A question of identity

Image of Simon Kuper

“The hour has come to exercise our right to self-rule,” says Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president, sounding like a 19th-century statue of a nationalist hero on horseback. Catalans vote on Sunday in what amounts to a referendum on independence from Spain. Scots are galloping down the same road: they vote on independence in 2014. And Flemish nationalists won big last month in Belgian local elections that you may have missed. If these characters get their way, the map of western Europe will undergo its first changes since Ireland became independent in 1922.

It’s a pity Eric Hobsbawm died in October, aged 95. The jazz-loving Marxist historian was the man on nationalism in Europe, but he’s missing what may be the continent’s final nationalist episode. Today’s secessionist movements don’t betoken the rise of nationalism in Europe. Rather, they betoken almost the exact opposite: the waning of the nation-state. Mas et al aim to ditch old redundant nation-states in order to create new redundant nation-states. The history of nationalism in Europe looks to be creaking to an end.

I view nationalism as an outsider. Living in Paris with my American wife and my British passport, supporting Holland at football and South Africa at cricket, I’m baffled that anyone would want to die for their country. And, in fact, for most of history they didn’t. Nationalism – the notion that people who shared a culture and language should govern themselves in one state – is a fairly new idea. To quote the opening words of Elie Kedourie’s book Nationalism: “Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.”

Hobsbawm and another great thinker on nationalism, Ernest Gellner, largely agree with that. Nationalism scarcely existed before the industrial revolution. Let’s be frank: the 13th-century “Scots” in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart were not motivated by anything resembling modern nationalism.

The key change, says Gellner, came when people moved from farms to cities. Their new jobs often required some education. Meanwhile a bureaucracy arose to administer the new schools, railways and armies. For the first time, most people had to be literate. The crucial question then became: in which language? If you were Czech, say, living in the Austro-Hungarian empire, you wanted that language to be Czech.

In short, nationalism arrived relatively late. “Catalanism as a (conservative) cultural-linguistic movement can hardly be traced back further than the 1850s …” wrote Hobsbawm. “The language itself was not authoritatively standardised until the twentieth century.” He thinks it was only General Franco’s later crude attempts to suppress Catalanism that made Catalan a strong identity.

While Europeans were still fighting wars, the nation-state provided defence. The Scots-English union derived much of its emotional meaning from two world wars. The period 1918-50 was “the apogee of nationalism”, says Hobsbawm.

But later the thing declined. New technologies created a supranational world: cheap flights, international financial markets, the internet and cable TV channels that helped teach the young generation the new global language of English. In the 19th century, mastery of the national language was your ticket into the elite; now, in a country such as Turkey, the elite is increasingly educated in English.

Many national governments in western Europe have forfeited their best tools: national borders, currencies and wars (no fighting in this region since May 1945). They committed to free trade. Inevitably, then, the nation-state began withering away. Belgium in 2010-11 went 541 days without a national government – effectively becoming a failed state – and hardly anyone noticed.

The nation-state is shrinking to just a flag, some sports teams and a pile of debts. Catalans, Scots and Flemings might as well get out. They just shouldn’t think their own little states will be more use. They appear aware of this. They game-plan is to couple glorious nationhood with the European superstate. When Scots and Catalans realised the European Union might not admit them, they cooled on independence.

In fact, the EU’s recent rise exemplifies the demise of nationalism. During the economic crisis, the EU has been morphing into something of a federal state: central control over national budgets, European bailouts, perhaps banking union. Europeans have sulked, but they’ve mostly accepted this.

That doesn’t mean they love the EU. Nobody ever ran into the street drunk, waving the European flag. The emotional choice now isn’t between nation and Europe. Rather, people are gradually replacing nationalism with an array of transnational loyalties. Someone might identify with the global community of English-speakers, or as a Londoner, black person, Muslim, Justin Bieber fan, member of the global elite, or possibly all these things. Most people also still identify with a nation, but that’s becoming just one identity among many.

Catalans, Scots and Flemings probably won’t secede. But if they did, they might soon wish they were still prancing around reciting historical grievances and blaming other people for their problems. Hobsbawm, as a Marxist, would have known how to describe this last hurrah of nationalism in Europe: history repeating itself as farce.


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