Sunday, March 30, 2014

The dangers of nationalism

Patriotism, as we know, is the last refuge of a scoundrel or, as Oscar Wilde put it, the “Virtue of the Vicious”. And yet still today there is patriotic tub-thumping on, it seems, every occasion. And we even have a political Party, UKIP, and a wing of the Conservative party predicated on what they see as patriotic principles.

Some patriotism is benign if a bit daft (worship of the Monarchy) and some rather engaging (support for sporting teams which represent the Nation). But when patriotism is blind and when it is strongly negative about those who are seen as not being of our tribe it becomes dangerous. This is when Patriotism becomes Nationalism.

“My Country right or wrong” that jingoistic aphorism is the war cry (often literally) of nationalism. We saw it at its most venal during the Falklands war. Nationalism from the Argentinians when they invaded the Falklands and nationalism from Britain when we took them back. Was the shedding of so much blood really worth it to take a nationalistic stand to either annex (Argentina) or recover (Britain) some sparsely-populated dull and distant islands just because the Union Flag flew there and a couple of thousand vaguely British types lived there? One combatant was to die, and three times as many were to be injured, for every two Falkland Islanders in this absurd nationalistic adventure.

Whilst the situation in Gibraltar is not so lethal (two EU powers are hardly likely to come to blows over such a territorial dispute) the case has similarities. Gibraltar is part of Spain geographically but was taken by force by Britain 300 years ago. The case for British sovereignty, as with The Falklands, is legally strong but it is so archaic and anachronistic that it needs urgent review. It is worth remembering that Britain had sovereignty in perpetuity over Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Only the New Territories had to be handed back to China in 1997. But Real Politick determined that the whole Territory was handed to China – the idea that some nationalistic fervour should have caused Britain to dig its heels in and try and hold on Hong Kong is absurd

The cases of The Falklands and Gibraltar are not dissimilar to that of Hong Kong. In both cases only a misplaced and out-of-date nationalism makes Britain hold on to them. But what about the people I hear you cry? Don't they have rights? Indeed they do. But if we could put nationalism in its guise of “Sovereignty” off the table the problem would be solvable. Britain could concede sovereignty to Argentina and to Spain but lease the territoires back for say a hundred years and co-jointly with the sovereign power undertake to protect the interests of the residents of the two territories. Britain would confirm that these people would have full British nationality and Argentina and Spain would grant them self governance. The Argentinian and Spanish flags would fly, but the people of the territories would run the places. That is what happened in Hong Kong (the British nationality aside, shamefully) and it works!  

The history of the twentieth century was one of clashes of nationalisms. The most evil of the various ideologies – Fascism and the  “Communist” totalitarianism of the Soviet Union and China - were selectively countered by the democratic West. Hitler was defeated militarily, as he had to be, but the not much less evil and no less nationalistic Stalin was an ally. The United States disastrous adventures in Vietnam and in the twenty-first century in  Iraq and Afghanistan were carried out under the nationalistic banner of the “Stars and Stripes”. The dangerous and unquestionably nationalistic dogma of American and “allied” Neo-Conservatism caused untold misery and distress – and it still does.

The very basis of Nationalism requires us to define the Nation we promote or defend. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is nationalistic in that he declares, with some justification let it be said, that Crimea and the Crimeans are Russian. In essence this has been welcomed by Crimea because they see themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian and the decided that they couldn't be both, so they chose Russia.

Which brings me to Scotland. The de facto Scottish National Anthem, “Flower of Scotland” contains the following lines:

“Those days are passed now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again
That stood against him
Proud Edward's army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again”

The key words here are “We can still rise now, And be a nation again”. Nominally this refers to Bannockburn (1314) but in fact, of course, it is to a Scottish Nationalist equally applicable today. Many of them will mean when they sing it be an independent nation again. Only with a positive (“Yes” vote) outcome to the referendum to be held in September 2014 will, they believe, this occur.

Scotland is a Country, historically and actually and nobody would question that. If “Nation” is used as a synonym for “Country” then Scotland is a nation and there is no need for it to rise and become one. It already is! But the word that takes the argument one step further is “State”. Here we are talking about governance and in that respect Scotland is only partly a “State”, but mostly not. It has a Parliament but that is effectively a regional assembly because it is, or could be made to be, subordinate to the Parliament of the United Kingdom – which is the “State” to which Scotland belongs, of which it is a constituent part.

The question that the Scottish voters will be answering in September is:

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The key word here is, of course, “independent”. For the Scottish citizen however it is rather more complex than that. It is essentially a nationalistic question. He or she is being asked whether they wish to give up their British citizenship and exchange it for a Scottish one. But trim away the citizenship issue and if we must accept that Scotland cannot be a “Nation State” within the United Kingdom. It can be, as it is, a “Country” within the UK and arguably also a “Nation” – but it cannot be a State without being independent.

Scots have two choices. The status quo under which they are (mostly) residents of and emotionally connected to Scotland as well as being citizens, not of Scotland, but of the UK. They are Scottish as well as British. That's choice one. Choice two sees the Scots breaking all governance links with the rest of the United Kingdom and in this case “Country”, “Nation”, and “Nation State” would become synonymous.

It is not for nothing that the SNP are “Scottish Nationalists” – it is the rawest form of Nationalism to seek to be independent. This is very similar to the pitch of UKIP regarding the UK and Europe. UKIP believes that all decisions in respect of the governance of Britain should be taken in Britain, not in Brussels. The SNP believes the same about Scotland and the UK - Edinburgh not London.

Those of us who abhor nationalism, especially in a British context, would argue that the interdependence of Nation States these days makes it inconceivable that Britain should not be a member of the European Union. Is the EU a “SuperState” as critics charge? Well yes up to a point it is. But do the French or the Italians or the Germans feel any less French, Italian or German because their countries  are also members of the EU. I very much doubt it! And nor should we. Similarly I see no problem with Scots being proudly Scottish and proudly British at the same them. There is no anomaly here. Britain is an entity that was arguably as much created by the Scots as it was by the English (and the Welsh and some of the Irish as well of course). But that is for the Scots to decide. Back to patriotism. Can you be patriotically Scottish and patriotically British at the same time. Of course you can. Look at Andy Murray, or Chris Hoy. Can you be a British Nationalist and a Scottish Nationalist at the same time? No. And my hope is that none of us will want to be either of these things. Nationalism has left too many war graves around the world, led to too much slaughter of the innocents and is inclusive and profoundly dangerous – as history teaches us.


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