Monday, 27 April 2015

Nationalism, for Good

A friend writes from London,"I don't like nationalism." He is not alone. Conservatives and Labour campaigned in the Referendum against nationalism, saying that Scotland should play a responsible role within one united kingdom.

Should we be concerned? Is nationalism wrong?

It is certainly all around us. When people complain about the EU - " Brussels imposing its regulations on us" - they are being nationalist. They are defining themselves ("us") in terms of a nation (the UK) and using that feeling of cultural connection to differentiate us from the grey men and women of Brussels. When Britain goes to war in the Malvinas or in Iraq, its people are being nationalist. War is the ultimate expression of a nationalism in which people die to preserve their idea of the nation.  English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish soldiers and sailors died in the Malvinas defending a notion of 'nation' that extended 8,000 miles south of Plymouth.

'Nationalism' is a word with difficult associations that connect it to good and evil. We can all agree that the Fascist nationalism of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was evil. But we might now feel that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was a good thing, even if it started off waging a war on South Africa. Less extreme but similarly divisive, many would condemn the right-wing Liga del Norte while praising the left-wing SNP.

So is there an acceptable form of nationalism? Can we identify with a nation without condemning others' nations as the enemy?

We live in a different context than George Orwell or Karl Marx, both of whom railed against nationalism.  We live in a part of the world in which small nations have less power than they did when Orwell or Marx were writing. Less power to do bad, and less to do good. Here in Europe we have shared the power of the nation with our fellow members of the EU. All sorts of powers over legislation (as the UKIP nationalists wail) have been shipped from London to Brussels. The scope for a new nation to move - in areas from employment law to consumer protection - is limited by the EU. We are members of the UN and WHO, signatories of the Geneva Convention, and members of a raft of international organisations up to and including the International Telecommunications Union. All of these bodies restrict the movements of the nation. We are also members of NATO, a marriage in which the pledge "for better, for worse" has a death knell.

And then there are the less accountable alliances. When we search on Google, talk on Skype, drink the warm brown stuff in Starbucks or have a drone delivery from Amazon we are outwith our nation because these businesses have demonstrated that you can be above the nation and above its taxation. No small nation can expect, unless it is willing to join North Korea in the isolation ward, to stop its citizens searching on Google. This is why it takes a supra-national power, in this case the EU, to do battle with a supra-national company and its monopoly abuses. We have supra-national companies, and we have supra-national people; non-doms and UHNWIs, people with wealth managers skilled in using tax havens to ensure that their clients pay the minimum in taxation.

We live in a new world order in which power is increasingly supra-national. Some of these powers are benign, some are not. The benign powers (despite UKIP we can consider the EU to be broadly benign) provide a framework in which nations and communities can operate. Scotland as a nation state within the EU would be constrained. It could not fill its factories with child labour, or put lead in its petrol, or discriminate against women in the job market. Ironically as a new signatory to the UN, another broadly benign supra-national power, it could not have the atom bomb.

Nationalism within the EU can be a force for good, bringing those powers we still do retain under subsidiarity to a government closer to you, a government that has your interests at heart, not those of South East England.

This controlled form of nationalism is not new. The Principality of Andorra was created in 1278 with a constitution that has the President of France and the Catalan Bishop of Urgell as its joint leaders. Andorra is a small nation state that can't afford to annoy either of its neighbours, so it has opted to keep them both onside. People from Andorra know that they are Andorran, and carry a passport to prove it. They have their own parliament and laws, and so feel represented in a way that they would not if they were governed from Paris or Madrid.

Logically there is no geographic limit to this controlled nationalism. If, say, Auchterarder decided to create its own nation state then it could - because the extent that the new Auchterarder National Congress would have for changing the laws would be very, very limited. The Auchterarder National Bank would not be able to move interest rates far from those set in Threadneedle Street. And Auchterarder border police would, definitely, allow free access to UK passport holders.

Being a modern European nationalist is to be a pragmatist, not an idealist. Scotland as a nation state, a member of the EU, of the UN, of NATO, a new signatory of the Geneva Convention... An independent Scotland could look after its people, its poor, better than Westminster ever has but it could not realistically go against the broad and powerful currents of the European Union. But neither can the UK, a modest little island lost in the fog on the Channel.

Perhaps nationalism, like capitalism, works well when it is properly regulated. Nationalism within the EU can be safe for its citizens; member states have not declared war on each other since its creation, after centuries of European land wars.

Properly regulated, nationalism can revive democracy just as it has in the last 12 months in Scotland. It can bring government back to the people, using politics to improve a society in which it is embedded, a local, national society.

This is modern Scottish nationalism, and it is good.

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