Nations and Regions: In or Out of the State?

David McCrone. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Mainstream social science literature largely fails to distinguish between key concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘state.’ Anthony Giddens, for example, defines the nation as a ‘bordered power-container’ which exists ‘when a state has a unified administrative reach over the territory over which its sovereignty is claimed’ (1985: 120). Giddens is not alone in redefining the nation in purely political terms, and in the process losing its cultural significance. He defines the nation-state as ‘a set of institutional forms of governance maintaining an administrative monopoly over a territory with demarcated boundaries, its rule being sanctioned by law and direct control of the means of internal and external violence’ (Giddens 1981: 90). What is remarkable about this definition is that it is really a definition of the state, making no mention of the nation as such.

The whole point of the hyphenated term ‘nation-state’ is that it aligns the strictly political realm of state with the cultural one of nation, thereby fusing two analytically distinct spheres. Anyone who inhabits what have been called ‘stateless nations’ will know only too well that they are not the same thing; there are nations—imagined communities, in Benedict Anderson’s famous term—which are not formally independent states, and political entities—states—in which different territorial cultural groupings—nations—are present.

Walker Connor (1990) once observed that fewer than 10 per cent of actual states are genuine nation-states in which nationness and state-ness coincide, that is, in which there is ethnic or cultural homogeneity within the boundaries of the state. In truth, there are states which are ethnically homogeneous, with possibly Iceland being the only one in Western Europe. ‘Ethnics’ are often spread across a variety of states. Brubaker uses the term ‘homeland nationalism’ (Brubaker 1996) to refer to significant populations of self-defining ‘nationals’ living outside the ‘national’ territory (obvious examples are in central Europe notably Hungary, Romania etc., but the same might be said of the minority community in Northern Ireland). Such work as there is on ‘nation-states’ sensitizes us to Eurocentric understandings of ‘nation’ and ‘state’ insofar as by and large West European territorial arrangements are far less complex than those in geopolitical fault-lines of the world, such as East and Central Europe.

In short, we need to treat the concept of ‘nation-state’ as not only a statistically unusual formation, but one which belongs to nineteenth-century European thinking about state-building (revealingly, often referred to as ‘nation-building’–classically, Deutsch (1953)). We also need to appreciate what Anderson referred to as the ‘crisis of the hyphen’ in the modern world, the disarticulation of nation and state in the twenty-first century world, a world in which states come under pressure from above and below to cede power and authority, reflecting the fact that the modern state is no longer able to be the complete ‘bordered power-container’ it once was. That is not to imply that the state has ceased to matter. It remains the key territorial arena for much decision-making and resource allocation (Mann 1997).

The second definitional puzzle concerns the terms ‘nation’ and ‘region.’ The latter in particular is used in diverse ways: to refer to supra-state territorial entities (‘the Balkans region,’ for example), as well as to sub-state and even sub-national, entities. Thus, North-East England, Cornwall etc. are spoken of as ‘regions’ of England, as sub-state administrative territories which may or may not have a degree of self-government). Similar exist within Scotland (and Wales), where the language of ‘regions’ has been used to describe local authority areas (such as Highland, Lothian, Strathclyde and so on). When it comes to Scotland and Wales as a whole, on the other hand, there is dubiety. On the one hand, they are treated as ‘economic regions’ of the UK for purposes of distributional analysis (so treated in the UK government statistical publication Regional Trends). On the other hand, they are spoken of as ‘nations’ with high degrees of institutional distinctiveness and ‘national’ identity. This is not a uniquely British phenomenon; Spain recognizes its national territories (Catalonia, Basque country, Galicia, as well as its autonomous regions); Quebec makes the claim to be a Canadian province primus inter pares on account of its claim to nationhood, at odds with a Canadian nation-building project. Indeed, in many West European states there are territories which lay claim to ‘national’ distinctiveness rather than settling for mere status as administrative regions. Simply to refer to sub-state territorial entities as ‘regions’ is not especially helpful.

The problem is further compounded by matters of political ideology: the ‘ism’ question, in this case nationalism vis-à-vis regionalism. Both imply a sense of territorial identity, but the former implies that it is a higher order, of degree and/or kind, than the latter. Thus, in everyday terms, identifying with Yorkshire does not imply that one is not English; nor that coming from the Highlands, one is not Scottish. The first identity is regional, and it is nested in the second—national, which in turn might imply that they are nested within ‘state’—British—identity.

