Saturday, 26 January 2013

Is Unionism a form of nationalism?

Supporters of Scottish independence sometimes describe unionists as British nationalists. While writing that I oppose nationalism in general, Scottish nationalists have quite often objected that my unionism is just as much a form of nationalism as their Scottish nationalism. I thought initially that this was just another instance of independence debate mudslinging, trying to associate unionism with the BNP. But the claim is often repeated and clearly some Scottish nationalists genuinely do believe that unionism is a nationalist ideology. It is therefore worth pointing out that in asserting this they are either showing a poor understanding of the nature of nationalism or that really they are trying to be insulting and offensive. 

Historically there are really three forms of nationalism. These can be described as the secession form of nationalism, the unification form of nationalism and the nationalism that sometimes arises after these processes have occurred.

Looking at a map of Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, it is possible to see how both the secession form of nationalism and the unification form of nationalism came to form the Europe which exists today. The Finnish people, for example, during the 19th century developed their sense of nationality. This occurred in a number of ways such as the publication of the Finnish national epic the Kalevala in 1835 and  the increased use of Finnish in public life, owing to the fact that the nobility chose to speak Finnish rather than Swedish. Other factors such as religion, the music of Sibelius and folklore all played a part in the development of Finnish nationalism, which eventually led to a declaration of independence in 1917. Finland then seceded from the collapsing Russian Empire. Similar forms of nationalism led Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to secede as well. Likewise the development of Czech and Slovak nationalisms, through a gradual process of linguistic and cultural national awakening eventually saw these countries secede first from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then from each other.

As a force at work in the 19th century, the unification form of nationalism can  best be seen with the examples of Germany and Italy. Here the movement of national awakening brought about the joining together of separate states and statelets into a whole. German nationalists, noting that  German was spoken in a number of different countries, which had once formed the Holy Roman Empire and then the German Confederation, set about trying to achieve unity in these states,  forming one state out of many. They considered that wherever German was spoken, there should be Germany. A similar process of unification occurred in Italy. First came a gradual Italian national awakening and with it the sense of their being a nation called Italy, which was not merely a  geographical concept. Eventually, through a period of struggle known as the Risorgimento Italian nationalists achieved their goal of creating the nation we know today as Italy. 

Of course, most European countries are made up of what were formerly independent states. But in many cases their unification occurred prior to the historical period which we associate with the growth of nationalism. France thus had already gathered most of the lands, where the various forms of French were spoken, by the Middle Ages. Britain likewise had already gathered the lands where English was spoken before anyone much thought in terms of nations or of nationalism.  It is a mistake to try to impose modern concepts of nationalism on people living in a world, which most frequently extended no further than the next village.

After a nation has achieved its aim of unification or secession, we normally do not describe the people who live in such a country as nationalists. Finns are not nationalists because they want to maintain the territorial integrity of their country, they are patriots. Likewise, it would be a mistake to describe Angela Merkel as nationalist. No doubt, it would also be offensive to her.  She does not want Germany, or a part of Germany, to secede from a larger body and she cannot want German unification to happen because it has already occurred. Once the goal of nationalism has been achieved it would be senseless to describe the people living in the resulting state as nationalists. To do so would be to make the term meaningless, for everyone then would be a nationalist who lives in a nation state. If nationalist were to mean inhabitant, it would cease to be a word which distinguished one type of person from another and would therefore quickly drop out of usage. 

However, of course, there are nationalists who neither want secession nor unification. To describe someone, for example,  living today in France as a nationalist is to describe someone who does not want to change the borders of France. This then brings us to the third form of nationalism. This is the kind of nationalism, which sometimes develops after the goals of unification or secession have been achieved.  This form of nationalism is the desire to unify a people within a nation state, defined normally by racial, but sometimes by linguistic or religious characteristics, through their secession from others who lack these characteristics. It is therefore an ideology of the far right. In France it is the form of nationalism which says that France is for the French, defining French in a narrow racist way. The non-French must leave. A similar sort of poisonous nationalism is put forward by the BNP. But this form of far right ideology has clearly nothing whatsoever do with unionism in Britain. Unionists neither want secession nor do they want unification. They want the  territorial integrity of the nation state Great Britain to be maintained. In this unionists are no more nationalists than the Finns who want the self same thing. 

