Is nationalism good or bad? As the Scottish referendum approaches this seems the right question to ask.
My dad, who fought the Nazis, used to say: “I cannot understand why nationalism is bad when it is big, but good when it is small”.
This was when Plaid Cymru were resurgent – their representation in Westminster had just soared from one to three MPs, and the hugely successful campaign to get road signs in Welsh as well as English, had started to establish bilingualism as the norm rather than a joke.
It was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to, but I came to the conclusion – a bit like the famous West Lothian question over devolution – the response was in the question. There was a standard reply that you hear all the time now; but if nationalism was a way for a people to express themselves after suppression by a larger group, then it was good. If, on the other hand, nationalism was the badge of that larger group then it was bad. Thus the nationalism of the repugnant British National Party or English Defence League campaigning against immigration was (and is) wrong. But the nationalism of Plaid Cymru, campaigning for a stronger, more confident Wales, was (and is) not?
Yet over the years this question has not gone away and I have wrestled with it constantly. Surely there was a simpler answer than this. I am now starting to wonder whether my dad was right all along. Perhaps ALL nationalism is wrong, whether big or small.
This area is a minefield but I will enter it anyway.
The idea of the nation state with largely fixed borders is a relatively new one. It has long been disputed, and the key question within the debate, has a chicken and egg feel – so it is ‘which came first, the nation or the nation state?’
Some believe the nation state came about as a by-product of advances in 15th century map-making, although most theories say it started life in the 19th century and was made possible by mass literacy as well as (cough) the mass media. A few nation states, notably Germany and Italy, came into existence – at least partly – as a result of political campaigns by nationalists.
The notion of the nation state reached its apotheosis during the 1919 Versailles treaty which marked the end of the first world war. There, the task was led by US President Woodrow Wilson in apportioning land, and offering self-determination according to the arguments put forward by homogenous groups of ‘peoples’. These groups could supposedly be ascertained by discovering peoples with, for most, a common language and a common cultural heritage. A succession of groups presented themselves before the decision-makers to show themselves as homogenous peoples who should be allowed self-determination.
Even then there were problems. What to do about the Kurds for example, of whom we hear so much now? They shared the key characteristics but were, tragically, denied nationhood after they were bullied into submission by the big powers. They have a common language and common cultural heritage, but no real borders. Then there are some Pathans who still believe they live in Pushtanistan, but which is a land that lies half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan.
Now, though, the problems are even greater. Globalisation has created a mishmash of groups everywhere. London is an international city where you will hear languages from all over the world. Cardiff could be heading this way. You only need to stroll through the city centre to hear a huge range of languages, along with English and Welsh. Bessemer Rd car boot sale in Cardiff is a showcase for people from all over the world. How many see themselves as Welsh, I wonder?
Before the golden age of nationalism, governance boiled down to the local community or city. The idea of the city-state was soon born.
A leading Plaid Cymru politician once told me: “We need to move to a post-nation state Europe.”
Perhaps he is right and it is time to consider trying to do this. Perhaps we should bring back the city-state. Perhaps nationalism is bad when it is big and bad when it is small.
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