The World After Britain

The Scottish referendum: a crisis of the political, masquerading as nationalism?

Public discussion of the Scottish referendum tends to be schizophrenic in character. On the one hand, politicians and policymakers on both sides appear to focus only upon the future, totting up the material benefits and losses of independence as if on an imaginary account sheet. Scholars and analysts, on the other hand, seem to be preoccupied with the distant past, referring to the UK’s constitutional history, beginning with the unification of the English and Scottish crowns under James I. But it is what these debates ignore — namely, Britain’s more recent history — which provides the issue with its global context.

Nationalism After Empire

My great-aunt and uncle arrived at Heathrow on a flight from Nairobi around 1968. Indians who had been expelled from Kenya because they continued to hold colonial passports, they were let into the UK upon presenting a letter from a member of the royal family to the immigration official. This was a note thanking them for hosting the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester when my great-uncle had been mayor of Eldoret. The first non-white mayor of a Kenyan town, my great-uncle only assumed this position accidentally, when the English mayor to whom he was deputy suddenly died, and he took the position by default.

Today this story would not be possible because British citizenship is no longer shaped by the empire, or even loyalty to the sovereign, but increasingly by fuzzy and shifting notions about shared ‘values’, ‘assimilation’, citizenship tests and the like. The novelty of these modes of determining citizenship tells us that as a political category, nationality is a work still in progress throughout the country. And in this sense British identity is neither older nor younger than Scottish nationality. If anything, the ideas of nationality and independence informing the Scottish referendum draw from the imperial history of partition, of which Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus provide the precedents.

It was of course immigration from the empire, beginning with the large-scale and forced migration of Indians from Kenya and Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s, that made British nationality into a political reality, not some constitutional inheritance from the time of the Renaissance or Reformation. British ‘identity’ was defined in racial terms that seemed to have come back from the imperial past with the immigrants. After all, it was only in the colonies that categories like ‘White’, ‘European’ or ‘British’ had possessed existential rather than merely juridical meaning.

It had been a common experience in colonial times for Britain’s Asian or African subjects to be treated non-racially or as equals in the ‘mother country’, but discriminated against in their own lands. And one of the things that happened with mass migration from the former empire was the entrenchment of racial and ‘national’ identities at home as well. But in the decades since, this racial script has been gradually erased, with the category ‘British’ assuming a juridical character, even as sub-national identities, particularly ‘English’, have remained ethnically defined.

What is likely to happen to ideas of nationality and citizenship across the British Isles if Scotland becomes independent? While ‘English’ is still an ethnic identity, the term ‘Scottish’ is already taking on the juridical character that the term ‘British’ possesses. At stake, in other words, is not simply the somewhat symbolic issue of Scottish ‘independence’, given the open borders, shared monarchy, currency and defence envisaged by the SNP, but existential identification and belonging as well.

National identity, which lies at the heart of civil strife and far-right politics in Britain, is not being addressed in any of the discussions about the Scottish referendum. In fact these debates are, perhaps deliberately, confined to technical ‘debates’ about currency or defence. Such concerns, however, are not more ‘realistic’ than those about ‘identity’, because it is precisely the lack of old-fashioned independence or sovereignty that makes national identity such an emotive issue. For there are two independence movements in Britain, with UKIP seeking to recover old-fashioned sovereignty from Europe along with a more homogeneous national identity, while the SNP would like an independent and multicultural Scotland that lacks many of the traditional attributes of sovereignty.

Nations Without Sovereignty

Some months ago a widely reported opinion poll in Venice showed that a majority of its residents preferred to be ‘independent’ rather than part of Italy. While commentators rushed to trace this desire to the history of the medieval Venetian city-state, more important might be the fact that nationality appears to be taking on a new countenance in the global arena. And it is within this arena, too, that the Scottish referendum and its consequences belong.

Whatever its inheritance from the past, it is clear that Scotland’s ‘independence’ is part of a new logic in which nationalism does not presume sovereignty. For with open borders, portable rights and a shared currency, both England and Scotland would enjoy a largely symbolic independence, something that a party like UKIP understands very well, though its desire for a truly sovereign Britain has a false sense of nostalgia about it, given the fact that the country had never before existed as a nation state in the classical form that Mr Farage imagines.

Like Catalonia on the one hand, and Quebec on the other, Scotland’s ‘independence’ presumes the existence of a global or transnational polity like the EU or NAFTA, itself federal rather than sovereign in character. In other words, these new nations would separate from their old countries only to join larger political units, which themselves possess an economic rather than a traditionally political form of sovereignty.