The literature on nations and nationalism is not especially good on nationalism vis-à-vis regionalism. To simplify, there is a tendency to think that ‘nationalism’ is equivalent to separatism and secession. Anything less than that is treated as sub-nationalism, or regionalism. There is something of a teleological argument here: nations exist when they are states, either as political fact or as aspiration. Where they do not, then they aren’t really nations at all, but something less than the real thing. However, simply defining nationalism in terms of its constitutional outcomes is not adequate. We need to know a lot more about the conditions under which territorial entities, whether we call them nations or regions, develop an overtly political-constitutional project for great self-government, but we should not assume the pursuit of greater self-government is itself the defining feature of ‘nationhood.’

There is a related issue which often comes up in the course of the argument. Put simply, there is the question of ethnic versus civic, which has bedevilled writings on nationalism at least since Kohn’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry of 1945 (Kohn 1945). Nationalism is deemed to be about ‘ethnic’ feelings; not to be confused a priori with civic institutions and practices (most obviously featuring in and through the state). The vocabulary of nationalism frequently involves comparison between civic/territorial forms and ethnic/cultural forms. In Jonathan Hearn’s words: ‘It has been common to make a distinction between “ethnic” and “civic” forms of nationalism, the former involving beliefs in biological and cultural essentialisms, and the latter involving commitments to ideas of citizenship and the rule of law’ (2000: 7). The problem with the distinction between ethnic and civic is that it is normative rather than analytic, the former ‘bad’ and the latter ‘good.’ As ideal types they might help us get a handle on issues of culture versus territory, but it is a distinction of limited analytical value. Hearn comments:

The difference between a useful distinction and a misleading dichotomy can be difficult to discern, and this is so for both civic versus ethnic, and liberal versus communitarian constructions of reality. Minimally, we should bear in mind that what these conceptual pairs ultimately define is opposing styles of arguments about what nations are and how social values are created, rather than actual types of nations or societies. (2000: 194)

The distinction is not simply a matter of political rhetoric, but of academic analysis. Thus, Rogers Brubaker (1992) has employed the distinction between ‘ius soli’—literally, the law of the soil, a territorial jurisdiction, and a community of descent, ‘ius sanguinis’—the law of blood, roughly corresponding to ‘civic’ and ‘ethnic’ respectively.

When all these ideas are put together, confusion usually arises: ethnic/civic; nation/region; state/nation. Consider the following observation: ‘Scottish nationalism is an example of an ethno-regional nationalism, and, like many of its kind, it is divided between secessionism and moderate devolutionism’ (Delanty and O’Mahony 2002:129). The point is two-fold. On the one hand, it implies that because Scotland has not seceded from the British Union, and the Scottish National Party has not achieved its goal of an Independent Scotland, then it falls short of full-blown ‘nationalism,’ that is, ‘secessionism,’ and instead pursues ‘devolutionism.’ On the other hand, the authors are using the term ‘ethno-regional nationalism’ to distinguish it from ‘ethno-linguistic nationalism’ (in Quebec, Wales, Flanders, for example). By any reading, nationalism in Scotland is not ‘about’ language, thus it must, by implication, have some other motor, in this case political-territorial, that is ‘regional.’ Such a set of distinctions, ethnic/civic, linguistic/regionalist (territorial), may actually muddy more waters than it clarifies.

Nations without States

Let us explore the regionalist/nationalist distinction with regard to that set of territories often referred to as ‘nations without states.’ These seem especially significant in the light of debates about nations and regions in the modern world. What has emerged in recent years is the ‘re-invention of territory,’ a new territorialism (Keating 2001). Much of this is attributed to ‘globalization,’ in particular the destabilizing effects of economic, political and cultural change on state formations which were formed in the nineteenth century, such that key social processes were no longer quite as aligned as they once were with state boundaries. Keating observes: ‘In some cases, this has focused on places with a strong historic identity, but the new regionalisms [sic] do not so much hark back to pre-modern forms of territorial identity, as reinvent the notion of territory in ways consistent with contemporary experience. Place becomes an important link between global developments and individual experience, and an arena for new forms of politics’ (1996: 54). Space is important here not simply in and of itself, as mere topography, but as ‘place,’ relatively coherent and cohesive territories which shape and interpret social forces. Keating cites John Agnew’s useful distinction between three elements of place: locale—the settings in which social relations are constituted; location—the geographical area encompassing the settings for social interaction; and sense of place—the local ‘structure of feeling’ (Keating 1996: 62).

