In an article in Forth magazine, I argue for an alternative to nationalism that goes back to the roots of democracy:
AS A political doctrine, nationalism has been remarkably successful. A peculiar combination of Enlightenment philosophy and Romantic sentiment, it binds an abstract ideal (the nation) into the machine of government. The development of an identity shared among people who may never meet in their lives was the key to its success, as it enabled the ancient Greek ideas of democracy to take root in political systems much larger than the town square of the polis.
Nationalism changed all that. The concept of a shared identity beyond the city walls, embracing strangers living days distant, was a liberating and empowering innovation. Despite a largely failed initial experiment in France, the power of the national ideal was too strong for Europe’s petty states and empires alike. Some of its earliest triumphs were constructive, such as the unifications of Germany and Italy. Later, it entered a phase of creative destruction as defeated European empires were carved up into new nation-states. Its apotheosis was the UN Charter and the subsequent dissolution of the British and French empires and (belatedly) Soviet-influenced sphere.
One might be tempted to conclude that nationalism is therefore in rude health. On the contrary, it is running out of steam. In the West, the easy gains were made long ago. There is no longer any widespread resistance to the idea of national independence, so most nations that could easily declare independence have already done so. The national independence conflicts today are for the most part internecine arguments that have more in common with Naseby than Bannockburn. Compare the newsworthy independence movements of fifty years
ago – India, Algeria, Cuba – with those of today. Who doubts that if Scotland voted for independence it would be granted? The obstacle is not English intransigence, but that Scots themselves are unconvinced. Independence movements rumble on in certain quarters, but their grassroots support has in most cases withered. The wicked hegemon is not what he used to be.
In other parts of the world, the concept of nationhood itself is weak. Most African states are multinational – when the colonial empires collapsed under their own price tags, each administrative unit was given its independence with scant regard to the shared qualities of nationalism, such as language, religion and culture. Ethnic patchworks in parts of Africa are as complex as the Balkans or the Caucasus, and not well understood in the wider world. India shares a majority religion and a history of being unified under successive empires, but does not form a nation that any European would recognise. China shares qualities of both nation and empire.
And in Europe itself, nation-states that found themselves overshadowed by the superpowers in the Cold War are in the process of voluntarily giving up some of the prized spoils of their independence, in search of the one thing that a small, independent nation-state can never have: economy of scale.
So is nationalism dead? Far from it. It is, however, approaching the limits of its usefulness. There is a flawed assumption at the heart of the nationalist project. Nations, based on individual self-identification, are entitled to self-determination, but political power in the modern world is exercised by states, based on territory. Where the nation that requests power can be assumed to reside in a contiguous territory on which to base a new state, nationalism provides for a remarkably accountable form of government. Where this assumption
does not hold, the consequences are varying shades of dire. The impossible ideal of the nation-state will inevitably find followers willing to place it above trifling matters such as human rights. Representative democracy gives them power, and the people are duly altered to better fit the perfect theory. Minorities are either declared non-existent (as in Turkish Kurdistan), disenfranchised (pre-Civil Rights Northern Ireland), or purged (Bosnia).
Representative democracy, human rights and nation-states are thus in general mutually exclusive – you can have any two, but cannot guarantee all three. The old Stormont system was fairly democratic and approximated a nation-state, but at the cost of the human rights of those who did not ‘belong’. Now we have improved human rights, but because the political parties still cling to the nation-state ideal, democracy has had to be compromised instead. If one is lucky enough to live in a land where the nationalist assumption applies, then
the choice doesn’t have to be made. But if the assumption does not apply, the question is stark: which one of democracy, human rights or nationalism is least important? The choice is not hard to make, and the nation-state must therefore be abandoned. Some parts of the world may never be part of a true nation-state.
And yet, it cannot be denied that self-determination works. Decisions are best made as close to the citizen as possible, and the perennial tendency for power to be centralised in the name of efficiency must be counterbalanced. The plucky nation-state in defence of its rights is quite capable of doing so, but what of the rest? How to build common cause among those that share a location but not a culture? There is of course a clue in history.
The Greek polis was a small unit – a city and its surrounding farms, the economic building block of its day. Thanks to advances in communications and transport, the modern equivalent is much larger – the commuter belt. It is the area within which people willingly travel on a daily basis, within which there is a chance of regular interaction, within which friendships are made. If the binding force of the nation is culture, the binding force of the polis is location. Where the nation has language, the polis has buildings. Where the nation has music, the polis has parks. The shared experience is of a different nature, but the binding force is the act of sharing itself.
Those parts of the world where the nation has brought strife might have better luck with the polis. In fact, many small ‘nations’ already have more in common with the polis than they might think. A good case for polishood could be made for the North of Ireland, for example. The lesson to be learned is that the nation is not the only, and certainly not always the most desirable basis for democracy.