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Feb 01

Is unionism a form of nationalism?

Supporters of Scottish independence sometimes describe unionists as British nationalists. While writing that I oppose nationalism in general, Scottish nationalists have quite often objected that my unionism is just as much a form of nationalism as their Scottish nationalism. I thought initially that this was just another instance of independence debate mudslinging, trying to associate unionism with the BNP.

But the claim is often repeated and clearly some Scottish nationalists genuinely do believe that unionism is a nationalist ideology. It is therefore worth pointing out that in asserting this they are either showing a poor understanding of the nature of nationalism or that really they are trying to be insulting and offensive.

Historically there are really three forms of nationalism. These can be described as the secession form of nationalism, the unification form of nationalism and the nationalism that sometimes arises after these processes have occurred.

Looking at a map of Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, it is possible to see how both the secession form of nationalism and the unification form of nationalism came to form the Europe which exists today. The Finnish people, for example, during the 19th century developed their sense of nationality. This occurred in a number of ways such as the publication of the Finnish national epic the Kalevala in 1835 and  the increased use of Finnish in public life, owing to the fact that the nobility chose to speak Finnish rather than Swedish. Other factors such as religion, the music of Sibelius and folklore all played a part in the development of Finnish nationalism, which eventually led to a declaration of independence in 1917. Finland then seceded from the collapsing Russian Empire.

Similar forms of nationalism led Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to secede as well. Likewise the development of Czech and Slovak nationalisms, through a gradual process of linguistic and cultural national awakening eventually saw these countries secede first from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then from each other.

As a force at work in the 19th #century, the unification form of nationalism can best be seen with the examples of Germany and Italy. Here the movement of national awakening brought about the joining together of separate states and statelets into a whole. German nationalists, noting that  German was spoken in a number of different countries, which had once formed the Holy Roman Empire and then the German Confederation, set about trying to achieve unity in these states,  forming one state out of many. They considered that wherever German was spoken, there should be Germany – although they ended up excluding then-multi-ethnic Austria, which today no longer considers itself German.

map-europe-1800

A similar process of unification occurred in Italy. First came a gradual Italian national awakening and with it the sense of their being a nation called Italy, which was not merely a  geographical concept. Eventually, through a period of struggle known as the Risorgimento Italian nationalists achieved their goal of creating the nation we know today as Italy, albeit through force.

Of course, most European countries are made up of what were formerly independent states. But in many cases their unification occurred prior to the historical period which we associate with the growth of nationalism. France thus had already gathered most of the lands, where the various forms of French were spoken, by the Middle Ages. Britain likewise had already gathered the lands where English was spoken before anyone much thought in terms of nations or of nationalism. It is a mistake to try to impose modern concepts of nationalism on people living in a world, which most frequently extended no further than the next village.

After a nation has achieved its aim of unification or secession, we normally do not describe the people who live in such a country as nationalists. Finns are not nationalists because they want to maintain the territorial integrity of their country, they are patriots. Likewise, it would be a mistake to describe Angela Merkel as nationalist. No doubt, it would also be offensive to her.  She does not want Germany, or a part of Germany, to secede from a larger body and she cannot want German unification to happen because, by the modern definition of Germany, it has already occurred.

Once the goal of nationalism has been achieved it would be senseless to describe the people living in the resulting state as nationalists. To do so would be to make the term meaningless, for everyone then would be a nationalist who lives in a nation state. If nationalist were to mean inhabitant, it would cease to be a word which distinguished one type of person from another and would therefore quickly drop out of usage.

However, of course, there are nationalists who neither want secession nor unification. To describe someone, for example,  living today in France as a nationalist is to describe someone who does not want to change the borders of France. This then brings us to the third form of nationalism. This is the kind of nationalism, which sometimes develops after the goals of unification or secession have been achieved.  This form of nationalism is the desire to unify a people within a nation state, defined normally by racial, but sometimes by linguistic or religious characteristics, through their secession from others who lack these characteristics. It is therefore an ideology of the far right.

In France it is the form of nationalism which says that France is for the French, defining French in a narrow racist way. The non-French must leave. A similar sort of poisonous nationalism is put forward by the BNP. But this form of far right ideology has clearly nothing whatsoever do with unionism in Britain. Unionists neither want secession nor do they want unification. They want the  territorial integrity of the nation state Great Britain to be maintained. In this unionists are no more nationalists than the Finns who want the self same thing.

As an aside, it is worth noting that it could be argued that desiring the secession of a nation from the EU could perhaps, be described as an expression of the secession form of nationalism. This becomes all the more so as the EU still further acquires the qualities of a nation state. Thus, it is possible that UKIP could be described as UK or British nationalists. But this is not the focus of unionism, which is concerned with maintaining the Union of the UK. There is nothing incompatible with being a Europhile unionist – indeed, it is perfectly intellectually consistent.

One consequence of the argument being made here about the various forms of nationalism is rather interesting. If Scotland were to achieve independence, it would no longer make sense to describe Scots as nationalists. The Scottish National Party therefore could not logically continue as as a party of nationalism. Under these circumstances and only at this point, it might  be possible to describe those unionists, who wished to achieve reunification with the other English speaking people in the British Isles, as British nationalists. This would be because they would then be seeking the same sort of national reawakening as took place in Germany and Italy.

As we can see from history, the natural process of historical development in Europe is that of gathering together those people who are culturally, linguistically and religiously similar. Where however, people are very different, either religiously, culturally and especially linguistically, it is a natural part of historical development that secession occurs. It was eminently reasonable that Finns should want to secede from the Russian Empire, that Czechs and Slovaks should want their own country separate from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But if everyone in Europe were to follow the example of Scotland and seek secession, then it is clear that we would be returning to a pre-modern patchwork of statelets, where France was made up of a dozen countries and Germany of hundreds. This is to go against the tide of history. Scots are just too similar to the rest of the people in the UK to justify a split. We speak the same language, we have largely the same culture and  we have intermarried for centuries. It makes no more sense to break up Britain than it does to break up Germany.

A British person who opposes the secession of Scotland from the UK is no more a nationalist than a German person who opposes the secession of Bavaria from Germany. Wishing to maintain the territorial integrity of the nation state is not nationalism. It is what everyone in every country wishes. A unionist already has the nation state he desires. It’s called the UK. You can’t seek what you already have.  A unionist therefore, neither seeks secession nor unification. To describe him as a nationalist is therefore to imply that he suffers from the third form of nationalism, which is to say that he is on the far right. This is both offensive and false.

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  1. Say hello and wave goodbye – Scottish Roundup

    […] week also saw a thoughtful and interesting piece which asked the question, ‘Is unionism a form of nationalism?’ from Open Unionism which considered the question whether unionists in the Scottish national […]

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