Home/The “Baffling” Call of Nationalism in a Multicultural Age

The “Baffling” Call of Nationalism in a Multicultural Age

Daniel Larison is baffled by Niall Ferguson’s bafflement over the very real (though probably still less-likely than not) prospect of Scottish independence:

Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:

Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].

I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. [bold mine-NM] This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.

I want to call attention to how much work is being done by the word “a” in Larison’s sentence. To whit: who is getting to decide how and by whom they are governed in the upcoming referendum? The “Scottish people,” as Larison’s “a people” would seem to imply? Or the “people of Scotland,” whose identification would not seem to require an article?

I think the answer is pretty clearly the second: that the people of Scotland, not the Scottish people, are the electorate. That is to say: British citizens, and some Commonwealth citizens, who are resident in Scotland and registered to vote there can vote on the question of independence. You don’t have to have Scottish ancestry, or otherwise demonstrate Scottishness, to have a proper say in the question. An independent Scotland is not going to Scotify the citizenry, or establish Scots Gaelic as the official language of government. The “Yes” campaign explicitly talks about how an independent Scotland would be more welcoming to higher levels of immigration than a united Britain is, and disclaims any ethno-nationalist basis for the desire for separation. The SNP has always been to the left of its voting base; now it’s just capturing a greater share of the Scottish left than it used to. The cosmopolitan values that Ferguson advocates as a way of weaning Scotland away from nationalism are also the values that the “Yes” campaign is running on: they just think that Scotland would be more liberal, open and cosmopolitan alone than as part of Britain.

None of this is intended as criticism of the SNP’s ambition. It just doesn’t look much like the nationalism that was at play when the Greeks sought independence from the Ottomans, or when the Czechs sought independence from Austria-Hungary – or, for that matter, when the Irish sought their own independence from the United Kingdom. It’s not even the way Flanders or Quebec talk – Flemish independence is a right-wing cause that is correlated with opposition to immigration, and advocates of sovereignty for Quebec voice a vigorous nationalism based on language (though not on ethnicity or race – it’s all about the francophonie).

That’s why, I think, it reads as “baffling” to some. In a multi-cultural age, nationalism makes sense as a response to collective oppression, which Scotland does not suffer from, and/or some sense of profound and unbridgeable difference, which Scotland does not really manifest. Nationalism as an ideal in itself, as a way for a people to establish itself as a force in the world, romantically actualizing their ethno-historical essence, frog-marching their people into modernity and/or purifying themselves of foreign influences – all elements of nationalism when it mattered for Germany, or Italy, or China, or Japan, or Egypt, or Israel – is more than slightly alarming to contemporary cosmopolitans. But on that score Scottish nationalism doesn’t look much like nationalism at all. And, okay, maybe it’s just more practical for New Zealand not to be governed from the other side of the world. But is Scotland really “necessary” or “inevitable” in that sense? Not really. So why vote yes? Isn’t it setting the requirements for divorce rather low?

Scotland has its own distinct history, customs, and so forth. But Scottish independence would still be more like independence for Alaska or Vermont than like independence for Kurdistan or Tibet. The “idea” of Scottish independence is the idea of smallness, along with the notion that any organized group can always plausibly pack up their marbles and leave a larger group that they don’t find congenial. It’s the idea, ultimately, that there’s nothing particularly sacred or special about the state; that the state is something any community – a more apropos word than “people” for a multi-cultural age – can choose to adopt or discard at will.

One can understand why people who are enamored of other, “bigger” ideas find that idea itself uncongenial.

As for me, I still think the key question is: if the goal is truly to maximize a community’s ability to govern itself, without inordinate sacrifice of goods like prosperity that matter to the ability of the individuals therein to live the lives they want, what’s the “optimal political unit” for such governance? Maybe it’s gotten smaller in the last 100 years on account of information technology, etc. Maybe it’s gotten bigger on account of the globalization of finance, etc. I’d like to see the evidence for both sides.

I don’t expect to see it before Thursday.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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