This month Mark Tooley, my boss and Providence’s editor, argued that Catalan and Scottish independence movements were “petty nationalisms”. In contrast to good “ennobling nationalism”, petty nationalisms are preposterous, vain, destructive to historic nations, built on imagined grievances, and must be shunned. Catalans and Scots therefore do not deserve independence. While nations may deserve critique or sometimes praise, Tooley’s argument does little to guide foreign policy.


Distinguishing between petty and ennobling nationalisms, Tooley gives this description:

[Petty nationalism] 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.

He offers various examples of Scottish and Catalan pettiness, though these instances don’t always tie neatly into his definition. In contrast, British and Spanish ennobling nationalisms have endured centuries, which apparently gives them an inalienable right to exist.

Although engaging the subject of nations and nationalism, Tooley’s op-ed does not clearly define either, which would have been helpful because various people use the word for different purposes. Some have implied that a “nation” is a member of the United Nations, a country, a group of people who deserve a sovereign state, or something equivalent. Donald Trump seemed to use this meaning during his UN speech last week. I have also seen and read many others who use nation as if it was the same as a state or country plus its people.

My own writing would use the Oxford Dictionary’s definition: “A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” Though perhaps elementary for some, it’s important to note that a nation and state do not necessarily overlap. A state can include multiple nations, and a nation can reside in multiple states. Also, by this definition various countries’ “religious, ethnic, and tribal divisions” that Tooley derides elsewhere may actually be manifestations of nationalism, albeit ones that are not officially recognized.

Furthermore, I reserve nation for a specific group with a strong, common, and united identity whose members identify themselves by that label above others. Without some qualifier like this, the term often becomes too vague, useless, or counterproductive in many foreign policy contexts. Therefore, even though many Europeans may consider themselves Europeans, Europe is not a nation because they do not consider themselves European first. Similarly and somewhat controversially, I do not consider Britain a nation per se because a comfortable majority of its citizens do not consider themselves British first. According to polls, roughly 60 percent of Scots consider Scottish their only national identity. When the UK’s 2011 Census allowed respondents to choose multiple national identities including British, more than 60 percent of those living in England and Wales chose only English. British identity was most common around cosmopolitan London, where 40 percent chose British either by itself or alongside another. Ethnic minorities in England were more likely than whites to consider themselves British instead of English (38 to 14 percent), and Muslims were more likely than Christians to do the same (57 to 15 percent).

Because nation can become a loaded term that leads to confusion when readers and writers define it differently, I usually choose more-concrete terms such as state or country whenever appropriate. I will label countries like the United States a nation-state when a state encompasses a single nation.

Ennobling or Petty?

Regardless of what Tooley means by “nation”, he insists there are clear differences between petty and ennobling nationalisms. Since the ennobling kind should be embraced while the petty must be shunned, it can be implied these are distinct types. A nation can be ennobling without being petty, and vice versa.

However, Tooley does not really describe different types of nationalisms. If anything, he describes different aspects. The petty nationalism he describes is simply nationalism, or at least its negative attributes. More optimistic wording may be used, but all nations could be said to draw upon “parochial regionalism” (note that “region” can be an inexact term), “ancient resentments”, “purported sacrifices”, and “niche mythologies”. More positively, I would say all nationalisms draw upon historical myths (which may or may not be historically accurate, and are usually incomplete) and develop outsider and insider visions of community (often using historical resentments or something similar). One part of Tooley’s definition that may not apply to all nationalisms could be the petty variety’s purpose to “perpetuate separatist goals”. But if slightly rephrased to “seek or maintain independence or autonomy”, then it could reference almost all nationalisms.

As I read Tooley’s definition and descriptions, many nations could be described simultaneously as both “petty” (basically, they have negative attributes) and “ennobling” (they have positive attributes). In fact, a spectrum between positive and negative nationalisms may exist, but few if any could be described as solely ennobling. Mankind’s sinfulness means politicians, citizens, historians, and others responsible for developing a nation bring their fallenness to the endeavor. Even when nations have positive attributes—such as allowing members to care about others they may not know personally—they still reflect members’ selfishness, divisiveness, shortsightedness, pettiness, and so forth. Someone who doesn’t see a nation’s negative attributes is probably ignoring them or not looking hard enough. This is especially true if the onlooker has an affinity for a particular people.

Even the British nation, as much as it exists, has elements of pettiness based on Tooley’s descriptions. For instance, he depicts Scottish politicians as petty because they stoked nationalism for their own political gain, but some Tories did the same before and after the Brexit referendum. He also labels Scottish nationalism petty because the Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP) military plans before the independence referendum were insufficient. Yet British politicians made few clear plans for Brexit before their referendum. Case in point: customs controls or a “hard border” may be needed between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland post-Brexit. Some fear this may rekindle a conflict that resulted in more terrorism-related deaths in the UK than jihadism does today. But the UK did not release its policy paper for the Irish border until one year and two months after the Brexit referendum (at least Scotland issued a military policy paper before its referendum). While it was not possible to make plans for every potential issue before the Brexit referendum, if Scottish nationalism deserves to be called petty for these types of failings, so does British nationalism.

Magnificent History

If a nation’s behavior doesn’t help differentiate clearly between petty and ennobling types of nationalisms, Tooley’s article would suggest a nation’s history makes the distinction. He says ennobling nationalisms have “magnificent” and “illustrious” histories, so nations with centuries-old histories seem to deserve independence.

While history does have purposes, using it to explain why one nation is ennobling while another is petty and deserves subjugation is at best unhelpful and at worse propaganda. National historical myths—whether British, English, Scottish, or otherwise—can be manipulated using real or misinterpreted events, especially those from centuries ago, while ignoring history’s nuanced reality. If someone wants to argue that England and Scotland (or for that matter the British Isles and the European continent) have a long history of cooperation and sometimes union, there are enough real historical events to write that book. If someone wants to argue in favor of English and Scottish separation, that book could also be written.

When examining nationalism and history, what actually happened can become secondary to what society today thinks happened and how citizens feel about it. Therefore, when deciding if a nation deserves independence, appeals to centuries-old magnificent national history do more to confuse than enlighten.

Foreign Policy Implications

Because distinguishing between petty and ennobling nationalisms is near-impossible based upon Tooley’s descriptions, suggesting we should encourage the ennobling and shun the petty offers little foreign policy guidance. Are the Kurds ennobling or petty? Good arguments can be made for both. This exercise could descend into deciding that “nations” someone likes should have independence while others he or she dislikes should not.

More broadly, if we must build geopolitical order with only nations with independent states whose citizens have a strong common identity (nation-states), what shall we do if (or when) identities shift, change, strengthen, or weaken between generations? British identity amongst the Scots was arguably stronger during the days of Empire. Because this identity is weaker today, should the union dissolve? I’m inclined to say no. Otherwise, following this logic we would risk near-constant global conflict and tensions as common identities emerge and fade.

Instead of asking whether a nation with a strong common identity is ennobling or petty with a magnificent history, it would be wiser to ask these two questions: Can a state govern its territory and citizens more justly than reasonable alternatives? Do those citizens accept that rule?

Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and focuses on Europe.

Photo Credit: Greyfriars Bobby statue in Edinburgh before Scotland’s independence referendum. By byronv2, via Flickr.