Old nation, new age

When it comes to countries in the modern world, is bigger really better?

Tom Nairn
22 April 2014

Tom Nairn -

It's called Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland, and was published by the Scottish Government in November 2013. Shortly thereafter it arrived  with a thud through our letter-box, all 649 pages of it, weighing in at 3lbs 5oz (one-and-a-half kilogrammes). I can't add a price, since it's free (to all on the Scottish electoral roll): the 'White Paper' on our future --- that is, if enough of us vote "Yes" next September. More details are available at

'A choice between two futures' claims the first paragraph...'The door will open to a new era. Scotland's future will be in Scotland's hands' if enough of them tick the "Yes" box on September 18th. 2014. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of the existing devolved (i.e. regional) government in Edinburgh, rubs in the main point again: 'Our generation has the opportunity to stop imagining and wondering and start building the better Scotland we all know is possible...It is time to seize that future with both hands.' Seven pages go on to list the advantages of independence, including removal of all nuclear weapons and bases, and 'a universal system of high quality early learning from the age of one to when they enter school' (p.09).

Who will be Scots following September 18th? British citizens "habitually resident" in Scotland, naturally; but 'Scottish-born citizens currently living outside of Scotland will also automatically be considered...and others will be able to register or apply...based on clear criteria'. At the same time, 'the development of a Scottish overseas diplomatic and trade network will provide the opportunity to promote and share our culture and traditions with nations across the world' (p.19).

  More important is the general wish for 'the process of becoming independent to stimulate new creativity and energy in Scotland'. The way forward is to be marked by 'negotiations with the rest of the UK and other international partners and organisations', in order to 'set out the timetable towards independence day in 2016' (p.20). The Windsor monarchy will be retained, and any new regime intends supporting 'amongst other Commonwealth States...rules to remove religious discrimination from the succession rules'. Initially the sterling currency will be retained, and Chapter 3, 'Finance and the Economy' provides an extensive justification for not following Ireland into the Euro system, as well as diagrammatic material on the existing economy ---26% 'Government and Services', 25% 'Financial and Other Services' and 12% 'Manufacturing' (from the Fiscal Commission Working Group Report: Macroeconomic Framework, February 2013).

At least that's the way it looked when Scotland's Future hit the door-mat a few weeks back. Since then, things have begun to shift. Keeping the UK's currency was interpreted as a gesture of reassurance and moderation. But of course that depended upon English acceptance of the deal. It's important to remember just what 'England' represents in the United Kingdom. The answer is: 80%, approximately, of both land and population, a genuinely overwhelming majority. Nor should it be forgotten that this majority has inherited what could be called a psychology of primacy. All classical accounts (like Ernest Gellner's, and Liah Greenfeld's
Nationalism) assume England to have been the original and model 'nation-state' of modern times; and of course it was this same state that adopted an equally overwhelming outward-directed path of development, leading it to rule so much of the globe in the 19th and earlier 20th century. Over that era, nation-states became the standard political form, leading to the present-day total of over two hundred in the United Nations Organization. In 1707 the Scots joined the transformation via a Treaty of Union that let them into the English-led 'Empire'.

But now many of them want out, somewhat belatedly. Or at least, that's one way of looking forward to the September 18th vote. However, there may be another. Could it not be the case that another 'age' altogether is dawning? And that the new times of 'globalization' are already fostering different rules and possibilities, including those related to the problem of scale? Throughout the past era, the vital questions were posed by industrialization: the emergence of manufacturing and commerce, on a scale which required dimensions larger than those of the city-states and regions within which capitalism first arose. Nation-states were the answer, and their spread fostered equivalent areas and (more important) cultures inside which sufficient homogeneity prevailed.

Such workable common ground implied a novel emphasis on scale. Not bigness as such (Antiquity was familiar with dynastic over-reach and land-grabbing) but societal cohesion into functioning 'identities' that could cope
with rapidly altering circumstances: not 'bigger is better' but (in Benedict Anderson's phrase) 'imagined communities' able to conjoin inheritance with novelties previously unimaginable. 'Modernity' has become the normal label: the complex of such entities beset by an inescapable and competitive pressure of change, at the mercy of 'development' many of whose effects are only half-understood, if not quite misunderstood.

Yet in the evolution of a nation-state world, relatively big scale couldn't help counting. Capitalism may have started up in small city-states and marginal countries: but it was somewhat bigger entities that provided the combination of market-places and common cultures that favoured the rise of manufacturing, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nor was there any pre-established scale for this process. The 'national' found itself propelled towards the 'imperial', and into take-overs and transoceanic expansion ― which was of course a recipe for mounting conflict, and an increasingly war-like world. Was there any other way for the globe to develop? 'Industrialization' may have been essentially peaceful in longer-term aims. But the route towards it could only lie amid the contrasts and diversities of homo sapiens, the house of many colours inherited from pre-history, a clash of tongues and customs only partly modified by religions and  a speculative unity or one-ness.

