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Modern States Are Fragile in the Face of Local Nationalism
It is striking how little political resistance has been offered to the break-up of the Union
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I have spent most of my working life writing about countries where communal or nationalist differences determine and, on occasion, convulse the political landscape. My first experience of this was at Queen’s University Belfast, where I was writing a PhD on the Irish Home Rulers in Ulster pre-Irish independence, during the worst years of the troubles in Northern Ireland between 1972 and 1975. I moved on to Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war, and later reported on the Soviet Union before and after it broke up. I first went to Iraq in 1977 and over the following decades have watched it torn apart by communal conflicts stoked by foreign intervention.

Knowing these countries has given me a strong sense of the fragility of nation states when confronted by strongly rooted local nationalisms. The glue holding together nations is always a mixture of myth and self-interest which tends to become ossified and discredited over time. At the height of British imperial power in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Scots were part of a British super-nationality that acted as the ruling caste of the empire. Working class solidarity within an industrial economy fostered a sense of British identity, as did loyalty to national institutions, industries, utilities and infrastructure, from the army and the navy to the shipyards and the railway system.

The triumph of the Scottish Nationalist Party on Thursday and the annihilation of all other parties in Scotland has led to lamentations on left and right over the likely passing of Great Britain as a unitary state. There are panicky whiffs in the air as people who had scarcely noticed there was such a thing as the union between England and Scotland come to realise that it may soon be dissolved and wonder what the future will hold. It is ironic to recall that a decade ago British officials talked glibly about “nation building” in Afghanistan and Iraq, without a thought about the staying power of their own nation.

Sturgeon on election night
Sturgeon on election night

It was fairly clear at the time that these foreign “nation builders” in Baghdad and Kabul, who spoke in such patronising tones to Iraqis and Afghans about creating a functional national state, had very little idea what they were talking about.

Over the past year it has become evident that British political leaders are equally at sea when dealing with nationalists and nationalism on their home turf. They veered between over-reacting and under-reacting to the rise of the Scottish nationalists. The left in Britain has never been very happy dealing with nationalism of any sort, seeing it at times as covert racism or at best a divergence from economic and social issues. This helps explain why Miliband, Balls and other leading Labour figures seemed so baffled and incoherent during the Scottish referendum. When they did act it was generally to line up with the Conservatives as unionists and justify damaging allegations by the nationalists that they were “Red Tories”

In reacting to Scottish nationalism the right, in the shape of Conservatives, had a more coherent policy, although it often reminded one of the denunciations of Irish Home Rulers. The Conservative Party exploited British voters’ hostility to home rule in the decades before 1914, suggesting that the reliance of Gladstone and Asquith on the votes of Irish MPs was illegitimate and unpatriotic. Cartoons in Tory papers showed clod-hopping Irish peasants manipulating like so many puppets Liberal leaders greedy for power.

As a tactic, this demonisation of Irish nationalists still seems to strongly influence a sizeable number of English voters when applied to Scottish nationalists a century later. Indeed its political effectiveness has evidently surprised the Conservatives themselves – assuming it was the main explanation for their late surge in the polls. Nigel Farage’s jibe that English taxpayers’ money was being tossed over Hadrian’s Wall was just the sort of rhetoric used during the various Irish Home Rule crises.

Labour ended up being squeezed twice: once by surging Scottish nationalism overwhelming their strongholds in Scotland, and then by newly awakened English nationalism stirred up by the Conservatives in England. Ed Miliband seemed to accept too easily the premise that the SNP had somehow earned pariah status, and any that reliance on their support for a future |Labour government had to be ruled out. The argument sounded weird and wholly unconvincing, and Labour always looked as if it was running scared, never counter-attacking by saying that Tory rabble-rousing against the Scots was itself weakening the union of the two countries.

The problem with using the English nationalist genie against the Scots is that it may be difficult to put back in the bottle. Some of the rhetoric of the campaign will be forgotten, but not all. Big post-election concessions are on offer. David Cameron says that “in Scotland, our plan is to create the strongest devolved government anywhere in the world”, while also offering “fairness” to England. This may work to a degree, but Scottish nationalism has acquired momentum over the past year that will be difficult to stop. The annihilation of all other political parties in Scotland by the SNP means that opposition to separatism will find it difficult to take an organised shape and gain a public platform.