We begin to see something of a continuum of place, along which we can place nations/regions. On the one hand, in some territories there will be a greater density of social interaction and institutional activity than in others. This will be most obviously expressed in levels of governance (not simply government, narrowly defined), networks of social organization and civil society which set the parameters for how social life is organized. There is a tendency for these to be relatively self-contained and self-sustaining such that they reinforce shared commonalities between people. It is impossible to know which comes first, the sense of social cohesion or the density of networks, though in practice it does not matter, as each reinforces the other. Often these territories are culturally distinctive: they are differentiated from their neighbours by aspects of language, religion, customs and practices, and ultimately senses of identity. Much of this is akin to debates about the nature of ‘nations,’ the search, fairly fruitless, to find the key identifiers which all nations have in common. Nowadays, the literature has largely given up the search for the cultural marker(s) which define all nations, in large part because the sense of nationality, or at least sense of place, can be generated by all sorts of markers, and even none except insofar as people choose to identify themselves as having something in common. Thus, we know that language is frequently a cultural marker which defines a nation to itself, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient in this respect. For example, ‘English (language) is no longer the preserve of ‘the English (people)—Americans do not define themselves as English, nor do Scots or Australians for that matter. Indeed, the Scottish case is especially interesting in this regard. Benedict Anderson once tried to explain the Union of 1707 on the grounds that the Scots were insufficiently distinct from their southern neighbours in terms of cultural habits and practices to remain independent. The problem with that as an explanation of fusion (becoming British) is that it does not account for the progressive process of fission from the final quarter of the twentieth century (becoming less British). Language undoubtedly has the capacity to be a key marker of difference, and in places like Quebec, Catalonia and Flanders it is difficult to imagine processes of identity generation without it. That is not to imply that language ‘causes’ national distinctiveness any more than religion does. Rather, they are two obvious cultural frames through which differences are imagined, and that is the key. Benedict Anderson’s term ‘imagined community’ has become part of the lexicon of nations not because it is ‘imaginary,’ but because, in his words:

  • ‘It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion Anderson (1996: 6).’
  • ‘The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations (1996: 7).’
  • ‘It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained hierarchical dynastic realm (1996: 7).’
  • ‘… it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship (1996: 7).’

His point of departure is:

that nationality, or as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nationness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy. (1996: 4)

To start with this approach to ‘nation’ helps to distinguish it from a purely administrative region. It reinforces the point that there is cultural content without implying that it precedes the sense of ‘nationality,’ or that it is its cause. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness may well arise from administrative practices undertaken over a long historical period. Thus, Scotland is relatively light in terms of cultural distinctiveness from, say, Wales, where language has played a much more central part in defining what it is to be Welsh. Having Gaelic as its oldest known language has not prevented it being driven back to the fringes of Scotland, spoken by around 2 per cent of its population. If anything, the sense of nationality in Scotland is stronger than it is in Wales as measured by various social and cultural attitudes, and by the fact that political nationalism (as evidenced by support for the Scottish National Party compared with its Welsh equivalent, Plaid Cymru is stronger in Scotland than it is in Wales). What this suggests is that language may (or may not) become the vehicle for expressing difference, which in turn may (or may not) take a political turn if and when conditions allow. In other words, we should not mistake the carrier for the cause, important though it may be as a cultural-political vehicle.