Hence globalization could only come 'before its time'. After the exhaustion of world wars there developed a 'Cold War' between differing modes of one-ness, or 'globality', which capitalism coldly won, and took over the last phase of Middle Earth's growth. China completed the process,  and ushered in a twenty-first century where scale would count for less ― and hence, become less significant for societies seeking effective collective identity, or 'nationhood'.'Bigger is better' lost whatever remaining sense it had.

Does this imply a reversal of the previously dominant scale-pressures? Not necessarily ― it doesn't follow that smaller is becoming automatically preferable. However, it is most likely true that globality has (so to speak) left a new door ajar, or openable: societies once held to be 'unviable' may become imaginable, and capable of formation, or reformation. As I write, it can be argued that events at both ends of Europe, West and East, are indicating at least the possibility of such new developments: one is of course the British-Irish archipelago under discussion here, and the other is in Ukraine and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

There, Russian-speakers are demanding either reforms or alterations of statehood more favourable to their collective interests. Is an independent Crimea any more or less likely, or possible, than an independent Scotland and Wales? Russia's President Putin seems inclined to military intervention, to invasion and the risk of war with the government of Ukraine: '19th century' formulae that almost no-one would have dreamt possible very recently.

At the same time, a new government in the cross-Pyrenean country of Catalonia appears to demand recognition and independence: as do the people of the Basque Country farther West, 'Euzkadi'.They want 'Independence in Europe', to cite the familiar slogan of the Scottish National Party now dominant in the Edinburgh Parliament. Isn't a recognisable trend emerging in several otherwise quite different countries, and acquiring a common voice? And isn't there also some common ground among their opponents? That is, the former or would-be great powers of Spain, France, Russia and Great Britain? The latter all built up historical 'nationalism', culminating in the world-scale warfare of 1914 to 1946, as well as its 'cold' successor conflict down to the end of the last millennium. Madrilenos, Parisians, Londoners and Muscovites are naturally hostile to the novelty, and anxious to preserve the nationality-politics of previous times: the 'realism' of viable scale and standing, hard-won institutions that confer both visibility and rights.

However, it may none the less be time to argue that 'internationalism' now manifests itself in new entities and demands: a globe of even greater diversity and variety, a house of many more colours, shades and possibilities than the ones historically registered and 'approved' by the existing United Nations. Are not 'Great Powers' history, as much as the old colonies, dependencies and hangers-on? As Tariq Ali has recently written, urging the Scots to 'undo this Union of rogues' and realise their own, distinct potential in the name of 'sovereignty. honour and dignity': 'The notion that an independent Scotland will be parochial is risible...' It 'could be far more internationalist and would benefit a great deal from links to both Scandinavia and states in other continents'.

The implication seems to be: 'reculer pour mieux sauter' – the Scots should take a step back into statehood, in order to leap forward and embrace the new age, a globality where there are certain to be many more self-governing units rather than fewer and bigger. The 'Yes' won't be to some out-dated or renovated self-government, but to a necessarily new form of self-rule, a polity framed partly by the new circumstances themselves. Of course we can't know just what the new 'potential' will be ― or at least, all we can be reasonably sure of is that it will be different, more democratic, and will require a correspondingly reformed Kingdom (or even a Republic?). 'Yes' means: 'Let's get on with it', whatever follows the never-ending decline, the 'Special Relationship' to Washington that was in truth a way of avoiding changes, and of clinging to the shade of by-gone times. Little England, let's hear from you, and not via fossils like the British National Party and the United Kingdom Independence movement. It's not chance that such outfits over-play Britannitude in their titles: this is, rather, a way of evading a long-overdue re-framing of Englishness. Boris Johnson appears to think London should turn into the Capital of Europe, if not the World: any absurdity to avoid a modest return to itself, and a real exit from the over-growth of a long-defunct imperium.

At least the Scots will have some chance of getting through (or at least moving towards) the Exit later this year. Let's do it, rather than hang around for more decades of brooding about it, and trying to sum up enough self-confidence to take on the new age. The confidence will come from doing it, and helping to foster the incoming tide of real inter-nationalism in our own way: new colours in the rising house, new tunes that Robert Burns might recognise as he sees the parcel o' rogues in the removal van at last. The end of 'Internationalism' is within sight: that '-ism' has already sunk half out of sight, and been replaced by the internationality visible in (for example) the openDemocracy web-site, at, where inter-nation discourse is taken for granted, and no longer a disguise for one or other great-power ambition or nostalgia — the sour half-world of Great-British 'special relationships' refusing to go quietly, and forever half-commemorating an irredeemable past. That's part of what the Scots will have the chance to vote for on September 18th, by saying 'Yes' to a world of many more open nations arriving to govern themselves, not just Catalonia, Wales, the Basques, the Crimeans and the other familiar cases.

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