The SNP in power in Edinburgh may fail to implement its policies or be unable to pay for them, but it can blame everything on London.

Pro-independence demonstrators shout slogans outside the Catalan Parliament
Pro-independence demonstrators shout slogans outside the Catalan Parliament

I spent the first days of last week in Catalonia and am about to go to Iraqi Kurdistan. Both are regions where separatism determines politics. There are some analogies between the political situation of these three countries but one vast difference. The emotional power of Catalan and Kurdish nationalism is strengthened by memories of recent massacres and political oppression by the central state, in a way that is simply not true of Scotland for many centuries. Scottish politics does not have any of the bitterness and hatred of Northern Ireland.

What is striking about the coming dissolution, be it partial or total, of the British state is the lack of resistance to this from its political establishment. It is but one more element in the decline of British power in the world over the past decade. A striking feature of the election was the degree to which it was solely focused on domestic issues. Britain’s failure to achieve its military or political aims in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was scarcely mentioned. Likewise, Cameron’s intervention as part of a Nato coalition to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 only briefly surfaced when Miliband said that more should have done to plan for the aftermath of the invasion (although he wisely did not say what this should have been).

Whatever the degree to which Scotland achieves Home Rule, the new political alignment means that Britain will be more than ever absorbed in its domestic affairs.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Britain, Scotland 
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  1. eisermann says:

    In the United States there will be a coastal multicultural non white majority, in the southwest a near majority Hispanic population. Detroit-Chicago is a dagger at any white gentile self determination in the remainder.

    It seems that any American solution to the loss of white gentile self determination requires a post independence partition much like the partition which spawned the Pakistan India conflict. Geographic population transfer though is most likely politically and economically infeasible.

    Perhaps the best feasible model would be islet reservation apartheid mini-states with restricted sovereignty such as those envisioned in a future Israeli Palestinian division in the West Bank.

    • Replies: @Ronald Thomas West
  2. Wonderful why shouldn’t the UK introspect a bit

  3. @eisermann

    Yep, put those ornery White people in Jurassic Park nature preserves

    ^ ‘Liberals’ (it’s a stealth title)

  4. The only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.

  5. Good riddance to the British empire at its root

    Some people, the Anglo-Saxon race particularly, it would appear, never learn. Blair’s gay relationship (think Bugs Bunny in drag) with Bush and torture (that was a mean wabbit) for the sake of modern corporate empire (money, it’s a drag- ‘Pink Floyd’) bleeds the taxpayer, for the sake of Canary Warf jet setters, a true case of ‘English Setters’ don’t dare think the ‘Bulldog’ Lennon had honestly castrated with a song:

    Read more

    And I did this one:

    Now what I suspect what we expatriates sometimes experience, though no fault of our own, is a deleterious genetic effect that Europe in general, and England in particular, had sought to eliminate from their ‘families.’ I carry this remarkably deleterious gene myself, and my research on the matter tentatively suggests it cannot be deleted because of perpetual hybridization in our American family, and there has been no pogrom for this gene’s elimination. For research purposes I am naming the deleterious gene “Proto Anglo-Saxon Chauvinism.”

    Read more:

    (the not so) Great Britain has been a scourge of the world and the sooner it returns to a forgotten medieval set of islets, the better off the world will be indeed –

    • Replies: @Kat Grey
  6. Richard S says:

    One observation Cockburn should have made is the fact that for the past 5 months all the opinion polls predicted a hung parliament. The fact that Cameron has somehow won confounds the punditsphere.

    In fact, Cameron has seemingly without effort achieved:

    – his party’s first majority since 1992
    – the political annihilation of his coalition partners
    – the resignation of the 3 main opposition leaders
    – the collapse of Labour in their heartland
    – a rise in market confidence

    One amusing result was that the double-jobbing imbecile Boris Johnson, while still mayor of London, ran and won in a Tory safe seat. He clearly planned to assume the party leadership after Cameron’s defeat, and now that he’s committed to quitting the mayoralty, he’ll be stuck on the back benches. Cameron might put him on some “urban youth engagement” taskforce, as a hilarious punishment ..