The Scottish case is an interesting one because it is, in conventional terms, culture-light. A strong sense of nationality is not only not tied to issues of language (English-speaking); or historically to religion (species Presbyterian of the genus Protestant); but it is modern, in the sense that for much of the post-1707 Union history, it was ‘British in aspiration and affiliation. It was also one of the most industrialized ‘regions’ of the UK, on a par with similar in England, therefore its developing nationalism was not the result of catch-up economic development, still less a desire to overthrow foreign oppression. There was no process of ‘internal colonialism’ in Scotland, given that its economic and social history was far more ‘British in its structure than many regions of England (McCrone 1992). History mattered in the sense that Scotland had a memory of political independence, but memory alone was insufficient to sustain a sense of separateness, at least until that memory itself became grist to a political mill in the late twentieth century. In other words, it was not history per se which mattered; rather, it was the way it was mobilized as cultural-political ideology when conditions were judged to be right. To reiterate the point: we search in vain for the ‘right’ set of cultural markers which are common to self-defining ‘nations’ because these are the means of collective self-assertion, not their cause.

Does this mean that no such cultural markers are necessary? Strictly, yes, though to have a cultural-free content in favour of simply shared territorial identity is hard to imagine. At the state level, some, such as Jürgen Habermas (1996), have argued for the pursuit of ‘constitutional patriotism’ as a way of protecting civil society from the ravages of ethnic nationalism, but it is hard to imagine a content-free form that is purely civic. One is hard pushed to build shared nationality without a modicum of cultural straw. As Dominique Schnapper observed: ‘Would a purely civic society, founded on abstract principles, have the strength to control passions born from allegiance to ethnic and religious groups?’ (1997: 211). In practice, some measure of ethnicity, however invented, seems necessary to the endeavour of shared national awareness.

‘No bricks without cultural straw’ is also relevant to the distinction between nations and regions. In broad terms, the latter lack the kind of cultural substance which might give them a strong(er) sense of identity. That is not to say that over time this might not evolve, even if based simply on shared experiences which are then fed through a prism of meaning to explain why social and political relations in a territory are distinctive. One might ask: are nations and regions different only in degree, or in kind? Are we talking about quite different phenomena, or not? At one important level, it does not matter, insofar as territories may develop (or not) a sense of difference on the basis of relatively little, but that sense is magnified by political circumstances. Manifestly it ‘helps’ if there are obvious cultural markers—language, religion, ethnicity—which act as rallying points for political action. The point about these markers is not that they somehow stack up, as if the more one has, the more ‘national’ a territory is. Let us turn the puzzle around. The point is that markers of this sort only ‘matter’ when they are vested with the power to make a difference. They are the rallying points, the moments of difference, around which identities form and coalesce. It is not their presence or absence per se which matters so much as their power to mobilize, and the range across which they do so. It is manifestly limiting if, for example, not everyone shares the marker, or if it differentiates people such that some are included and others excluded. Issues of language can have as much power to divide as unite; if, for example, you are considered more of a Ruritanian if you speak the language of Ruritania; if your claim is recognized by others around you to be a valid one. Issues of birth, lineage, modes of dress may also matter as much as language or religion, but we cannot draw any a priori conclusions about the primacy or otherwise of such markers. Much depends on the social and cultural situations in which they are mobilized, and manifestly these may change over time.

It also helps if there are alternative ways of doing, and ways of seeing. Thus, the fact that Scotland had been an independent state for more than 700 years before its Union with England provides an alternative imagining as and when the conditions arose for grievances to be newly politicized in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Territories (like Wales?) which had never been ‘independent’ in the modern sense of the term found it much harder to envision a constitutional model other than attachment to a bigger neighbour, even where the raw materials of ‘nationhood’ (language) were stronger. It is not simply ‘history’ which matters, however invented that is. Ways of seeing may depend as much on the medium as the message. Thus, the media—print and broadcasting—matter, because they have the power not only to reproduce but to set the agenda for what is worth reproducing. Benedict Anderson’s observations about the role of the print media in the rise of nationalism are well-known, but it is their ongoing capacity to set the framework for debate which matters. Where there is a ‘language press’ then there are advantages to be had, although it is not possible to stop people reading ‘foreign’ material in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, it is something of an advantage to have an indigenous press and media even if the linguistic medium is not distinct. Thus, Scotland has national press insofar as the vast majority of its newspapers are Scottish, and even where the media are not strictly Scottish (like the BBC) there is sufficient attention to its agenda to be virtually indigenous. The BBC has ceased to speak of Scotland (and Wales) as a ‘national region,’ and in the 1990s issued to its staff a set of norms and guidelines reflecting the fact that terms could mean quite different things in different parts of the kingdom. Tellingly, even the word ‘nation’ became fraught as it had the capacity to refer to the state (the UK) as well as its component (national) parts (England, Scotland, Wales, and even Northern Ireland, though no one has as yet come up with a suitable descriptor for that divided province).