As an aside, it is worth noting that it could be argued that desiring the secession of a nation from the EU could perhaps, be described as an expression of the secession form of nationalism. This becomes all the more so as the EU still further acquires the qualities of a nation state. Thus, it is possible that UKIP could be described as UK or British nationalists. But this is not the focus of unionism, which is concerned with maintaining the Union of the UK. There is nothing incompatible with being a Europhile unionist. 

One consequence of the argument being made here about the various forms of nationalism is rather interesting. If Scotland were to achieve independence, it would no longer make sense to describe Scots as nationalists. The Scottish National Party therefore could not logically continue as as a party of nationalism. Under these circumstances and only at this point, it might  be possible to describe those unionists, who wished to achieve reunification with the other English speaking people in the British Isles, as British nationalists. This would be because they would then be seeking the same sort of national reawakening as took place in Germany and Italy.

As we can see from history, the natural process of historical development in Europe is that of gathering together those people who are culturally, linguistically and religiously similar. Where however, people are very different, either religiously, culturally and especially linguistically, it is a natural part of historical development that secession occurs. It was eminently reasonable that Finns should want to secede from the Russian Empire, that Czechs and Slovaks should want their own country separate from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But if everyone in Europe were to follow the example of Scotland and seek secession, then it is clear that we would be returning to a pre-modern patchwork of statelets, where France was made up of a dozen countries and Germany of hundreds. This is to go against the tide of history. Scots are just too similar to the rest of the people in the UK to justify a split. We speak the same language, we have largely the same culture and  we have intermarried for centuries. It makes no more sense to break up Britain than it does to break up Germany.

A British person who opposes the secession of Scotland from the UK is no more a nationalist than a German person who opposes the secession of Bavaria from Germany. Wishing to maintain the territorial integrity of the nation state is not nationalism. It is what everyone in every country wishes. A unionist already has the nation state he desires. It’s called the UK. You can’t seek what you already have.  A unionist therefore, neither seeks secession nor unification. To describe him as a nationalist is therefore to imply that he suffers from the third form of nationalism, which is to say that he is on the far right. This is both offensive and false. 


  1. "This form of nationalism is the desire to unify a people within a nation state, defined normally by racial, but sometimes by linguistic or religious characteristics, through their secession from others who lack these characteristics."

    “If Scotland wants to be independent they have the absolute right to do so. But I think nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide me in half with a knife.

    “The thought that my mother would suddenly be a foreigner would upset me very much.”
    Tony Benn, 2012

  2. "Benn wrote that he "loathed" the EEC; he claimed it was "bureaucratic and centralised" and "of course it is really dominated by Germany"... Tony Benn is a British nationalist in my opinion, and has some muddled views on this subject, although in general, I am a fan. If I substituted the words 'British state' for EEC and 'England' (more accurately Eton) for 'Germany', it would be fair to assume that I was a Scottish 'nationalist'.

    Your article above is interesting and it's good to see some real thought on this subject. However, you write from a position of superiority as regards the UK as if it somehow has a greater right to exist as a sovereign state than any of the other component nations that make up the construct. It's this that stops many British nationalists seeing the reality of their nationalism. I have no problem with my nationalism, I wish to see an independent Scottish nation because I think that is the best constitutional arrangement for the people who live in Scotland. You should be honest enough to admit to your nationalism too - I'm sorry if that offends you.

