We are accustomed to think that nation-states are the natural political shape of states. Each nation shares a history, an identity, and a language and they therefore have a “natural” affinity to form a stable group. Note that word “natural.” It doesn’t just show up in the grocery aisle. It is a vague term which means something or other positive.
Next year, however, we will be listening hard for election results in Scotland. In September, 2014, the Scots will vote on the referendum to secede from the United Kingdom. The UK was formed in 1707. It is one of the birth dates of the idea of nation-state. The English and the Scots share an island, they share a language, and they share a history.
But do they share an identity? A union of over 300 years will be subject to dissolution with a single vote. What could provoke a rejection of the concept of a nation-state which, after all, formed the great and wealthy British Empire?
If the case of Scotland were unique, we could say that the local water provoked disloyalty to the United Kingdom. However, the rise of local identities and the rejection of some over-arching nation-state identity are rife all over Europe.
A great international event, the XXVth Olympics, was held in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. However, we in the television audience discovered rapidly that Barcelona is in Catalonia and that the Catalans speak a distinct form of the national Spanish language. Street signs were bilingual. Catalans see themselves as a separate group, distinct from other Spaniards.
During the Olympic commentary, we also heard about a break-away group far more aggressive than the Catalans, the Basques. In 2002 they claimed an independent parliament and have in the past resorted to political violence to assert their separateness. The Spain so carefully constructed, our histories tell us, by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the 1400s is restive with numerous smaller groups, micro-nationalists, asserting cultural and even political liberties.
Is France a nation? No one would doubt that construction of a French Republic in the great revolution of 1789 is a signature event in the building of nation-states. Yet today, Normandy, Champagne, and especially the Provence harken back to older identities, pre-revolutionary ones. Kids in the Provence spend grade school years learning the older French, Provencal.
Far more painful and traumatic was the deconstruction of the artificial nation-state of Yugoslavia. Why was it artificial? It was a legal solution created after World War I to govern parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire. It held together during both World War II and the Cold War. But Yugoslavia fissured into micro-nations with far older identities: Serb and Croat, Albanian and Kosovar all claimed unique identities and demanded their own states.
But is any of this comparable to the United Kingdom? Perhaps it is. The Welsh and the Scots have maintained and nurtured traditions and in the Welsh case, language, that pre-dated the 18th century formation of a United Kingdom. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, wants to make a case for independence but relies only on possible financial benefits of a separate state.
Will there always be an England? Absolutely! But will there always be a United Kingdom? That is currently under discussion.