A SPECTRE is haunting Europe in its current incarnation — the spectre of new nation states struggling to be (re)born. They include Scotland, Catalonia, Euskadi, Flanders, Wallonia, Friesland, Corsica, Brittany and Venice. Their common cause is to replace the democratic deficit of the European Union and to oppose the austerity policies imposed by vested financial interests in the wake the great banking crash.
The powers of old Europe have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre of popular self-determination: the European Commission and the State Department, Labour left-wingers and Spanish neo-fascists, the major banks and the BBC. Not to mention intellectuals such as JK Rowling and Simon Cowell.
Of course, the decade-long economic crisis in Europe has provoked multiple political responses, some progressive and some reactionary. But by and large, populist right-wing movements – such as Ukip and France’s Front National – have based their aggressive, sectarian nationalism on existing, big nation states.
These traditional states – France, Britain and Spain in particular – have long used patriotic sentiments as a bulwark against reform.
Right-wing populism happily draws on this reactionary and racist history to demonise immigrants and split the working class.
In contrast, the central theme of most of the “new” European nationalisms is building a progressive civic identity. This civic project consciously rejects pseudo-scientific notions of privileged race, language or culture. Thus the Catalans, while defending their indigenous language against ongoing legal restrictions from Madrid, have gone out of their way to embrace a multicultural society and immigration as the basis for their new nation.
Many of the leaders of the Catalan Yes movement are the children and grandchildren of non-Catalan immigrants repopulated to Barcelona by the old Franco regime, precisely in order to destroy the indigenous culture.
Despite this evidence, the prevailing European establishment – from right-wing populists to left-wing intellectuals – maintains the specious argument that dividing into smaller states is a backward step. Thus Scotland’s own Douglas Alexander emerged from political obscurity last week (or at least from the global law firm Pinsent Masons, which he now advises) to tweet that “nationalism is about exclusion”.
The former Minister of State for Europe then contrasted “nationalism” with his own brand of Labour “patriotism”. Such benign patriotism, quoth the Sage of Paisley, “needs no enemy while nationalism demands one”. Presumably Gordon Brown was only being patriotic when he called for “British jobs for British workers”, Douglas?
As for the charge that modern civic nationalism divides people, ask yourself a simple question: why are there actually so few independent nation states? There are, after all, around 8000 identifiable ethno-linguistic groups on planet Earth, but only a couple of hundred actual political states. Even if Scotland and Catalonia join them, the total number of countries is unlikely to get beyond 230 by the end of the century.
The true threat to humanity comes not from having too many states trading and talking to each other, but from having too few. Globalisation itself has eroded the economic and cultural rationale for older “super states” such as the UK and Spain. It is the smaller nation states (eg Switzerland and Norway, or Catalonia and Scotland) and vibrant city states (eg Singapore and a future London) that are better placed to prosper in a truly interconnected global economy.
The world needs more cultural and political diversity, not less.
The only true barrier for humanity is the monopoly of political influence, finance and military power in the hands of the big capitalist states. Far from Balkanising Europe, dismantling the larger, bellicose nation states removes a prime source of rivalry and instability. The emergence of lots of small nations in their place will also lead to new trans-national institutions that will be better at managing global conflict or economic crises than the near-moribund World Trade Organisation and United Nations.
All this is an exciting prospect.
Yet the national movement in Scotland has been plunged into gloomy introspection since the indecisive General Election in June. If there’s a lesson to learn from our European comrades, it is this: don’t just brood, mobilise. For example: the Catalan sovereigntist movement has retained momentum despite Madrid’s intransigence by perfecting the art of mass street demonstrations involving millions of ordinary citizens.
On September, 11, 2014 – Catalonia’s National Day – a staggering 1.6 million people linked hands in a gigantic human chain stretching 250 miles from one end of the country to the other, in a call for Catalan independence. This chain was symbolic of Catalonia’s unity of purpose, and it made great television. It was also a massive feat of organisation and discipline by the independence movement.
This was no fluke. A year earlier the Catalan Yes campaign mobilised a million and a half supporters on National Day. No popular movement in recent European history – except perhaps the mass movement in East Germany that brought down the Berlin Wall – has been able to win the hearts and minds of its people with such spontaneity and popular commitment.
It stands in stark contrast to Madrid’s opposition to granting the right for Catalans to have a vote on their own political future. How have the Catalans been able to mobilise in such numbers? Much is down to the structure of the Catalan national movement.
Politically, support for independence is split between a variety of parties of the centre and left. No one party has the sort of hegemony the SNP does in Scotland. Instead, the primary mobilising force is the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a non-party, civic body which has some 40,000 dues-paying volunteer members who organise the street protests.
Precisely because the ANC is separate from the political parties, it retains the ability to mobilise popular actions even when there is an electoral downturn.
This raises the question of whether the wider Yes movement in Scotland, acting through the Independence Convention or similar body, should play a greater role. It is a moot point whether the SNP leadership would be willing to cede the level of autonomy for independent political activity enjoyed by the Catalan ANC.
Equally, senior non-party members of the ANC were willing to take places on the Yes list in the 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections – with influence comes responsibility to the movement.
But in Scotland, independent members of our own Yes referendum campaign demurred from standing in the 2015 General Election because it would have been under the SNP banner. Perhaps the SNP leadership needs to make the first move by offering “independents” places on the list for the next Holyrood elections without demanding they take the whip.
At any rate, if we are to reanimate the Yes movement – and the Catalan experience suggests this is a crucial political tool – then the SNP may have to accept a self-denying ordnance not to be the political elephant in the room.