Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nations, states, prisons and freedom

The strongly-worded statement on Catalunya by UK Foreign Minister Mark Field will inevitably disappoint independentistas, but in terms of the element of surprise it’s roughly on a par with a declaration by the Pope that he’s a Catholic.  From the perspective of the UK Government, the Spanish declaration of the indissoluble unity of the territory and nation of Spain is an obvious truth, although of course that tiny little bit at the bottom of the Iberian peninsular can never be considered part of the territory of Spain.  Territorial integrity has its limits, after all.
No doubt the UK government would argue that the apparent discrepancy here is justified on the basis of the fact that every test of opinion in Gibraltar reveals that the population wish to remain British and not submit to Spanish rule, and they’d be right in that assertion.  It’s a little inconvenient, though, that they claim that the people of Gibraltar have the democratic right to decide not to be part of Spain at the same time as supporting the Spanish government’s assertion that the people of Catalunya can never be allowed the same right.
Hypocrisy and double-speak on this sort of issue are not, however, a problem for those who rule states like the UK, for reasons which are largely historical.  The larger member states of the EU – and I think here of Italy, Germany and France, as well as Spain and the UK – take their current form and occupy their current boundaries solely as the result of centuries of conflict and conquest.  The whole history of European statehood is one of shifting lines on maps, of states being born and then crushed out of existence, and of nations finding themselves in different states at different times.  For all the talk of Europe being composed of nation-states, a precise coincidence of national identity and state boundaries is very much the exception, not the norm.
Not wanting to go back to a situation where Europe is composed of a whole series of warring states arguing over where to draw lines on maps is a natural reaction to our common history (and it is our common history, whatever Theresa May might believe), but the response of demanding that the lines and structures must remain ossified at the point which they reached when the fighting stopped is a response which pretends that nationality and identity are firm, settled and objective realities.  That flies in the face of the human experience.  Preventing violent change is one thing, but preventing peaceful change ultimately makes the violent sort more likely.
Those larger states incorporating different national identities which were brought together by war and conquest pretend that they are in fact the natural state of affairs.  Those who ended up victorious in the process of aggregation of territory have long tried to meld together the disparate peoples and identities under their control into one single new ‘nation’, proving – if proof were ever needed – that the concept of what constitutes a ‘nation’ is itself highly flexible.  So, the nationalists running Spain claim that Spain is in fact one single nation, and demand that all those living within its boundaries accept the nationality thus bestowed upon them, and accept that any other identity which they might feel is ‘regional’ not national.  In its insistence on French as the only identity, France takes, if anything, an even harder line on those Bretons, Basques, Catalans, etc. who find themselves within its borders.
The history of the UK demonstrates another important aspect of this, which is that the creation of states doesn’t follow the existence of nations; it is rather that the creation of nations follows the existence of states.  The UK is defined as a nation state not because the boundaries follow those of an existing nation, but because the ‘British’ nation was created to match the boundaries of the state.  The same is true of Spain, France, Germany, Italy etc.  From the date of the incorporation of Wales into England, the state has pushed the idea that differences should be ‘extirpated’, and that all should share a common identity.
But here’s the sting: what history shows us is that even with a determined central power, and centuries of time to exercise that power, eliminating alternative identities is actually a very difficult thing to do.  It can work, up to a point, when people perceive a common interest – after all, the decline in the use of the Welsh language wasn’t a result of the actions of ‘the English’ but of those of Welsh people who bought into the idea that the future was ‘British’.  However, even with that assistance and complicity, it took centuries to get to the position where the language was spoken only by a minority; and even without the language, the ‘Welsh’ retained a sense of identity which was never entirely subsumed in Britishness.  (Whether that sense of identity should be given political expression in the structures of governance is another question entirely; the point is simply that killing a sense of national identity is no small task.)
The Spanish position on Catalunya, naturally and inevitably supported by the UK Government, is that if a Catalan nation ever existed it has subsequently been subsumed into a bigger and better Spanish nation, and that the ‘rest of that Spanish nation’ has an absolute right to over-rule the Catalans.  It’s a position which seems to make what is to most people the most obvious solution – a properly organised democratic referendum in which both sides put their case and the people decide – a non-starter.  But in the real world, there are only two ways of holding all the territory of an existing state together – the first is by consent and the second is by the exercise of force.  That a state which exists in its current form only because of the past use of force should see force as the natural means of assuring its own continuity will come as no surprise, just as the support of other states with a similar history is equally unsurprising.
Spain, like the UK, is in a sense the prisoner of its own history, with Spanish nationalists unable to see an alternative future based on co-operation rather than domination.  Part of the task of independentistas is to help the centralist nationalists escape from a prison which is of their own making.

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