Brexit has changed everything. This seemingly simple referendum on our membership of a trading club has had effects much larger than many had anticipated. These are not just simple economic effects, the strength of the Pound or the change in our GDP, but major political and social changes as well. Our ‘two party’, ‘First Past the Post” parliamentary system has creaked and groaned with the strain of trying to contain the effects. The two major parties have lost their support bases and also their raison d’etre and at the same time the public has witnessed just how tawdry and self-serving the whole mess has become.

However, perhaps the biggest change is that the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom itself no longer appears improbable. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will vote to secede from the Union, Northern Ireland may consider that a way to remain in the E.U. is to reunite, and following shocks such as these the increasingly ‘indy-curious’ Wales may follow suite. As an opponent of Big Government I will be happy to see all, or any, of these changes. However, while I share the joy of the nationalists in recent events, I am still rather reluctant to consider myself a signed up nationalist.

Nations have been created over the great span of history. While it is true that they represent some common interests such as language, culture or even kinship the main motive force in their generation has been power and authority. Wars and revolts have been fought to draw lines on maps which define nations and state who controls what happens in certain patches of land. This was obvious when it was King against King but it is no less true when it is State against State. Nations are there to define the edges of power; to say who controls what happens where.

However, any boundaries which we create should not be based on power and authority they should be based on assistance and support. Our instincts are to live in communities not political structures or economies. People naturally find ways to band together to their mutual benefit and to share common interests and goals. Such groupings are natural and should be supported. If people of a certain language, or religion, or cultural practice want to voluntarily band together then, as long as they don’t infringe on others, they should be encouraged in their mutual venture. The smaller these communities are, the more democratic they are; as each individuals voice carries a greater weight. Further, as they are voluntary people can vote with their feet if they see changes in their chosen community which they can’t tolerate. Nations tend not to be voluntary. Entry to and exit from the nation tends to be controlled and nation states tend to enforce their view of the national culture on any dissenting members.

Whenever nationhood affords a smaller block for democratic organization this is usually a good thing. If nations seek to expand their areas of control this is universally bad. This is the question for nationalists. Does your vision of nationhood bring democracy closer to people, make the demos a smaller group, and reduce the power and authority that others have over people ? If it does, then your nationalism may be beneficial. Are you also happy that, once nationhood is established, the people may decide that an even smaller unit for self governance makes more sense (e.g. “North Wales”, “Y Fro Gymraeg”, “The Shetlands”, “Yorkshire”, “Gaeltacht”) ? If your answer is not ‘yes’ to this then you are missing the point; you are just redrawing lines on maps rather than expanding peoples’ freedom.

If your view of your nation is monolithic and you see it as something good in itself you are following a dangerous path. There will be the risks that you will enforce your views on the national culture, or tongue, or religion on all those who live in your newly defined patch. There is the danger that you will see yourself as better than others who have the misfortune not to live in your nation and, finally, there is the danger that you might think you have the right or duty to export your nation’s benefits to your neighbours whether they want them or not.

So the question for nationalists is easy. Do you want to take a big power structure and break it down into smaller pieces, or, do you want to take your small nation and make if bigger and stronger ?

If it is the former then go ahead and get on with it but remember once you have created a smaller national group there may be scope for further reductions (counties, cantons, districts) which you should also embrace.

If it is the latter, an urge for a stronger bigger nation, then stop ! Remember it was precisely this drive for power and expanded authority which lead you to want to fight for your nation in the first place. You needed to throw off the yoke of another’s power, don’t start fashioning another yoke for others.

It has been said that “Small is beautiful” and there is truth in this statement. In the age of globalization nations can be the smaller building blocks which allow us to build a better future, but sometimes nations themselves can be too large and need to be broken down into smaller, more beautiful communities. I remain a nationalist but only in as far as I am an anti-imperialist, anything more starts to become rather risky.

3 thoughts on “A simple test for nationalists.

  1. Excellent reflections on the topic. I am afraid that right now nationalism has been conflated with racism and antiSemitism. Connecticut actually is still organized around its 169 towns. Despite efforts to join together to reduce costs for municipal services, there has been little progress. I appreciate the police forces being just local, not regional. They seem to have a very specific understanding of the town they serve. Coming from a large city with one police force, I find this smaller, localized force much more helpful.

  2. I’m wondering if “nationalism” has a different connotation or meaning in Scotland than it does in the United States? In the U.S., it has taken on some definite racial overtones. It sounds like in this post, it refers to the individual countries wanting to separate from the U.K.?

    1. Yes, here in Europe most nationalists (Scots, Welsh, Irish, catalan, basque, etc) are grips trying to reestablish old boundaries. Similar in Africa and the old east. However, there can also be aspects of racism which get carried along with these liberation movements

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