international analysis and commentary

Separatist movements in Europe: cultural survival and the one-world dream


The recent separatist votes in Scotland and Catalonia, as fascinating as they were, are likely to have few immediate political ramifications. The Scottish vote failed, despite strong support from younger elements of the electorate, while the polling in Catalonia was symbolic and necessitates no actual decision any time soon. What the two recent elections do indicate, however, is a growing movement toward the political disintegration of many Western states, as earlier referenda in Quebec, regionalist divisions in Italy and Belgium, and language nationalism in Wales, to take just a few examples, all suggest. Momentum, as things currently stand, seems to be on the side of the separatists: membership in the Scottish National Party rose dramatically after the election in September.

What could possibly explain this? Placing contemporary separatist politics in its larger international context provides us with three interesting answers. First, and most obvious, the advent of neoliberal globalization, with Western/American capitalism spreading to all corners of the globe, has fomented – just as comparable expansions did in the past –  movements of anti-capitalist politics that emphasize identity. Neoliberal capitalism may bring wealth and modernization, but it crushes native institutions and traditions and ruins local economies. Local cafĂ©s and restaurants are replaced by Starbucks and McDonalds; rain forests are razed for cattle grazing; international banks and monetary institutions hold the economic destinies of entire nations in their hands. Resistance to such forces needs to be local and play to non-economic and particularist sentiments, such as ethnicity and culture. That provides an opening to the politics of solidarity, of anti-establishment and pro-independence feelings, as was vividly seen in both Scotland and Catalonia.

Local cultures have fought against the homogenizing effects of global commerce ever since the rise of modern capitalism. What is different now, however, is the far more permissive international environment. The end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet threat, and the establishment of US military preponderance has diminished immediate security concerns in the West, making centralized, nation-state unity a far less important factor than it was throughout the 20th century. During the Cold War, the nations of Europe (and in some other parts of the world as well) were compelled, either by their own political interests or that of their superpower patrons, to quash separatist movements and maintain formal nation-state coherence for the purposes of stable power politics: in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, some nationalities and ethnic groups were transferred, forced together, or marginalized in the name of Cold War imperatives defined by Washington or Moscow.

Today, these kinds of imperatives have all but disappeared, at least in this part of the world. The horrors of the Balkans in the 1990s give us a violent illustration of that change, but the peaceful separatist movement in Scotland is just, in its own way, as astounding. Consider what Scotland was proposing to do. It was ready to end its existence as a part of the United Kingdom, a nation with a powerful military, membership in NATO, and close alliance with the United States; to divest itself of the nuclear weapons bases located on its territory; and to cast its geopolitical lot with the European Union, an organization with no independent military power to speak of, and one which might not have accepted Scotland in any event. Only a country with zero concerns about conventional external threats to its security could afford to even contemplate such a decision, as the almost complete absence of discussion during the campaign about what a Scottish security policy might look like demonstrates. It hardly needs to be noted, moreover, that the Scots would never have tried anything like this during the Cold War; if they did, Washington and London would have quietly shut them down long before any kind of election could happen.

But what may be most interesting about these recent events is how they have twisted around conventional political conceptions in international relations thought. Traditional labels of “left” and “right” are not very useful when trying to understand what is going on in Scotland and Catalonia. To be sure, the political attitudes of both the Scottish and Catalonian independence movements reflect a certain kind of left-wing mentality, as they were both driven by antagonism to the neoliberal order and current austerity policies, to overbearing central governments, and (especially in the Scottish case) opposition to foreign policies made in the USA. Take away the 2003 Iraq war, and there would probably have been no serious independence campaign in Edinburgh. But the appeal of these movements to the average voter in Glasgow or Barcelona seemed to play even more toward sentiments that would not normally be classified in the left:  ethnic solidarity; historical memories of patriotism, language, and soil; and, above all, a politics of grievance against the “other”. Many in the Scottish and Catalonian separatist movements defined themselves politically simply in terms of their opposition to another country: namely, England, or Spain. They liked to look backward, to a time of national oneness.

This kind of political doctrine collides directly with universalist notions of human solidarity and international accord long associated with left ideologies such as Marxism and pacifism. Not only that, it has certain connections with the anti-cosmopolitan politics of right-wing movements of the early 20th century in places like Spain, Italy and Germany. The idealistic dream of one world, of the gradual obsolescence of national divisions, ethnic rivalries, and inter-societal conflict that animated so much of the left in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and rose again (if briefly) after the horrors of the Second World War, stands in direct opposition to the disintegrationist politics alive in Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, Flanders, and many other places today. 

Supporters of these movements will (angrily) respond that their appeals to social solidarity and distinctiveness are based not on ultra-nationalist or racialist politics but rather on the fact that solidarity and national sovereignty have become the only means of fending off an international order that threatens their cultural existence. And these supporters are almost certainly correct. . The question, particularly for those of us who study international politics and history, is whether the world can afford a resurgence of nation-state rivalries, of ethnic divisions, and the collapse of the one-world dream. That did not work out too well a century ago.