There’s a view floating around social media that Scotland is uniquely burdened by not having its destiny in its own hands i.e. by not being independent. I’ve just seen it expressed as a tweet that asks
How about this – we #voteyes and take the future into our own hands like any normal country?
The best instant response I saw on twitter to the question ‘What other country would surrender its sovereignty like Scotland?’ was
To which it doesn’t take an Einstein to add ‘Er, Wales, Northern Ireland… ?’ although I know the response those suggestions would get in some quarters.
But this does raise a serious question about the nature of the nation state, and in particular whether Scotland is unique in not having its future in its own hands ‘like any normal country.’
I’m neither a lawyer nor a historian but it seems to me that there are peoples who have the characteristic of a nation, or at least of a national group, who get along fine within the confines of a modern nation state.
For example, like
- Swedes in Finland, who make up about 6% of the country’s population
- Germany, which started the 19th century as several hundred political entities and ended it as one modern nation state
- Belgium, where Dutch, French and (little known) even German speakers live in relative harmony
- Canada, where arguably neither English- nor French-speaking populations were ever separate nations, but which have been able to co-exist as two very different cultural traditions in one nation state
- South Africa in which a number of African peoples that regard themselves as nations, for example the Zulus, embrace the broader South African state
- Switzerland – a confederation of German, French, Italian and Romansh speaking cantons that dates back hundreds of years.
It’s not easy to say what these nations have in common except perhaps a willingness to co-exist together. With the exception of Germany, none of them has the great advantage of the UK of sharing a single common language.
The anguished cry of some nationalists that Scotland is unique amongst nations in not being an independent state is nonsense. Plenty of peoples see advantage in combining into a single larger nation state. If we can get that out of the way, whatever reasoned debate is possible in the three weeks remaining until the referendum can concentrate on real areas of difference.
After I wrote this in the heat of the 2014 referendum campaign, I discovered that Ghana is another example of a complex state in which people of different nations and cultures live in harmony. This was thanks to Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose Reith Lecture also discussed many of the other ambiguities associated with identity – too complex for simple-minded nationalism I suspect.