Petty Micro-Nationalisms

This week the divided parliament of Catalonia voted in favor of a plebiscite on independence from Spain on October 1, just a few weeks away. The Spanish government doesn’t recognize the power of any region to secede. Catalonia is one of several regions in Spain with independence movements.

Nearly every nation in Europe, and everywhere, is comprised of distinct regional cultures with individual histories and identities that set them apart to varying degrees from the national structure. Sometimes there are serious independence movements, and sometimes they ignite revolutions or civil wars. But more typically these regions are more content to celebrate their distinctiveness while still enjoying the advantages of a larger nation state. Usually, there are also unifying national narratives and common historical experiences that bind regions together with the larger whole.

No doubt Catalans like every people group everywhere have their grievances, some of which are valid and others of which are needlessly nursed across generations. Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, is more prosperous than most of Spain. The independence movement imagines Catalonia would do better on its own.

This idea seems preposterous, petty, and vain. Spain is a great nation with which Catalonia has been associated across centuries. That history may not be blameless, but ultimately it has worked for the betterment of all.

There is petty nationalism, and there is ennobling nationalism. The former seeks special advantage through parochial regionalism and often by stoking ancient resentments, real and imagined. It obsessively focuses on purported sacrifices to the larger nation while ignoring countless advantages. It creates niche mythologies to perpetuate separatist goals.

Scottish nationalism and separatism are better known than Catalonia’s. Scottish separatists lost the last plebiscite but imagined, it appears so far vainly, that Brexit would reignite their cause. Recently, I met some academics who teach in Scotland and who said they had shifted to the Scottish nationalist cause. They were speaking at a conference on Just War teaching, so I asked them what armed forces an independent Scotland would create. They confessed they had not pondered the question, which confirmed my impression that Scottish separatism is also petty and vain, built on imagined grievances and not enlightened political reality.

Nation states, to be viable, must ensure their own security. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) did in fact before the last referendum compose a paper explaining how an independent Scotland would create an armed forces of 15,000 personnel, many of whom would have withdrawn from the United Kingdom’s armed forces, and who would have U.K. military assets apportioned based on Scotland’s population size. It also claimed an independent Scotland would save money by spending less creating and sustaining its own forces instead of supporting larger U.K. forces.

This claim is unpersuasive. Only relatively recently in 2012 did the SNP switch in favor of joining NATO after decades of opposition. It’s an open question whether NATO would accept Scotland, risking an example for other separatist movements like Catalonia’s. The SNP opposes nuclear weapons, so independence would compel the U.K. to withdraw its nuclear bases, threatening its nuclear deterrent, which further undermines the SNP’s seriousness on security obligations for a viable state versus petulant separatism based on narrow ambition.

It could be argued that Brexit was a form of separatism. But the U.K. is a centuries-old union with magnificent history and common purpose forged by accomplishment and sacrifice, benefitting its own people and the world. Reaffirmation of its sovereignty against the European Union was a stroke for liberty and self-government. The U.K.’s distinct peoples have an organic unity through parliament and crown not replicated by the EU.

Shattering great national unions like the U.K. or Spain should be undertaken, if at all, only with great reluctance if not trepidation. The stability, security, and prosperity of the present should not be assumed or taken for granted. Historically separatisms, or specifically their ambitious political proponents, nurture grievance against the larger nation to deflect from their own local failures.

Nation states with illustrious histories and functioning, responsible governments should be respected and honored. Venal resentments against them that needlessly divide, premised on a narrow, destructive micro-nationalism, should be shunned. They serve little to no purpose in the economy of God, who desires an approximate tranquility for all peoples. Hopefully, the wisdom of responsible nationalism will prevail against contrived, peevish separatism in Catalonia, Scotland, and elsewhere.

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  • Vincent J.

    “… God, who desires an approximate tranquility for all peoples.”

    Doesn’t the bible say something like “Peace on earth toward men of good will”? On the other hand, did not God bring war and difficulties upon those who refused to do His will? Perhaps the threat of disturbing national tranquility should be seen as a wake up call to get on one’s knees and reconnect with God.

  • AGD

    This is an excellent read. It’s the mark of civilized peoples to form broad political communities, but also to permit local rule within this framework. That’s precisely what the UK has. (It’s worth noting that most Irish prior to WWI preferred to be part of the British Empire; they simply wanted Irish governance within that framework, which is a reasonable request for a distinct people.)

  • Bradford Bryan Wilson

    On the question of Scottish Nationalism, you said that you talked with some academics who teach in Scotland. When you asked them what Scotland would do to provide for their own national security you said that they were unable to give any good reasons. Nothing personal, but this hardly qualifies as any kind of proof that Scottish separatism is in your words, “petty and vain.” Just because these academics were not well informed does not mean that there may not be actual grievances and enlightened political realities that would support Scottish independence. You may be absolutely right, but your reasoning at that point in the article is not sound.

  • Richard S. Bell

    “Nation states with illustrious histories and functioning, responsible governments should be respected and honored.” Spain and the United Kingdom are not nation states. Catalonia is a nation. Scotland is a nation. Spain and the United Kingdom are confederations of nations. After secession, Catalonia would be a nation state. By the same token, after secession, Scotland would be a nation state. After secession, it may be expected, Catalonia and Scotland would not only continue their illustrious histories but would have responsible governments. (Scotland already has a responsible government, with almost all powers except, e.g., the power to make treaties.)