We should not make the mistake of focusing only on those territories in which there is manifest political action for self-government of whatever variety as evidence of ‘national’ feeling. It is analytically valid, and even more interesting perhaps, to look too at territories that do not show much evidence of secession. Bavaria, for example, would on the face of it appear to have a number of important markers—history, institutions and not least a political system, even political parties—that do not conform to the rest of Germany. There is, as yet, no sign of territorial secession, but one would be unwise to rule it out forever should political and social conditions change at some future point. To be different is not tantamount to separation, and we look in vain for the factor or factors which make a difference. Rather, it is the broader context which matters, which turns manifest difference into political opportunity. After all, if one were to compare the non-English territories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, one would not really have predicted in the mid-nineteenth century that the first would be partitioned and most of it independent, and that Scotland would have a devolved law-making parliament, and Wales something less than that, but a fair degree of self-government.

Are such developments inevitable? No. Context, in many ways, is all. In the late nineteenth century, for example, there was at least a reasonable chance that Ireland would have ‘home rule,’ and that this would be a prelude to ‘home rule all round,’ such that the UK might well have become a federated state. That this did not happen is not the result of some iron law of constitutional development, but of circumstances and events. There was no inevitable outcome involved; merely a set of serendipities which generated outcomes that few expected, though once in existence demanded a priori explanation. In truth, many of the large moments in history—one thinks of the birth of Soviet communism in 1917 as well as its demise in 1989—were unforeseen until they actually happened, at which point a veritable academic industry grew up seeking to explain their inevitability. That is perhaps to stretch a point, for a purely serendipitous account of history does not get us very far, and explaining ex post facto is better than no explanation at all.

Are nations without states, then, sustainable? There are usually two conventional options: either one argues that they are ‘not really’ nations—mere ‘regions’—in which case they do not seek statehood; or sooner or later they will emerge into statehood which is the natural end-game once the conditions have been met. It is not so simple. Perhaps academics have been too bound to nineteenth-century visions of statehood and ‘nation-building’ to recognize that the socio-political world is a much more complex and changed place in the twenty-first. Even the term ‘nations without states’ (or ‘stateless nations’) is something of a misnomer. By and large, these are not territories which are completely stateless, that is, without much in the way of institutional self-government. Rather, they tend to have long pedigrees of systems of governance, public bureaucracies, even legislatures. The European Union, for example, has a committee of legislative regions (REG LEG) which describes itself as follows:

Currently, regions with legislative powers are part of eight of the fifteen EU member states: Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Finland and the United Kingdom. Regions with legislative power have their own Government and Parliament. They have often similar responsibilities as the member State within their areas of competence in the three domains of government: legislative, executive and judiciary (

The likes of Scotland, Flanders, Catalunya, Euzkadi, Bavaria and the German Länder have considerable legislative powers as well as high degrees of territorial identification. They tend to have strong civil societies, levels of associational and institutional networking, systems of law, media, education, cultural products, which frame political and social understandings. They do not, on the face of it, suffer from some kind of arrested development towards full and formal independence, but rather, their political aims are geared to maximizing autonomy in a much more open-ended fashion. In short, they are understated nations, but only in the sense that they are not nations with an army and a navy.2

Much is made of the impact of ‘globalization’ on territorial-constitutional arrangements in the modern world, that the conventional nation-state finds itself pulled in two directions, upwards by global economic forces and supra-state institutions (such as the European Union), and downwards to the sub-state level by territories which sense that the hyphenated nation-state has had its day. This is captured by Benedict Anderson’s comment about the crisis of the hyphen (1996) between nation and state; by suggestions that fully fledged nation-states were always something of a trompe l’oeil, involving claims to, rather than the reality of, genuinely national statehood (Held 1988; Tilly 1992; Tamir 1993). Another version of the hyphen’s crisis was expressed in Daniel Bell’s wry observation that the nation-state is too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems of life (cited in McGrew 1992). One does not, of course, have to buy into the globalization thesis to accept that various processes in the modern world do not come naturally and inevitably to rest on the platform of the national state (Tilly’s preferred term). Where there is a density of institutional arrangements, there is no reason why different territorial levels cannot become the ‘natural’ arena in which to do politics, deliver services and thereby earn the loyalty and identification of the citizenry. Where these arenas are most developed (most obviously in terms of ‘legislative regions’) but also where there are long histories of alternative cultural frames, then it is not surprising that they offer the most obvious challenges to existing political-constitutional arrangements.