It could be argued, of course, that this turn to transnational economic-political forms signals a return to one version of empire. Take, for example, Lenin’s argument in his influential book, Imperialism: The Last Stage of Capitalism. Imperialism, Lenin claimed, was about the dominance of what he called ‘finance capital’ rather than old-fashioned conquest. Which is to say it was about capital reproducing itself through speculation, for which the direct control of lands and peoples was not, strictly speaking, necessary. Surely this argument makes more sense in our own day than it did in Lenin’s, whose own communist empire was founded on the politics of territorial and demographic control that he thought modern imperialism had rendered irrelevant?

Certainly the fragmentation of polities in the context of new economic arrangements, and the effective autonomy of great financial centres like London, New York or Hong Kong, which are linked to each other more than to their ‘national’ hinterlands, tells us that the contemporary politics of identity, national or otherwise, is premised upon the fragmentation of classical ideas about sovereignty. A good example of this is provided by the EU, which, while more than a trading bloc, is not a sovereign body. And yet its constituent units, theoretically sovereign, have resigned control over currency, traditionally a mark of sovereignty. In the financial crisis this untenable deferral of sovereign power has become evident, with unelected officials and bankers deciding on the fate of entire countries, Italy and Greece most prominently.

The Contest of Civilisations

If the deferred sovereignty of transnational communities allow for the emergence of neo-nationalist identities, whether Scottish or English, they also permit the rise of apparently anti-national or global ones like Islam or Western ‘values’. In either case the vocabulary deployed — whether of nationalism, religion or civilisation — might be old, but the reality is very new indeed, with imperialism providing its only serious precedent.

Both pan-Islamists and the anti-Muslim (or ‘Islamophobic’) activists who oppose them in Europe and America, for instance, locate their beliefs in a historical and geographical terrain defined by civilisations rather than the states that constitute the units of any geopolitics. And the term civilisation, of course, with its solidly imperial genealogy, offers us a way of thinking about global collectives that do not coincide with the borders of nation-states or indeed fit into the international system. It assumed its current popularity in the aftermath of the Cold War, which had created a truly global politics based on the risk of nuclear war.

With the end of the Cold War, the global arena no longer possessed a politics of its own, and in his celebrated 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington theorised that new conflicts in this arena would now be defined not by inter-state or hemispheric rivalry, but rather by the contest of values and ideals, or what, in short, he called civilisations. Huntington seems to have recognised that globalisation has made possible a range of alliances based not on the old-fashioned realpolitik of states, but instead on non-state movements that were defined primarily by values and ideals. What he didn’t recognise was that such ‘values’ would define national as much as transnational forms of identity.

Crisis of the International Order

But it is not only the desire to join transnational polities such as the EU, in which sovereignty seems to have been displaced or elided, that informs the politically modest if rhetorically grandiose visions of Scottish or Catalonian independence. Rather, the international order in the post-Cold War period seems to operate in what might be described as a cannibalistic way, intervening in conflicts around the world to create new states like Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, South Sudan and even the Palestinian Authority, none of which are capable of sustaining themselves and must rely almost completely on this community. And in this way internationalism is in fact being dismantled, since such new states are unable to form the constituent parts of its order.

In today’s world, therefore, the sovereignty of nation states exists on a continuum as it always has, but takes very different forms. On the one hand large and powerful countries like the US, Russia, China or India seem to embody old-fashioned sovereign power and are deeply suspicious of international governance. And on the other smaller ones either adopt a more symbolic but often highly charged version of nationalism within transnational bodies, or, like North Korea and other so-called ‘pariah’ states, maintain their sovereignty by cutting themselves off from the international order. Among the more fortunately placed ‘symbolic’ nations might be counted Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec, their less fortunate peers including wards of the international order like South Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

The international order is a fundamentally unstable entity, having lost much of its meaning after the Cold War, which had served as the context for its creation. For however dangerous it was imagined to be, the hemispheric rivalry of the US and USSR had made a global geopolitics possible by tying states down in great alliances that included zones of stability at centre and exported conflict in proxy wars at the margins. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, this entire logic has been upended, and instability has come back to the centre, initially in ex-Soviet territories and then among the West’s allies, particularly in the Middle East. The emergence of new nations is a sign of the international order’s fragility, because they are no longer founded on the principle of sovereignty but, at most, values and governance. And in this sense they lack politics. Might Scotland’s referendum be an example of this crisis of the political, masquerading though it does as nationalism?

Faisal Devji is Reader in History at St Antony’s College, Oxford University, and author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of ViolenceLandscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity and, most recently, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea.


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