  7. Art says:

    The nation state has run its course – it is now a failure – central governments are not looking out for local folks. Big money runs the nation state for its own benefit. Big money gets ever fatter on war, as it skims every economic transaction in the nation. All political talk aside, big banks and big money own the government and they own most all of the business organizations that product the nations goods and services – end of story.

    The only answer is distributed local ownership by local folks.

    It is time for Scotland to get off the doll and step up for humanity and get the ball rolling for local control by local people.

  8. Kat Grey says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    Ronald are you referring to the Great Britain that gave the world the Magna Carta, Modern Economics, Bacon, Newton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Darwin, Brontes, Florence Nightingale, penicillin, trains, planes, jet engines, steam engines, incandescent light bulbs,sewing machines, tractors, DNA profiling, bicycles, submarines, pneumatic tyres, telephone, television, Internet, smallpox vaccines, colour photography, seatbelts, tarmac, lifeboats, logarithms, ultrasound scanner, plastic, toothbrushes, tennis, golf, rugby,the miniskirt, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Queen? Have all these things been the scourge of the world?

    • Replies: @Jim
    , @Ronald Thomas West
  9. Jim says:

    Yes, it seems doubtful that the US will last for many more decades as a genuine nation-state. If it does not disintegrate it will probably have to be held together by force somewhat like Yugoslavia was under Tito.

    But I don’t understand your comment about Detroit. The population of Detroit cannot survive without extensive external assistance. If the welfare state collapses the black population of Detroit (which isn’t that large) would be gone quickly.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  10. Jim says:
    @Kat Grey

    Don’t forget James Clark Maxwell. Also Francis Crick and James Watson who made perhaps the greatest scientific discovery in history.

    Actually the contributions of the British to science and mathematics are of enormous magnitude.

    • Replies: @Kat Grey
  11. The big story – not touched on at all here – is that in spite of themselves the Tories won a great victory based on the distaste of many British voters both for continued open immigration of unassimilable minorities and for the European Union. Thankfully and thanks to ham-fisted, brain-dead EU bureaucrats these two issues are becoming more entangled and the twined issues of aliean immigration and EU domination are becoming major issues in many European countries beyond Great Britain. What we’re seeing is some devolution – a large proportion of which is pure symbolism – at the level of the nation-state and a major, probably irrevocable, setback for the supernationalism so beloved by the world’s political elites. I can only speculate as to what ideological imperatives prevented Mr. Cockburn from noting the obvious and predominate role these factors played in England, Wales and Northern Irealnd.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Its certainly time for the Scots to get back to their more comfortable independence. Reading the Neil Oliver book “A History of Scotland”, it is apparent even to an American not well educated in the continual medieval history of the UK, that the Scots have been independent of the self-absorbed snobs to their south for much longer than the Stone of Scone has sat beneath the English coronation throne chair.

    It may well be that the numerous contacts over the space of 1000 years between Scots and the Irish, the Norse, the Danes and the French has allowed them to avoid the snugness and insularity so endemic to the English. We travel to Orkney and Shetland in June to check out our theory.

  13. @Kat Grey

    Kat, you need a sense of humor per the linked satire .. that said, do you suppose colonialism that rode the back of all of that you mention is excused by the fact of Industrial Revolution advances ? (bringing us to environmental collapse, btw.)

    Here’s a few odes to the philosophy of the English:

    @ Jim

    This one is for you:

    ^ on European based cultural mentality

    • Replies: @Jim
    , @Kat Grey
  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Just remember that the Southern states cannot survive without extensive outside assistance. The South collectively, and the states individually, all receive more dollars in federal assistance than they pay to the federal government. Before you rail on Detroit, look to the places where they loudly proclaim, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”

    • Replies: @Jim
    , @Bill Jones
  15. Jim says:

    Much of the federal assistance to Southern states like Mississippi is for the benefit of Southern blacks. While Southern whites average slightly lower IQ”s than Northeast or Midwest whites the difference is only a few points of IQ. Southern whites have an average IQ at least a half standard devaition above the world average and they are quite capable of sustaining a First World economy.

