Universality needs diversity

Tom Nairn argues that the political return of the Scottish nation is a perfectly comprehensible expression of trends embracing the whole globe
…The faces pass, the individuals, how there can be such
difference we do not know but what we do know
is that an absolute instinct loves it different,
the world, the dialectic, the packed coaches
whistling at daybreak through the patched countries.’

Edwin Morgan, ‘Differences’, 1994

More than a side effect?

‘Globalisation’ has increased consciousness of ‘species-being’: everyone is more permanently conscious of homo sapiens as something like a single ‘tribe’, ‘nation’ or societal entity. This is independent of religious faith in God-given unity or commonality – though inevitably intertwined with ‘revivals’ of faith, where consequences re-present themselves as causes, or true sources.

A more persuasive approach may be to keep in mind the dominant mode of sociality over the period that ended in the conjoined crises of 1989 and the ‘GFC’ of 2008-9: ‘the world as we knew it’, in which socialism competed with North Atlantic-based capitalism for future dominance. The latter won in the short term, but only with a pyrrhic victory that led directly to a different kind of defeat: the ‘general crisis’ of a system no longer held together by the constraints of competition.

These critical shifts amount to a deeper reorientation of development, on the level of nationality-politics. Both Eastern (socialist) and Western (capitalist) growth patterns rested upon ‘nationalism’ in the sense discerned and theorized by Ernest Gellner: ‘ethno-development’ as the sole immediately available mode of cohesion in market-formation and industrialisation – nations as mobilizable nature, activated by language and mass culture, and idealised into the social-personal fusion of ‘identity’ in a modern sense. In the emergent world of Nations and Nationalism one (everyone) had to ‘be’ something – for example, ‘French’, and then as the process expanded, ‘Algerian’. ‘Moroccan’. etc.- in order to get anywhere, to become modern in one’s own terms. Of course ‘one’s own terms’ assumed a reality of its own, like the new condition of sea-going: a recognisable ship of the line, rather than a tow-barge or ‘dependency’. But those terms were not ‘for their own sake’: identity was functional, not civilisation as such – a way into the game, uniforms rather than fashion clothing chosen for style or self-assertion alone.

Shifts and ‘-isms’

‘Ages’ in that sense have no general closing date: ‘nationalism ‘ in E.G.’s sense was approximately 1789-1989, but the ‘approximate’ doesn’t mean that before the French Revolution nobody was industrialized or had national-style identification, while everybody ‘moved on’ from the latter when the Wall collapsed. Avalanches come and go; earth-shifts take longer, linger and occasionally re-erupt, preserved by customs, nostalgias and intelligentsias. As Gellner so often said, nationalism needed intéllos and working (or would-be working) classes; and the former grew influential enough to have a heavily invested stake in the ‘-ism’ – which today continues to entail, some interest in ‘-ism’-preservation, resurrection, or at least pretence.

None the less, it remains ‘approximately’ true that the two centuries were the main-body age of nationalism, and a successor is in formation: what people are aiming at with terms like ‘globalization’. Everyone, everywhere is of course not ‘industrialised’, commercialised, and so on: many have 15

hardly started, and a few have had a surfeit of ‘modernity’. Intelligentsias and proletariats continue to sprout, albeit in different circumstances. Circumstantial shifts are processes, chains of unintended events rather than policies, think-tank plans, or sage-like forecasts. The most convincing panorama of such directional tide-turnings remains Albert O. Hirschman’s A Propensity to Self-Subversion ((Harvard 1995), especially ‘Mapping the Getting-Stuck Syndrome’ (pp.51-68). A sufficiently large number of ‘side-effects’ amounts to a non-side effect or change. ‘Globalisation’ is such an alteration: a shift from functional or original nationality-politics to some successor – a farther epochal setting that both bears forward much of its predecessor, and changes its content and significance.


Populations still have to identify themselves within globality but it may be arguable this is no longer primarily a means to an end – i.e. the achievement of place and status within industrialisation. Nancy Fraser has argued that, despite all its absurdities and final crisis, Neo-liberalism had the unintended consequence of partial gender-levelling, a shift now permanent and undeniable (New Left Review, ‘Feminism Coopted’, March-April 2009). Can’t analogous effects be discerned in the dimension of nationality and statehood? The ‘-ism’ defined by Gellner was for long instrumental. Without it national market-places and enterprises were difficult to obtain, and liable to be prevented, or overwhelmed. A nation-state mechanism seemed the most available way for any distinctive population to remain, and develop. The alternative was subordination, ‘assimilation’, disappearance and the assumption of different identities: premature ‘globalisation’ as all-French, all-Spanish, all-American, all-Chinese.

