Hot on the heels of the PM’s visit to Scotland, there was a piece by Melanie Phillips in yesterday’s Times setting out why Scotland has no valid claim to independence. The piece itself is behind the paper’s paywall, but here’s a link to an archived copy, for which I thank Wee Ginger Dug, who was one of those commenting on it yesterday. My first reaction was to check the date; but April 1st is still some way off, so I suppose we have to treat it as a serious statement of her views. If I’d tried to parody the position of some unionists, I doubt that I’d have done better.
In essence, her argument seems to be that only ‘nations’ have the right to seek independence, and since Scotland (like Wales and Ireland) is not a nation, it has no such right. ‘Britain’ is the only ‘nation’ in these islands, and no-one has the right to seek to split that nation into two or more parts.
She has a clear notion in her own mind about what constitutes a nation, although what exactly that might be is not actually articulated. But given the detail of her comments, it is obviously highly dependent on history (Ireland’s nationality is dismissed as tenuous largely because the republic has existed for less than 100 years). I have a number of problems with such a definition, even leaving aside the fact that her grasp of the history of these islands seems to be a bit, shall we say, shaky. (And the idea that the peoples inhabiting these islands in Roman times, and even before that, saw themselves as being in any sense of the word a ‘nation’ invites ridicule.)
However, the question of what is or is not a nation is far from a simple one to answer, and I say that as one who has spent decades trying to arrive at a definition which satisfies me. Of course, history, territory, language, place of birth, and institutions can all be factors in leading people to a perception of nationality, but the key words there are “perception of nationality”. People believe themselves to be Welsh, English, Scottish, British, or whatever, and it seems to me impossible to escape the conclusion that nationality is ultimately something subjective. If different people can look at the same range of factors and come to different conclusions about their own nationality, then the idea that the nation is some objectively definable construct becomes impossible to sustain.
Ultimately, a nation exists because people believe that they are part of it; all the external factors mentioned above may strengthen or weaken that perception, but it is the perception that gives existence to the nation. From that perspective, nationality is also fluid; it can change over time. As evidence for that view, polls have consistently shown a trend in Wales for people to move away from self-identifying as solely British towards identifying as solely Welsh – with plenty of people in between those extremes who consider themselves to be both, to a greater or lesser degree.
It can also be complex; I’ve known independentistas over the years who have tried to argue that everyone must choose to which nation they belong, because they cannot be both Welsh and British. My reaction is to ask simply “why not?” If there are people in Wales who consider themselves to be both Welsh and British (and there are – I know plenty), then who are we to tell them they’re wrong, or not allowed to be what they consider themselves to be? That is to seek to impose a definition of nationality on people, which seems to me to be counter-productive, even if anyone were actually to believe it to be desirable. And that wish to impose a definition seems to me to be part of what Phillips was seeking to do in the article. A unionist telling people that they are British, whether they like it or not, is as futile as an independentista telling people that they are Welsh whether they like it or not. If the only way a nationality can project itself into the future is by seeking to impose itself on all those who live within its territory, then it’s probably already doomed.
However, my second disagreement with the article is perhaps even more fundamental – who decided that only ‘nations’ can govern themselves? For those of us who believe that sovereignty is a bottom-up phenomenon rather than a top-down one, any group of people living in a defined area always have the right to determine how they should be governed. It’s a viewpoint which can lead to conclusions which are uncomfortable to many independentistas, I know, but it’s at least based on a clear principle, which is about the rights of peoples inhabiting an area. What is the principle that allows anyone to determine which groups of people have a right to self-government and which do not? What is so sacred about ‘nationality’ as to make it inviolable? (And that latter question is as much a challenge to independentistas as it is to unionists.)
The question as to whether people should choose to exercise their right to self-government is a separate one to deciding whether the right exists. There are practical issues which are likely to deter individual groups or communities from seeking to exercise such a right, of course. And it is always far more likely people will choose to exercise that right if they feel that they have a shared identity or nationality: that is why most movements for self-determination are built on a concept of nationality leading to a common desire to shape their future. But it isn’t the only conceivable basis, nor can it be.The article by Phillips seemed to me to be, in a way, another slant on the idea of British exceptionalism, a concept which underpins the established order in the UK. But in trying to give an artificial and unique historical validity to one particular nationality, and one particular conception of nationality, it also exposes the sheer lack of real substance supporting the whole edifice of British nationalism and exceptionalism in the 21st Century. For that, we should surely be grateful.