    The population of Detroit is no more capable of a First World Economy than the population of Haiti.

  16. Jim says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    Europeans basically created the modern world and in particular science. East Asians have quickly adopted Western scientific ideas and blended them with their own traditional cultures. Sub-Saharan Africans have too low of an average cognitive level to do this.

    Despite the horrors of the “Western cultural mentality” Sub-Saharan Africans seem desperate to escape the hell-holes they live in and migrate to Europe.

  17. Kat Grey says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    The British were not the only European colonists, just the most successful which is borne out by the wealthy former British colonies of Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand. Now compare these to Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba…I think you get my drift

  18. Kat Grey says:

    They are not escaping but invading. Almost all the “migrants” are well-fed men of fighting age; this is typically the demographic scenario for an invasion force. Once these men are safely ashore, housed in the outskirts of major European towns and cities, fed and clothed by the media-brainwashed taxpayers, they will rise up. It won’t be pretty and I fear for Europe’s youth: slain boys, systematically raped girls.

  19. @Jim

    Dedicated to those Big_Brained_White_People .. Jim & Kat Grey

    What is
    Had ought
    To wash

    David Hume’s impossible postulation…

    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason”

    …is summed up in Western ethics as ‘Hume’s guillotine’ or the ‘ought-is problem.’ Now, forgive my naiveté when faced with this immutable Western dilemma of philosophy where the ‘ought-is problem‘ is posed…

    “how, exactly can an “ought” be derived from an “is”? The question, prompted by Hume’s small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory”

    …as it occurs in my small universe if my ass IS dirty I had OUGHT to wash it. Correct? Or, if it is in the natural order of things one were to have a dirty ass as a matter of fact, expectation and normalcy, and those hairy-assed little shit-balls, quaintly know as ‘dingle-berries’ in the vulgar tongue, must endure .. would it be a violation of IS to pull them out? Had one OUGHT *NOT* do that? What I’m getting at is, there was this time during my progressing baldness I had my head waxed to remove what amounted to an annoying residual fuzz. Now, it’d never occurred to me (previous to faced with Hume’s ‘ought-is problem’) hairy people OUGHT to have an ass-wax-job, but now this seems a logical progression from dirty ass as a result of hairy ass-crack, or that is an IS to an OUGHT.

    Read more at:

    • Replies: @Kat Grey
  20. “Whatever the degree to which Scotland achieves Home Rule, the new political alignment means that Britain will be more than ever absorbed in its domestic affairs.”

    And the world will be a safer place.

  21. @Anonymous

    “Just remember that the Southern states cannot survive without extensive outside assistance. ”

    In large part because old farts from the North move South when they retire: Their contributions are thus seen as Northern, their benefits as Southern.

    Keep the Northern scum freezing and the South looks a lot better.

  22. Kat Grey says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    This sounds like the meandering verbal trots one had to put up with at parties of yore when some stoned-to-his-ballsack psuedo-intellectual with a chronic case of BO started a ranting, slurring sermon about life, death, the Blue Light, astral sex, God, Lucifer, subliminal messages from his hamster, whatever. He typically sputtered into motion just when there was an excellent Rolling Stones or David Bowie track on the turntable. Needless to say, he was always told to shut the …k up.

    • Replies: @Ronald Thomas West
  23. “Labour ended up being squeezed twice: once by surging Scottish nationalism overwhelming their strongholds in Scotland, and then by newly awakened English nationalism stirred up by the Conservatives in England.”

    Stirred up by the Conservatives you say? From where I’m sitting Labour appears to be the authors of their own demise.

    Do yourselves a favor and learn to skip over the shameless self promotion of Ronald McDonald West.

  24. @Kat Grey

    Just for you Kat:

    Noting other people enjoy the reads, so just keep giving me reason to put up the links

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