When the European nations expanded and travelled by ship to the Americas, Indies and the far east, they settled, plundered and developed empires: often violently suppressing the indigenous peoples and taking over their lands. In Europe 200 years ago in 1800, there were four imperial powers - Holy Roman, the Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman. Europe had far fewer nations then - a look at the map of Europe is striking; now instead there are 25 independent national states. There were national campaigns against efforts by imperial powers to suppress indigenous languages, when the heroes didn’t lead armies but wrote dictionaries. For the Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Serbs they believed that if their language disappeared, so would their identity.
Imperialist domination led to great strife, violence, wars, cruelty, starvation and exploitation. In the 20th century the movement has been away from empires and towards smaller, independent nations. History tells us that when one people dominated in this ‘’survival of the fittest culture (beginning with the Roman Empire) they eventually collapsed due to corruption and greed. Improved interconnectivity and communications should mean we don’t need central hubs anymore.
The fear of national oblivion and the need for survival, is clearly deeply rooted. In 1848 revolutions and national movements began campaigns for independence. However high prices have often been suffered for the creation of nation states and the post war idea of self determination: for instance the collapse of the Hapsburg empire was a catastrophe for European Jews and there was genocide wars between Bosnian Serbs and the extremist Croats. Perhaps the words extreme and domination are crucial here, which I would describe as “tribalism’ rather than nationalism. After all immigrants and different cultures can happily co-exist safely side by side. Tribalism (along with misguided socialism) often led to top/down, centralized and controlling dictatorships.
Early last century tribalism took over under these racist dictators, with an extremist, inward-looking and narrow view of what being a nation state means. Tribalism makes me think of sectarian divides and matters a lot for some people. This is the nasty, narrow, ignorant and meaningless side of any nationalism: as seen in the dreadful wars of the Baltic states or the Northern Ireland troubles. Scotland’s Rangers fans mostly support the union, this is about past religious affiliations and class. Why do they continue? Sadly our sectarian divides still seem to matter greatly, and when religion matters less we really should all try to move on.
Germany has developed a federal system of government with autonomous states. In America also each state runs its own affairs (tax, vat, immigration). Also in America, a land of recent immigrants, there are celebrations and acceptance of different cultures side by side – China town, St Patrick’s day parades, German beer festivals, Robert Burns suppers, Hanukkah and more. Also, crucially, while these different identities and cultures are studied in schools, no one religion dominates: that is no one religion is a part of school curriculums or in politics. Yes there are far right or far left extremists, but these views are hopefully on the margins. While many rural areas have been seriously left behind.
And what of our different identities, languages and cultures in these British isles. In Ireland many fight to keep the Irish language. In Scotland, the Gaelic language and song survived on the Western islands,. After the 1707 union, many Scots writers worked to keep the Scots songs and poems alive. After the 45 however, there was violent suppression of highland culture by the British state. In Scotland we have the National art gallery, the National Scottish orchestra, the National stadium – that’s okay. We can be both proud of our nation and international too
Most would agree that a union with a much bigger state is in fact a take over and not a union in any sense – think China / Tibet, Russia / Lithuania. After the Indy Ref 2014, Scotland must have looked foolish to the outside world. I’m not a particular fan of David Cameron, but at least he was a team player and had some regard for democracy. There are now forces aboard and at home who have no idea what democracy actually means. Boris Johnson and his team appear to want to dismantle any remnants of democracy left in the UK: they are false opportunists, who want to limit both the courts and the press. They look to the likes of Trump, who also claims he’s restoring democracy and the voice of the people!. That’s the model of rule (or supposed freedom) that dictators such as Hitler and Stalin used. (Farage is a mate of Trumps after all).
Nationalism is not about whose tribe is dominant or best. It can be about shared histories, stories and songs, sense of place, our values. Religion, which in the past created great divides, must be a personal choice and not part of education or politics. Most countries are melting pots of many diverse people, and our very differences can make us stronger if we value them. People have always moved, or had to move, from enforced migration, from climate catastrophe or wars. Studies show that tribalism, or being part of a tribe, is a powerful motivator. But it can also be blind and ignorant. Scottish nationalism however is not narrow and welcomes all who live here.
Are people voting against the rapid advance of A1, tech businesses, globalization, and the rich getting richer - do they believe some strong man can stop this? I hope and believe there is another way through finding our own voices.
The late, acclaimed journalist Ian Bell, wrote in his Herald article, Scotland and the Easter Rising, that James Connelly seemed to assert that, “Internationalism without an acknowledgement of national identity is a forlorn, empty gesture…The willed amnesia inflicted where he is concerned is part of a wider forgetting. "When we had our vote a misrepresented nationalism colluded with a Labour party defending (so it said) an international ideal. In September 2014, Scotland was the poorer for forgetting.”
In Scotland, our great poet Hugh McDermid wrote: ‘To be international we must first be national.’ The Scottish independence and national movement was not born out of violence but out of the arts. We must now urgently vote to save our right for democratic voices.