As a historian you should avoid divination. To quote Hegel "The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering." That said, as a historian, one is also aware that today's news will be tomorrow's history. With that in mind I wanted to write about a couple of instances of nationalism that will be very familiar to anyone who has followed current affairs over the last six months. My aim isn't to comment on either in terms of the rights or wrongs of the causes in question. I simply aim to highlight and challenge ideas that, to our western democratic minds, probably underpin our understanding of each; namely that the idea of a nation is self evident and that self-determination is a good thing.
The two cases I wanted to look at are the imminent vote on Scottish independence and the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. On initial consideration one might think of these as being at opposite ends of a scale; one is a clear and open democratic process and the other cynical opportunism in reaction to an unfavourable change in ruling ideals. My first question then is which description fits which situation?
As an ethnic Russian living in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea should I not have the right to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter? Was the secession of Crimea not a valid expression of the will of the people? There was a referendum at which every citizen had the right to vote; the fact that some chose not to vote shouldn't and indeed doesn't invalidate the fact that the majority voted for secession. As for Scotland the SNP are cynically manipulating the dislike of an elected government in Westminster to drive a call for independence. Thirty years ago they were a fringe party of irrelevant extremists but, through the alienation of Scotland by the policies of Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s, they were able to push through an otherwise unpalatable agenda. The nature of democracy however is that the government that is elected is the government that the majority of the population voted for; if you accept the principles of democracy shouldn't you accept the results it gives you? Now the Scottish population are being herded towards independence using the goad of dislike of Westminster rather than a positive vision of the future of Scotland.
Mea culpa; I’ve caricatured the issues here for effect but, in both cases, the issues I raise are recognisable. The concepts of nation and self-determination are at the heart of both situations, at least for a large proportion of the people involved. Equally it could be argued that these ideas are also the levers by which politicians of all stripes and in all cases try to shift the population in one direction or another. This is only possible because many would see those concepts as absolutes. Everyone knows what a nation is; everyone accepts self-determination is a right. Hold those thoughts for a while because I’d like to examine those two concepts in a bit more detail.
The word nation derives from the Latin noun “natio” meaning a group larger than family but smaller than a clan. It certainly did not mean nation in the sense we might understand it today. In antiquity the Roman nation was referred to as “Populus Romanus” not “natio romanorum” (apologies for my Latin grammar). Natio was normally used to refer to communities of foreigners. By the medieval period the term still did not refer to anything equivalent to the modern understanding of nation. Medieval universities, for example, were composed of “nations”; the University of Paris divided itself into four “nations” reflecting the language groupings of the attendees. English speakers were part of “la constante nation de Germanie” along with German speakers for example. It isn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that the idea of nation starts to take on a form recognisable to our modern understanding and, critically, it comes about not from the articulation of an ancient and objective reality but from a reality constructed for particular political purposes. This is the view of many writers on the subject of nationalism such as Elie Kedourie, although the debate between ancient roots view of nations against modern invention is ongoing. In particular see “The Warwick Debate” between Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner for a thorough discussion of these issues.
The key for me personally is that whilst the acquisition of myths, legends and history to frame the idea of a nation is very powerful and very emotive it doesn’t necessarily reflect a measuarable reality. Think about a couple of cultural heroes for example; who does Cú Chulainn belong too? His statue resides in the Post Office in Dublin and yet he is a hero from Ulster who in legend held off an invasion from the South single handedly. Similarly Richard I stands proudly outside the House of Parliament as a bastion of Englishness however, in life, he only spoke French, spent most of his rule outside of the British Isles and famously said he would have sold London if he could have found a buyer. Nations pick and choose the stories they tell about themselves to reflect the contemporary ideals they want to emphasise. What then is Scotland? What is Russia and Ukraine? Are they not just the political/ideological constructs of those who would want them to be one way or another to suit their own agendas?
Self-determination is most famously outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points as raised as part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. Wilson framed self-determination as a political and legal principle although in reality it was used as a tool to break up the Central Powers. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were all carved up through the principle of self-determination and yet other nascent nations such as Kurdistan were ignored. Self-determination wasn’t, as it turned out, a universal unalienable right at all; it was a geopolitical tool to be used when it suited. Self-determination certainly didn’t suit the surviving colonial powers that had no interest in surrendering their colonial territories. Most critically of all self-determination was used by Hitler and Nazi Germany to justify their early expansion stating that their military action was in support of the right to self-determination of German minorities in neighbouring nations.
Following World War II self-determination was enshrined in the UN Charter. In that charter it specifically refers to “self-determination of the peoples”. It doesn’t specify, however, who the people are or indeed who decides what constitutes a people. In reality the UN Charter is about securing state sovereignty not self-determination. This casts self determination in a rather different light to how we might otherwise conceive of it. Elie Kedourie goes as far as to say that self-determination is a resolutely corrosive force in politics in that it drives a wedge between peoples focussing them on their differences rather than on their shared experiences as human beings.
So where does that leave our understanding of the situations in Scotland and Ukraine? I've probably not caused you to question your fundamental belief in the rights or wrongs or even what you would prefer to be the outcome in either case. As I said at the start though, that was never my intention. I hope I have provided something to think about though, especially in regard to your thoughts on the nature of nations and democratic traditions. Regardless of the outcome of either situation the UK and Ukraine will never be the same. The push for Scottish independence has started to bring other reductionist arguments to the surface such as those from the English Democrats. In Ukraine the amount of blood that has been spilt already will not be easily forgotten on either side. And to think I started out by saying historians should avoid divination.
Sorry about that.