Nationalism and the Global Consensus

Published on February 21st, 2014 | by

Scottish nationalism

Like most people I am proud of my culture. I was born in Scotland and spent the first 25 years of my life there. Although I now live happily in Canada, in many ways I still think of Scotland as being home. It is the landscape which shaped my perceptions of nature and beauty, the culture which helped to define who I am, and the sense of common identity I feel with people across the world. I am not talking about the kitsch version of Scotland that the tourists see; the land of bagpipes and tartan. I am talking about something altogether more fundamental. It is an attachment to place, to shared values that underscore who I am, and which form part of my personal identity.

On the 18th of September 2014, Scottish voters will go to the polls to choose whether Scotland should become independent of the United Kingdom. This is an issue which divides Scots across all sectors of society, and one which I will take a great interest in from across the ocean. It is the kind of issue which pits emotion against reason; an issue which is close to the heart of many Scots. Memories of a proud nation and perceived historical injustices play to this perception. An independent Scotland would be free to find its own way in the world, and to stake its own position on international issues.

I too am swayed by the emotional appeal of independence. Yet when I think rationally about this issue, the idea that parts of sovereign states can simply break away to form new countries leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. Scotland has a strong sense of self-identity and tends to see itself as being different to the rest of the UK in many ways. While the Scottish rivalry with the English is (mostly) good-natured, you don’t need to look too far to see examples of nationalism which have turned sour. The break up of the former Yugoslavia into several small ethnically homogeneous states provoked Europe’s most serious and bloody conflict since the end of the second world war. The break up of India, post independence, resulted in a redrawing of the regional map, as the country was subdivided into mostly Muslim East and West Pakistan, and mostly Hindu India. The price of partition was vast suffering, and the relocation of millions of people, who were displaced by religious and political intolerance.

When we consider what defines a nation, typically we talk about patriotism. Yet the term patriotism is often misappropriated. In some parts of the US for example, being identified as an axe murderer would be considered preferable to being called unpatriotic. In such cases the term patriotism is used narrowly, to define the values of a certain sector of the population. It is doubtful if many of these “patriots” have knowledge of, and respect for, the provisions of the US constitution, with its emphasis on tolerance and inclusion. The one exception to this is the second amendment, which is viewed with the degree of reverence normally afforded to religious texts.

Nationalism and patriotism are ideas which invoke a sense of common identity and shared values. They have strong positive appeal in that they give people a sense of belonging to a group. However, the flip side of the coin is tribalism and xenophobia, where members of one cultural group actively discriminate against outsiders. We see this in countries as diverse as Iraq and Sri Lanka, where members of a religious or cultural majority effectively exclude minorities from power. This is human nature in action, and it dates back to the time when we first stood upright on the African savannah. We lived in small family groups, which actively competed for resources against other groups. This situation fostered both cooperation within the group, and competition with outsiders. Modern-day nationalism and tribalism are nothing more than extensions of this practice.

The problem is that we are facing a whole suite of environmental and social challenges in the coming years. These problems are global in nature; they do not recognise national boundaries. To have a realistic chance of tackling issues such as climate change we need global solutions. Instead, what we have are different nations pursuing short-term agendas, trying to extract the maximum benefit for themselves. It is heartbreaking, time and time again, to watch international conferences on climate change being sabotaged by nations who place competitive advantage above the common good. And as summer ice cover in the Arctic declines, nations are starting to bicker over who has the right to drill for oil; an activity which will no doubt result in the despoiling of one of the few remaining largely pristine areas left on Earth.

National interests are often narrowly defined, and they are seldom focused on solving global issues. In order to move forward on many issues we need to have a global focus. If we enter the realms of fantasy, I would like to see all national governments in the world being subservient to an international federation, tasked with dealing with global issues. I would see the relationship between individual nation states and the federation as being similar to that between individual states and the federal government within the US. I am not talking about another version of the United Nations, which is largely toothless and dependent on the goodwill of member countries for funding, but of a strong international government, capable of framing international laws, and enforcing them. Such a federation would be driven by scientific, rather than political considerations, and decisions would be taken with the overall good of humanity and the planet as its primary objectives.

As a realist, I appreciate that this is not going to happen; not in my lifetime anyway. In the meantime we will have to cope with the messy reality that we have created, which is a patchwork of nation states, each of which is aggressively pursuing their own agenda. We can only hope that as the problems facing us become ever-more serious, enough nations see benefit in cooperation to enable us to take meaningful steps towards creating a more sustainable world.

Which brings me back to the question of Scottish independence. Does the world need yet another nation state; yet another voice to muddy the waters of international consensus? I guess we will need to wait until September to find out.

photo credit: Màrtainn via photopin cc


About the Author

Ken Whitehead is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, where he specialises in using unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of environmental monitoring applications. For his PhD he developed methods for measuring glacial flow rates and ice loss in the Canadian Arctic. In the past he has been a remote sensing instructor, and has worked as a remote sensing / geomatics specialist in the UK, South Africa, and Canada. Ken is originally from Scotland, but currently lives in interior British Columbia, where he enjoys life in the great Canadian outdoors.