise dominance on everyone else. We saw this in the past with Britain and Germany, and we see this today with the actions of China, the USA and in particular Russia.
Far from the world being a safer place with the existence of large, established states, large states that rely on coercion in order to deny the freedom of self-determination to smaller national groups or nations (of which Spain is just about as guilty as Russia) have, historically and up to the present day, been the biggest threat to world peace. Of course, you have terrorist groups like ISIS, but that is not a reasonable excuse to dismiss national groups who wish to control their own affairs.
Some argue that a globalised world, with multinational companies with more revenues than small countries, the sovereignty of smaller states is almost non-existent nowadays. However, is that not one of the reasons that we have the EU: a group of nations that set common standards and floors in order to prevent a race to the bottom?
The challenges of globalisation impact on all nations, big or small, and one of the only realistic solutions to those developments involves some sort of global co-operation between all nations against overly-powerful large corporations. Whether Scotland or Catalonia stay within the UK and Spain or not is not going to make an iota of a difference to that problem, so it’s a moot point, quite frankly.
Modern nationalism in many areas is not about xenophobic ‘ethnic nationalism’. In many respects, it’s no different to the ‘civic nationalism’ promoted by virtually all modern states (whether they like to admit to it or not). The only difference is that these are nations without their own states.