  3. I'm not at all offended by what you write as you express your opinion in a reasonable and well argued way. That is not to say that I agree with your opinion however. I think that Scotland has a perfect right to exist as a sovereign nation if that's what the majority of Scots wish. The point I am trying to make in my article is that the desire for secession is a form of nationalism, while the desire for the status quo is not. If that is not the case then everyone who lives in a nation state would automatically be a nationalist and the word would become meaningless.

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  5. Thank you for getting back to me. The way we have both framed our arguments I believe to be 'nationalist', the creation AND maintenance of a nation state is necessarily nationalist. For example, Russians seeking to maintain Chechnya within the Russian Federation are Russian nationalists; Putin's party called for a 'Union of Unity and Fatherland' in the early 2000s, this sounds nationalist to me and Putin himself walks a nationalist tight-rope in that country. Perhaps you make a distinction between Nation State and Federation? A grey area and another topic I suppose!

    Are you arguing that the maintenance of the British state is a special case, and that this form of nationalism is different, so different as to not be classified as nationalism at all? That would certainly be your prerogative, as I argue that the Scots' form of nationalism is different to many European nationalisms, but as I said, I have no problem with the nationalist mantle for myself. I do not believe that a desire for the status quo with regard to one's nation state absolves one of the nationalism (you may say patriotism) required in order to ensure its continuance or renders the term meaningless.

    In the mid-1990s I was involved in the anti-fascist movement in Edinburgh/Glasgow. One of our in-jokes when discussing the other side, was to parrot one of their arguments, "I'm not racist, just patriotic". I am certainly not trying to tar you with their repellant brush but I believe semantics is a risky tool to use when discussing politics.

    So, we may I think, have to agree to disagree on this one but thanks once again for responding in such a considered way and for posting your article in the first place. You may find the 'Open letter to Tony Benn' on the Wings Over Scotland website interesting (if you haven't visited already) as it touches on some of the points in our discussion. Here's the link:

    Best regards


  6. I think the purpose of blogging is to have a bit of debate. I generally try to respond to anyone who makes sensible points in a reasonable way. I think someone like Putin who is trying to maintain the unity of his country against the wishes of the Chechens is showing the third form of fascist nationalism. I don't think British unionists think in this way. I certainly would support the right of Scotland to be independent if the majority living here vote that way. I just don't think we normally think of people who want to maintain the territorial integrity of a nation state as nationalists. Perhaps the argument at this point becomes a matter of linguistics. You are right we must be careful not to get too tied up in semantics. The substance of the argument is what matters.
    As the independence debate continues I am at times gaining a greater understanding of those who desire independence. I quite often read Wings over Scotland and recognise the sincerity of the views expressed there and some well thought out arguments. I don't think nationalist is a term of abuse as most Europeans have at some point or other been nationalists, I just don't think the term applies to me.



  7. You're always going to win an argument if you define your own parameters to exclude the most relevant one.

    To suggest that the orgy of Union Jack-waving that went on in the UK for much of last year wasn't "nationalist" is a pretty silly position. But in its defence, it's not as silly as this:

    "Wishing to maintain the territorial integrity of the nation state is not nationalism. It is what everyone in every country wishes."

    If everyone in the UK wanted to maintain its territorial integrity, we wouldn't be having a referendum at all.

    1. Most countries at some point or another engage in flag waving, but we don't normally describe the people as nationalists. Otherwise the word becomes pointless as it applies to everyone. It is in this context that I wrote the sentence which you find silly. When either secession or unification has occured, the inhabitants of a nation state will want to maintain its territorial integrity. Thus patriotic French people don't want to lose Picardy. This does not make them nationalists it makes them ordinary inhabitants of France.

    2. COUNTRIES certainly indulge in flag-waving. To extrapolate that to all the PEOPLE of that country is absurd. Many want no part of such behaviour, something which is currently being demonstrated to stark effect in Belfast.

