Tom Nairn says that the Scottish referendum in 2014 will involve a re-evaluation of the idea of the nation state

January 29th, 2012

“C’est en Europe que commencera l’hyperdémocratie”: Une breve histoire de l’avenir, Jacques Attali (2006).

In his Scotsman column a week ago, Allan Massie argued that “16-and-17-year-olds will be given the opportunity to have their say on Scotland’s future” in the coming referendum. And so they should, since “it may make more difference to them than it will to those of us who have passed the biblical allotted span of 70”. I agree.

And also, I suspect there’s more to this move than tactics and the likelihood of teenagers being more radical. The deeper ground is shifting as well – under 17- and 70-year-olders alike.

In his A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century, the political philosopher Jacques Attali suggests that “more than a hundred new nations could be born in this century” in reaction to what he sees as the “shockwave” of capitalist-led globalisation.

I see Scotland is in the middle of his list, between Catalonia and Kurdistan. The argument of this “history of the future” is that capitalism’s victory in the Cold War has led to what he labels L’Hyperempire, a definitively polycentric world where democracies have found no alternative to swimming with the capitalist tide, but as a result are compelled to find new ways of living with it.

Hence novel modes of adaptation are required, to assert – or reassert – themselves against the triumph of faceless markets. Social democracy? Yes, but under new conditions: the hyper-empire of globality calls for what he describes as la deconstruction des états. This is where the question of scale becomes more important.

What Attali calls the “irony of history” may be encouraging a switch of scale: from bigger is better to the return of something like the smaller entities which nourished the beginnings of l’ordre marchand. Not quite smaller is better, but tending in that direction.

Originally, capitalism arose among early modern city-states. Their successors today will depend upon “hyper-democracy”, the capacity of new kinds of governance to counter-balance the pressures of advancing globalisation like the constraints of City finance-capital in Great Britain, for example, convinced from the outset that globalisation had arisen primarily to serve its naturally world-wide interests and ambitions.

Little England, too, may be required for the regroupment of such a tolerable globalisation. It was heartening to see that Simon Hughes of the Liberal-Democrats is calling for an all-English parliament as one necessary response to the political return of Scotland and Wales.

However, these City institutions have been formed by the greater Anglo-Britain of former times, and don’t intend to let their show disperse so easily. Isn’t this what David Cameron’s government is really devoted to? His recent walk-out from European ‘interference’ suggests as much. He may have found temporary support in Hughes’s own party, a movement subscribing to broader views for quite different reasons: what Attali describes as “relational” philosophy or “planetarism”, encouraged, of course, by the anxieties of global warming. For a time, this has carried them into a very circumscribed authority.

Yet already we see Hughes calling them back towards a different agenda, to a Little England in which democracy could at last dislodge the rule of finance-capital and the south. London and the direly-named Home Counties were, of course, vehicles of the unitary Great that has continued to configure Britishness, even after nearly all overseas possessions have vanished.

Fortunately, Little Scotland has been developing a differently grounded resistance to the same mercantile order. Usually emphasis is placed on historical grounds stemming from the pre-1707 state and the odd agreement that permitted a distinct Scottish civil society to continue, not without good reason. The very idea of civil (non-political) society arose among 18th Century Scots as a consecration of such persistence.

However, it may also be that their historical patience is now being justified and that an emerging global future will provide conditions for rebuilding it. The future, rather than the early-modern past, will be decisive. Naturally, an altered politics will be in order for that. But isn’t this what people will be voting for or against in 2014? It may be true that return to independent statehood is in one sense a backward step; but it is now being undertaken for a more significant run and forward leap.

Leap forward to what? Well, this shift can also be interpreted as long-overdue revenge of the periphery against the UK’s over-large and concentrated centre, the relic of imperial times, and of a nationality that had embarked too soon upon over-bearing outward reach.

Theorists of nationalism like Ernest Gellner and Liah Greenfeld agree that England, the old English national state, was the initial motor of modern state-formation. Gellner pointed out back in 1983 that there are thousands of potential nations, mostly with differing customs and languages but (so far) only around 200 nation-states.

Why so few? One difficulty was that the course of what one might call first-round industrialisation initially demanded communities of a certain scale, societies smaller than the great empires of antiquity yet large enough to foster adequate markets, working classes and urban conglomerations.

Only there could anything like contemporary economic living develop, and compete through the rapids of the industrial revolution’s first wave. This explosion in turn favoured an aggressive, often war-like culture: as it came to be called later (firstly in the United States) an ‘ethnic’ way of life where both families and acquired tongues and put ‘country’ first, instilling convictions of what Ben Anderson would later define as “imagined communities”.

One consequence was intensity and passion inseparable from the disruptions of progress and well-being. These gave meaning and a sort of equality to growing masses of people; but also in their wake lay imperialism and world wars and then attempts at state-fostered development far removed from the civil society originally promulgated in Scotland, in both Eastern Europe and areas of the Third World.

Only after the Cold War would such high-pressure strategies diminish in intensity: the “-isms” have slackened at last, to become more a matter of choice and ambition. The great good fortune of the British-Irish periphery is its return to affirmation under these newer conditions. They now have some claim to represent the imagined communities of another, emergent generation.

So, the 2014 vote could be a significant contribution to this incoming wave, more about the future than about the past, a future reaching out beyond the archipelago at the same time.

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Tom Nairn is an expert on nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from 2002 until January 2010. A version of this piece was originally published in the Scotsman.

2 Responses to:“The political return of Scotland and Wales”

  1. Mark Jones says:

    As always this is an excellent analysis from Nairn. Most people in Scotland have grasped the concept of national evolution. People in Wales have to start playing catch-up before we are left with the little Wales in bigger England scenario. Then we will be back to the Sixteenth Century.

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  2. R.Tredwyn says:

    No it’s not an excellent analysis; it’s just Nairn playing the same old song on his shrill little pipe. If we need countervailing political power to moderate the market forces of globalisation, it really isn’t clear how we achieve that by breaking up the political power into smaller units.

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