Neo-Nationalism in Understated Nations

It is important to recognize that such developed ‘regions’ are not the incubi of fear and loathing, driven by a deep reactive dislike for the modern world, building a ‘back to the future’ mentality. Over 25 years ago, Tom Nairn (1977) coined the term ‘neo-nationalism’ to describe the emergence of a new kind of territorial politics in Western states. Such forms of neo-nationalism owe more to the pocket-book than the prayer-book. They are led by parties and associations not of poets and prelates but of bankers and bureaucrats. They are not, on the whole, designed to stop the world in order to get off, but to shape it in a way more conducive to the business of alternative territorial formations. The Catalan economy has long been regarded as relatively ‘over-developed’ compared with the rest of Spain, just as Quebec has shifted from its historically agricultural economy to one which services large parts of the North American trade area. In Michael Keating’s words: ‘Deregulation, neoliberalism and free trade have not destroyed the Quebec model of development but they have transformed it. It is geared now to the interests of large corporations, based in Quebec but increasingly continental or global in their scale of operations’ (1996: 6).

The internationalizing of the economy occurs within a new geometry of power, most obviously framed by supra-state institutions and practices. The most obvious, in the case of Scotland and Catalonia, is the European Union such that there is a complex and variable speed geometry involving the national, the state and the supra-state levels. In the Quebec case, it is NAFTA which provides the critical third level, and while lacking the political and institutional framework of the EU, it lays down a new sphere of economic interaction which, possibly with time, will require new structures of governance.

In sum, we tend to find neo-nationalist movements in territories which have outgrown their historic relationships with their core states. Just as Scotland developed its union with England as a ‘marriage of convenience’ within the imperial context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so a new set of economic and political circumstances in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries has required a recasting of this relationship in the light of supra-state and global arrangements (McCrone 2001). Having a European strategy, for example, to relate to the new power geometries is somewhat easier for ‘stateless nations’ than it is for their central states which have a more constrained institutional legacy to contend with.

The development, then, of niche-nationalism is reflected in the ability of political movements to shift around the spectrum; for example, from right to left, corporatist/neoliberal/social democratic. Thus, the Scottish National Party has shifted its position from right to left to compete for the largest block of left-of-centre Labour votes. The Parti Quebecois positions itself as a leftist party while retaining strong links with the local business elite. The nationalists in Catalonia, who formed a longstanding coalition until 2003, are closely allied with local, essentially small, capital, yet have a strong appeal to manual working-class voters in autonomous elections. The trick is to play the system so as to capitalize to maximum advantage, mixing and matching ideology, strategy and voter appeal. Compared with more traditional forms of nationalism that seek to defend and maintain social and cultural values, neo-nationalist movements are more promiscuous in their appeal, learning to live with, and even love, the global market in a social democratic or liberal way.

Not all forms of neo-nationalism are leftist in ideological character. The Lega Nord in Italy, for example, has allied itself firmly with the right, in arguing that northern and southern Italy represent two distinct, non-converging societies which should be free to go their own ways (Bull 1999). Its leader, Umberto Bossi, has argued that Lombardy and Trentino have far more in common with the Sud-Tirol and Bavaria than with Calabria or Campania. The Lega has benefited from two processes: first, the collapse of the Italian party system, notably the demise of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, and the emergence of rightist coalitions led by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia; and second, the mobilization of concerns with migration into the affluent north, first from the poor Italian south, and latterly from out-with the EU. Turkey’s overtures to join the EU, for example, are opposed by the Lega as a ‘muslim invasion,’ that ‘Turkey’s entry into Europe is a very high risk, a real Trojan horse in the heart of the West (EU Business, 19 December 2004). Important though presenting political opportunities are, the Lega Nord recognizes that they are not enough in and of themselves to create a social movement. It has attempted to forge a cultural-territorial construction in the north of Italy which it calls Padania, to give it symbolic underpinnings which it judges key to its separatist cause (Sciatino 1999). It remains to be seen whether constructing nationalist bricks with a minimum of cultural straw in this case is feasible in the longer term.

