LONDON – Since I believe that the Scots are sensible, I think that they will vote “no” this week to independence. But, whichever way the vote goes, the spectacular rise of nationalism, in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, is a symptom of a diseased political mainstream.
Many are now convinced that the current way of organizing our affairs does not deserve such unquestioning allegiance; that the political system has closed down serious debate on economic and social alternatives; that banks and oligarchs rule; and that democracy is a sham. Nationalism promises an escape from the discipline of “sensible” alternatives that turn out to offer no alternative.
Nationalists can be divided into two main groups: those who genuinely believe that independence provides an exit from a blocked political system, and those who use the threat of it to force concessions from the political establishment. Either way, nationalist politicians enjoy the huge advantage of not requiring a practical program: all good things will flow from sovereignty.
Though nationalist politics was long suppressed after World War II by economic prosperity and memories of pre-war horrors, Europe offers fertile ground for its revival. This is not just because of Europe’s prolonged economic malaise. It is because practically all of Europe’s existing nation-states contain geographically concentrated ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities. Moreover, these states’ incorporation into the European Union – a kind of voluntary empire – challenges their citizens’ allegiance. Thus, nationalists can look either to Europe to protect them against their own states or to their states to protect them against the European empire.