Across Europe’s periphery the unquestioned status of the nation state is being disassembled in ways which seemed impossible to imagine until recently. In Greece the acrid domestic climate caused by austerity, enforced by the EU and IMF, has brought the relationship between a nation state and its apparent benefactors into serious question. Catalonia sees itself moving towards independence with peace and determination while Spain’s response has been petulant and typical in equal measure. In Ukraine the meaninglessness of a single national unit in comparison with its far larger neighbour and the EU fraternity on its other side is bringing its own xenophobic cultural mindset to the fore. In Scotland there is the precarious debate as to whether our its own sovereignty can be held in the same regard as the UK’s.
This, it seems, is the way of things now. Even in so large a network as the EU states are more or less expendable. Greece’s public sector is an appropriate sacrifice for the collective whole, regardless of its history of exploitation and false promises, fed through Greek politicians to an electorate which came to believe the hype. Catalonia is simply told its referendum will not be recognised by Spain, in a loutish move which met with all-too-little disapproval from other nation states. People in Ukraine now face a desperate choice between Putin-esque Russian control, or an economic fate similar to that of Greece at the behest of the EU all in the hope that their worth to the larger group makes it worthy of protection. In short, there can be no freedoms for nation states anymore.
But what of the US? Or China? Or Russia? The term ‘superpower’, in all its autoerotic boldness, has been used for decades to describe those entities which, though technically countries, have a reach and consequence far beyond their own borders whether through trade, military power or the lucidly postmodern nuances of 21st century culture. A look at the UN Security Council is illuminating; USA, China, Russia, France, UK. Three continuing ‘superpowers’ and two former colonialist ones, desperately claiming relevance. Having a seat at that table could not be less important for these two: their interests cannot be said to be the same, and even if they were the more important point is that their roles aren’t either.
UK nationalism has been the toxic backdrop to much of the last 10 years. What did it mean in 2007 when Tony Blair said he had been leading “the greatest country on earth.” How could that possibly have any substance other than patriotism and self-aggrandizement. What is in the mind of someone who says something like this? Since it relinquished most of its colonial interests in the 1960s Britain has been whipping up its own sense of greatness. Its tireless, humanity-driven solo struggle against the Nazis, or its selfless devotion to multiculturalism (with the attendant expectation of nobody demonstrating any cultural symbols which might distinguish them from the homogenous norm), or its affinity for queuing. How many programmes does the BBC subject those who haven’t yet boycotted it to about Britain’s deified greatness? There are walks, kayak trips, railway trips, all detailing the beauty of its flowers, countryside, and coastlines. Even programmes venerating British food: Great British Bake-Off. Evidently nobody in Norway could bake but if they did they’d do well to remember that there’s something intrinsically British about this bake off: something they could never be.
Domestically the Nation state has to assert its existence to its people daily, and with vigour. There can be no opportunity for questioning, or inquiring. Britain won the war, the Empire brought railways to people the world over, and Churchill was a hero who certainly wasn’t gotten rid of by an establishment which hated his guts the second they got the chance. What can’t be left to chance is that people will feel these things automatically. Ultimately they would realise that it’s a fiction, so the goal is to prevent people from having to think about it. Not hard when we have late capital comforts on our side. By and large the people that people know won’t be about to starve to death. If they live in an area which has massive unemployment it probably happened decades ago, and they’re just living it out now. Anyone living near a Waitrose can aspire to shop at it, then spend a few years as a Lib Dem meekly decrying its pretension while lauding its ethnic foods section, before graduating to an organic, local produce section in their small suburban town and voting Tory. So much richer to be part of the land. Good, British land at that.
Internationally adherents of the Nation state can look forward to a life of perpetual excitement. Whether it’s a knock-down argument with those damned colonists in Brussels, threatening everyone with their enforcement of those hideous rules everybody suffers under but can’t name, or a splendid war in one of those countries we used to own but somehow went rogue after colonialism (poor devils, it’s hardly like they can govern themselves now, is it?) There’s always something on the horizon. Most likely it’ll involve either ludicrous chest-beating and jingoism which threatens the trade you apparently hold so dear, or the dispensing of unimaginable suffering and horror to corners of the globe you can be sure the BBC won’t report on for fear of upsetting your teatime viewing. Or 10pm viewing. Or space on their website.
The reality of the wars instigated by other nation states against Substates is a simple one for those living in the former: ‘difficult choices’ are made by the nation state in defence of its citizens, even if that includes the unfortunate deaths of hundreds of the Substate’s people as a result of ham-fisted military action, or collusion with local terror networks. Really, though, wouldn’t those deaths have been preventable if those people in the Substate had just not been there to bother the Nation state?
Substates like Catalonia, Scotland and even smaller-scale nation states whose colonial ambitions haven’t been recognised can do things differently. In Scotland and Catalonia their economic outlook could be much brighter if they were to be in full control of their affairs, harnessing the power and productivity of their peoples’ ingenuity rather than seeing it ostracised in favour of the status quo approaches which are the quotidian for any Nation state. Having garnered a level of comfort from capitalism which is, by any measure, comparable with their neighbouring Nation states they can look afford to look introspectively and question whether or not the vacuous capitalistic drive which propelled colonialism shouldn’t be abandoned in favour of a push for an equal, hospitable society with an emphasis on international co-operation and the furthering of development around the world for its peoples’ own ends, and not for that of corporations residing in Nation states for tax purposes.
Domestically their welfare sectors can benefit from being the country’s new focus, rather than cycling between statuses as resented resource-drainers or shame-driven beneficiaries. Innovative ways of approaching social issues, including righting the wrongs of capitalism; mending the scars on our civil landscape in the form of peripheral housing estates, ghettoised enclaves or plush suburban extravagance. Assessing honestly our previous adherence to a capitalist, colonialist enterprise which has wrought so much misery for its own people and countless others around the world. Now ‘international development’ should be an equal partnership rather than the international version of domestic welfare-always pretending it’s absolving its patrons of blame while subtly making sure it plays a very active part in maintaining the status relationships which exist already.
The security afforded by being a Nation state couldn’t be less secure. The answer isn’t to be a smaller, more nimble Nation state, it’s to renounce the easy trappings of capitalism in favour of a just, equal society and partnership across borders. That won’t happen by staying in the Union but it won’t start just by being independent. Now is the time for all those invested in the referendum debate to ask themselves how best we can dismantle those capitalist systems around us and deliver, in partnership, a political system devoid of status or expansionism.