In many respects, neo-nationalism grows organically out of a cohesive and coherent civil society. The communicative space marked out by institutional autonomy helps to generate a sense of national identity, which can then feed through, as and when appropriate, to political forms of nationalism. Indeed, without institutional distinctiveness, it would be much more difficult to imagine oneself as, for example, ‘Scottish. Feeling Scottish is not the result of some ill-remembered set of historical emotions, but derived from the institutional framework of social governance. Similarly, all political parties, from Right to Left, accept that Scotland is a ‘nation’ with its own historical and institutional distinctiveness, and thus are all ‘nationalists’ in the lower case sense of the term. Where they differ, of course, is in their assessment of the constitutional politics which derive from that. For ‘unionists,’ Scotland’s national distinctiveness is best served by remaining part of the United Kingdom, albeit in devolved form, whereas for ‘separatists,’ only an independent legislature can achieve that satisfactorily.

The Politics of Identity

It is institutional autonomy which builds a civic rather than simply an ethnic sense of being Scottish. If it were the case that being Scottish was simply an ethnic, cultural, identity as some have claimed, then it could more easily be accommodated by being incorporated into a wider political Union. In other words, the ‘nesting’ of Scotland within the United Kingdom would have been much easier. It is precisely the challenge to governing state structures which is provided by ‘civil society.’ For as long as social institutions have freedom of manoeuvre, then there is little call for a distinctive political legislature. Once, however, this freedom is constrained, it is almost inevitable that the social and the political are reconnected. Thus it was that it took until the second half of the twentieth century before formal political nationalism became a serious force in Scottish politics, reflecting the growing power of the British state, first, through welfarism, and later, in a more overtly ideological form, in the challenge of Thatcherism.

It would be wrong, however, to jump to the conclusion that the ‘social’ and the ‘political’ must be reconnected in modern societies. One important aspect of that is how people articulate their sense of national identity. Thus, Scots are also British, the Catalans are Spanish, and Quebecois Canadian, when it suits them to be. This plural identity is a political resource which is played in appropriate circumstances, rather than a fixed characteristic. While it is true that people in Scotland are more than six times more likely to emphasize their Scottishness over their Britishness, it remains the case that just as many claim to be British in some form or another. This is not the result of some socio-psychological inability to make up one’s mind, the result of a ‘deformed’ culture. There is no inconsistency in this, for it is a matter of having different identity cards to hand as and when they need to be played. In short, there is something quite calculative about national identity which shifts according to the political circumstances. It is far less a matter of sentiment than it is of political practice. It reflects the need for multiple political identities in the modern world, for just as sovereignty is layered and shared (Scottish, British, European), so people appear quite content to attach identities, and political commitment, to these levels as and when necessary. The issue, in other words, is not which one you are, but which you choose to be according to circumstance and purpose.

The ambiguity of identity is also reflected in ambiguity in the political project. Is neo-nationalism about independence or not? It depends what one means. It is true that the Scottish National Party is a separatist party in that it seeks an independent Scotland, but this is ‘independence in Europe,’ which strictly speaking is an autonomous position, namely, conditional independence. In similar fashion, the Parti Quebecois adopts a ‘sovereignist’ goal, but one which is contingent on maintaining close links with the rest of Canada. On the other hand, the main nationalist bloc in Catalonia, CiU, currently supports ‘auto-nomisme’ rather than full independence, while its smaller but older rival, Esquerra Republicana (ERC), aims for an independent Catalonia. Whereas a majority of ERC supporters wish Catalonia to be independent, only a minority of CiU supporters do so. The leader of CiU, Jordi Pujol, established its philosophy in 1984 as follows:

Catalonia is a nation and has the right to be recognised as such in the area of culture and language, politics and institutions. I reiterate my desire that this is to be done within the [Spanish] Constitution, so that Catalonia continues to be a factor for the stability and progress for the whole of Spain, and I especially emphasise my determination that all that is done through dialogue and understanding, both within and outwith Catalonia, hence my conviction that citizens’ ‘convivencia’ has to be our most important preoccupation, that we explicitly recognise in nationalism. (Caminal and Matas 1998: 21)

In short, these are nationalist movements whose goals turn out to be less than clear-cut. Home Rule, Autonomisme, Sovereignty-Association do not sound like full-blown and traditional independence. In truth, the issue is more how to adapt in order to maximize political independence in an increasingly interdependent world.