    3. Oh, and I hate to be so base as to resort to this, but here's the Oxford English definition of "nationalist":

      Definition of nationalism
      [mass noun]

      patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts: an early consciousness of nationalism and pride

      an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries: playing with right-wing nationalism

      advocacy of political independence for a particular country: Scottish nationalism

      The first (especially) and second of those would seem to clearly apply to British nationalists, particularly in the context of what we're talking about.

    4. I get a rather different definition of nationlist from the online subscription to the OED:

      " An adherent or advocate of nationalism (nationalism n. 1a); an advocate of national independence or self-determination. With capital initial: a member of a particular nationalist political party"

      Not much point then quoting dictionaries at each other.

      The point I'm making is that in most European countries, every now and again, people wave flags and feel patriotic, but we would not call Finns or Norwegians nationalists in this context. Some Finns might not like patriotism, some might even want the secession of Åland, but that does not make the rest of them nationalists. Germans would be horrified to be called nationalists, even if a few Bavarians wanted to secede.

      I don't think that what is going on in Belfast has anything to do with the debate in Scotland. It's probably best for all of us that this should remain so.

    5. "I get a rather different definition of nationlist from the online subscription to the OED: " An adherent or advocate of nationalism""

      Um, how is that different to mine? (I asked it for "nationalist" but as you'll see what it actually gave me was "nationalisM".

  8. Good day, Effie,
    Dave linked to your blog on Wings, so I came over to have a read, and there is certainly food for thought in what you write. There is, of course, an '...ism' missing in the discussion so far, and that is imperialism, defined in its 'progressive' form as:

    'promoting the spread of civilization to allegedly backward societies to elevate living standards and culture in conquered territories, and allowance of a conquered people to assimilate into the imperial society, examples being the Roman Empire and British Empire.' (see Wiki)

    Only the more extreme on the secessionist side of the debate would be willing to classify the UK in its current incarnation as imperialist, yet it's easy enough to perceive what one might term the residual echoes of imperialism in the attitude of many at Westminster towards Scottish nationalism, and that I think is what has led to the coining of British Nationalism. It is not just the desire to maintain the territorial integrity of the nation state - it is the insistence on the superiority of the current model to the point of refusing to contemplate any alternative. The same can be seen in the Catalonian issue - though you may perhaps consider the attitude of Madrid to be closer to facist nationalism?

    1. Thanks for you comment. I think if the Government in Westminster were trying to force Scotland to remain in the UK it would an example of the fascist form of nationalistm. I certainly disagree with the way that Spain is treating Catalonia. I hope that Catalonia remains in Spain, but they certainly have the right to leave if vote for it. But in fact the British government has not put any blocks on those desiring independence. Quite the reverse. Successive governemnts have said that Scotland has the right to independence if the majority wish it. I too subscribe to this view, as should any democrat. But a unionist is after all allowed to prefer the model of the UK, to the model of an independent Scotland and to think it a better model. This is what we are debating. And to deny that right would be equally undemocratic.

    2. "But in fact the British government has not put any blocks on those desiring independence. Quite the reverse. Successive governemnts have said that Scotland has the right to independence if the majority wish it."

      ...yet steadfastly refused to actually give them the opportunity to say whether they did or not, by blocking a referendum on the subject until it was in practice impossible to continue to do so.

    3. When the SNP was only supported by a small minority of Scots it was not unreasonable to think there was no need to offer a referendum on independence. Since they have increased in popularity the need to have a debate about independence has become more pressing. Personally I think we should have had the referendum when the SNP first gained power in the Scottish parliament, but Scottish Labour did not agree.

  9. Hi Effie... This might be of interest to you...

    This quote stood out for me: "The government of each nation by itself, for itself, in fellowship with all nations – that is true democracy."

    Plenty of references to patriotism and nationalism in there, but mostly 'freedom'; it's also couched in the language of old-fashioned Scottish Nationalism, but as you're a Walter Scott fan perhaps that won't put you off! It doesn't resolve the argument above but I thought you might find it of interest none-the-less, and it's certainly more interesting than scouring the OED.