Warfare was the natural climate of such contestation. But the era concluded in a ‘cold war’ compromise, in which around two hundred nationality-states survive, and even continue to proliferate as the established norm. Actual globality has imposed the persistence of diversity, within a (roughly) global market-place and economy, and hence altered the circumstances of societal evolution. ‘Identity’ has become more evidently a compromise between world-wide development and particular needs and traits: the inherited ‘peculiarities’ of populations, languages, cultures and interests. The latter need the former, in a sense different from what was once entailed by empire and colonisation – ‘becoming’ British, ‘Spanish’, ‘Russian’, etc. Imperialism used to carry ‘modernity’ in its baggage-train. But of course this baggage can’t be left behind on what has become an older, de-railed train. It has to be re-housed in more appropriate ways, as a continuing precondition of species-being variety, and diversity.

The crucial shift here is that the converse is also true. Cultural diversity may require appropriate universal conditions; but ‘universality’ also needs the appropriate maintenance and increase of diversity. Nor can such differentiation be relegated to ‘culture’ alone, in the sense of aesthetic display, rituals, and re-presentation of communal traditions – leaving ‘serious’ economic and political matters on the global or ‘international’ plane. Plurality is not play: if there’s an essence to human nature, it’s probably here. It lies in the ‘common ground’ between kinship and species-being. That is, in the zone where biology is both side-stepped and continued: ‘transcended’ is the elusive term here, popular among clerics for obvious reasons – but also, as Mauss and Durkheim first understood and stated plainly, the basis of sociology and human (i.e. societal) nature.

Societal Selection

Gellner worked out something of the selective machinery appropriate for ‘primitive accumulation’, in Nations and Nationalism (1983, see new 2009 edition with Introduction by John Breuilly). By contrast, ‘globalization’ indicates the limits of the mechanism of nationalism/imperialism. Natural selection made way for historical selection; and the latter is now mutating into ‘globalization’. Transcendence is changing skins again, and misinterpretation is part of the process. A vital part of the mission of ‘intellectuals’ lies here. In pre-global times they both enabled nationalism and protested against it, via ‘internationalism’; now that the latter is a mere fact, ambiguity has to alter focus. Part of this shift lies in detecting and helping to rid culture of pre-global phonies. For a significant period, the chief phony was the ‘USSR’: a deceitful instrument of Great-Russian power, as well as of an error-laden ideology. Mercifully ended in 1989, its disappearance has regrettably not been terminal. Other over-sized remnants of past ages remain, like India, China, Indonesia and the United States.

These should not be confused with Europe. The latter’s ‘union’ has been deliberate, partial, and constitutionally configured to avoid big-lad presence: a confederation rather than a warlike power in the making. But though some of its constituents have themselves gone (or been forced) through divestiture of grandiosity, like Germany, Italy and Spain, another still longs for the impossible: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The ruling class of this fossil heritage aspires to post-modernity plus a non-reformed early-modern constitution and an over-blown monarchy. A domestic anachronism dated from 1707 (the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland) is accompanied by global pretentiousness garbed in ‘Commonwealth’ robes, and Security Council status at the United Nations.

Although diluted to some extent by ‘devolution’, this state naturally remains devoted to over-sized posturing. Neither defeat nor occupation have compelled a retraction of essence. The current Premier Gordon Brown is in fact an apostle of reanimated ‘Britishism’, and he seems likely to be succeeded by a Conservatism stressing the same factors of Unity and continuing grandeur, albeit in the more contemporary tones made unavoidable by globalization. This is the broader framework for continuing ‘devolution’, and the rise of differentiated nationality-consciousness in the British-Irish archipelago. Globalizing conditions encourage a more politicized national awareness, but one in which ‘identity’ ceases to be primarily instrumental. It used often to be said that ‘identity’ was ideal play-time, counterposed against ‘real’ economics…or ‘materialism’. But today finality is enforcing its own agenda: Societies must select themselves, no longer for the short haul of industrial-commercial presence, but for an indeterminate time to come – ‘as far as the eye can see’. Identity has become ‘for its own sake’…and that of the world.

Sovereignty and Selection

Far from retreating to an unattainable past, ‘sovereignty’ – or ‘having the last word’ – has therefore become the serious way of taking on an attainable, if damnably awkward, future. – a democratic-collective role of more and smaller states, associated (or sometimes dissociated) in novel ways. The G8 has become the G20 (with some leadership from Australia), and the United Kingdom is already a less-united conglomerate, where Scotland, Wales and the different parts of Ireland are learning new parts, both in the E.U. and outside of it. Referenda in Wales and Scotland will soon re-establish popular rights, and help in turn to extricate the English majority from its addiction to the ‘Unwritten Constitution’ of the Crown and absolute Parliamentary authority. This is why the demise of the Treaty of Union could mean all-round liberation – outside the British-Irish Isles, as well as within them. All democratic nationalists have some stake in the outcome.