The contingent nature of neo-nationalism is also reflected in support for the relevant political party. Voters are adept at voting differently at different elections, notably supporting the nationalist parties more heavily at ‘autonomous’ elections than at elections for the central state government. It is also noticeable that the political parties of neo-nationalism are of relatively recent origin. They date, by and large, from the second half of the twentieth century, although they have grown out of previous political movements.

The Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci commented:

The ethno-national question must be seen … as containing a plurality of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single core. It contains ethnic identity, which is a weapon of revenge against centuries of discrimination and new forms of exploitation; it serves as an instrument for applying pressure in the political market; and it is a response to needs for personal and collective identity in highly complex societies. (1989: 90)

Thus, we can see that nationalism combines three key aspects: the sociological (‘a weapon of revenge …’; the political (‘an instrument … in the political market’), and the psychological (‘needs for personal and collective identity’). That is why nationalism is such a potent force in the twenty-first century, at a time when conventional state structures struggle to maintain their claim to absolute sovereignty in the modern world. Nationalist movements can encapsulate cultural defence, the pursuit of political resources, as well as being vehicles for social identity in periods of rapid social change. We should not be surprised that nationalism is a catch-all movement, lending itself to versions of ecological or green politics, as well as seeking out new forms of self-determination and self-management. It has a chameleon-like quality in ideological terms of presenting itself as a movement that moves across the Right-Left spectrum as circumstances require. This is not a reflection of weakness but of strength in the politics of the twenty-first century.

Above all, neo-nationalism, as it operates within advanced capitalist states, pinpoints the shifts that have taken place in the nature of states themselves. It is too facile to claim that, in a globalized world, the age of the state is dead, although it is now much harder to sustain the argument that the state is all-powerful. Rather, there are new tensions and pressures on systems of governance such that nation and state have become disarticulated. Instead, we are confronted with a messier world in which degrees of state-ness, and even degrees of nationness become more imaginable and plausible. The very fact that the ‘nation-state’ has become a contested concept reflects the new social and political forces at work. What these generate is a much more complex system of governance than textbooks allow, as well as a more nuanced and sophisticated sense of cultural distinctiveness.

The fall of communism in 1989 did not create this state of affairs so much as remove the rationale for big bloc politics whereby any threat to state supremacy was considered a threat to the geo-political division of labour. In this context, the conundrum—that neo-nationalist movements are emerging just at the point at which the ‘nation-state’ is in decay—is more apparent than real. On the one hand, neo-nationalism represents a challenge to the zero-sum orthodoxy that sovereignty is all, for this is a debate about the degrees of self-government rather than whether territories should have any at all. On the other hand, while the soidisant nation-state is in decay in the sense that it was always, in its strict sense, a chimera, there is little doubt that states themselves matter, and will continue so to do. Just as it is facile to proclaim the death of politics in a global world, so predicting the end of the state, let alone history, represents false prophecy. The political realm remains the arena for debate about the public good, and government remains the key mechanism for redistributing resources among its citizens. It may be recognizing the limits of its actions, but that is a far cry from predicting its incapacity and demise. Political movements like neo-nationalism, then, are based on accepting limited and shared sovereignty in an interdependent world. The political movements which emerge around these issues are not inadequate reactions to the state of that world, unable to make up their minds as to whether they are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the state, but quite rational responses to the more complex world of the twenty-first century. Understated nations flourish not because states are collapsing, but because of the variable geometry of power, layered and shared, in the modern world. There is no forward march to full independence, any more than a back-to-the-future trek to the world as it was imagined to be. The task of the social scientist is to understand that world rather than to measure it against the models of political development we inherited from the nineteenth century. If it is a more complex and messy one than our theories give credit to, then so be it. The task is to understand the world, and then, just possibly, to change it.