Anglo-Britain took the lead in formation of the earlier phase of development. Is it not conceivable that this multi-national entity might still play its role in the successor or globalizing phase? For example, by emphasis upon democracy, and through the cultivation of an appropriate ‘civic’ nationalism as foundation for such political union? Were the components of the ‘U.K.’ roughly equal or comparable in influence, this would be imaginable. An altered ‘imagined community’ could come in to being by forms of balance and compensation, aided by the common ground of European Union. But the trouble is, ‘Britain’ is simply not like that; nor will the imaginative efforts of enlightened circles make it so. It is overwhelmingly dominated by a single component, England: eighty-five per cent of the population, with territory and resources to match. Nor can any reconstructed union do much to change this. In addition, the disproportion is deformed by sheer concentration of people and resources in a single area of the national component: ‘London and the Home Counties’ in the conventional terminology is a cosmopolis within both nation and Union. Even democratized, a multinational state would remain overwhelmed by it.

Certainly, this might be cushioned or distanced by an English-national polity where the North and North-East played a greater part. But there is (putting it mildly) very little sign of any such shift. On the contrary, the absence of all-English political initiative tends to be taken for granted – as if England’s electorate has grown so accustomed to Westminster-British enlargement that no other is imaginable. ‘Empire’ in that sense has hardened into an indurate ideology resistant to serious challenge from all other sources, including European enlargement and ‘assimilation’. Hence what should be the principal energy for structural political reform, majority willpower and interest, is simply not there. Nor can it be conjured up by rhetoric and speculative ingenuity. What democracy encounters in this case is something like a form of quiet, dogged nationalism – underground, yet all the stronger for such reticence and low-level certitude, the conviction of not being ‘like that’.

But Wales, Scotland and Ireland have naturally had to be ‘like that’. In broader context, they are fairly typical European nationality-problems. This is what creates the unusual context of the proposed referenda in Scotland and Wales: movements for independence and sovereign rights, not against suppression of the typical 1789-1989 kind but for emergence from collapsing disregard and failing ‘solutions’ of indifference and marginalization. Accusations of ‘regression’ here encounter a quite basic problem: getting out of Ukania can’t avoid going ‘backward’ in order to recuperate terrain lost earlier, and foster the foundations for a new start. The latter will of course be different from standard-issue de-colonization and nationalism. However, such differences do not disqualify nation-building and awakening – they simply mean that new times call for new, and partially different answers – the responses of a ‘globalizing’ system, rather than those of former uneven development, domination, incorporation (and so on). It should also be pointed out that only the initiatives of new nationality arrangements and claims are likely to achieve this, from East Timor and West Papua to Catalonia and Wales. By definition, no text-books can be much help: the ‘raw material’ for twenty-second century guides and ‘Politics 1’ courses is itself in formation, including false starts, failed leaderships and dubious ideologies.

And Scotland’s role in the process? I have emphasized the wider context in order to present a non-standard view: the political return of the Scottish nation is a perfectly comprehensible expression of trends and changes embracing the whole globe, not just the United Kingdom. Naturally, nationalists have always claimed to be ‘joining the world’; it is our great fortune to be joining this world, not ‘belatedly’ but at a moment imposed by real if novel circumstances. We don’t have to fight for it in the miserable old way, bursting out of prison with weapons; but we have to do so while the customs of a better time are still being forged, in more propitious circumstances where a greater equality of nationhoods is recognized, and indeed called for, by the pressures of a ‘final solution’ having nothing to do with race and genetic endowment. In Christopher Harvie’s terms, Scotland has to be ‘mended’: fixed up and got back into mundane operation again (See Mending Scotland: Essays in Economic Regionalism, Argyll Publishing, 2004).

Not ‘leading the way’ (thank God) but getting out of the ‘inverted commas’ of the Union Treaty, and modestly contributing in its own right to a new mode of nationality, within a world of many colours, where democratic mansions are again on the increase. In former times, Scotland’s odd fate was to become an ‘inverted commas’ country: the ‘Scotland’ of abnegation, a historical land that opted for absurdly unequal incorporation into the grander multi-national polity of Great Britain, which in turn expanded into an imperial order around the globe. Compensation for the loss was to some extent invented via what Tom Devine has labelled ‘Highlandism’, an exaggerated identity-version stressing non-political and kinship themes. The other compensatory tendency was what could be called the ‘good boy’ ideology: exemplary contribution to modernity’s need for rational procedure and servitude. Folklore plus engineering were the inverted commas of Brit-Scotland: hallmarks of acceptance and wider-world propriety.

Escape from the latter into independence is a long-overdue normalization, a rejection not of ‘the English’ but of the wider British yoke so fatally important in the struggles of 1789-1989. Part of that fatality remains in English over-attachment to this order, a deep-laid exceptionalism reluctant to acknowledge that those who were for so long first are lapsing the ordinary ways of the (globalizing) world: an England as ‘little’ (or as big) as everywhere else, and no longer requiring anachronistic supports and traditions that hamper rather than enable adaptation to a successor age.