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Lesson from Catalonia? Pay more attention to the north

Lesson from Catalonia? Pay more attention to the north

Following chaotic scenes in last weekend’s semi–official Catalonian independence poll, it’s time to ask ‘what keeps nation states together?’

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What holds nation states together?

Anybody who watched the sobering scenes of Spanish police beating voters in Catalonia’s disputed independence poll over the weekend would recognise that this is far from an idle academic question.

Sometimes some region or ethnic (or religious) group will want to plough their own furrow aside from the political community that they have previously been part of. It’s nothing new, but it seems that there’s a mood for it right now: a narrow miss for the UK in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a head on collision in the 2016 British exit referendum, an unofficial referendum of Kurds in northern Iraq which may yet tip that country into yet another potentially violent conflict, and now this.

As we watch the debates in real time, we tend to wonder what is driving regions and nations, but at least occasionally ought to reflect on the opposite – and I think slightly more useful – question. What is it that holds them together? One of the reasons we should ask this question is 1) because the populations of nation states seem to becoming more not less conscious of local identities (and grievances) and 2) because many of the centripetal forces we looked to traditionally are either no longer relevant or morally questionable.

Take, for instance, Linda Colley’s observation that British identity in the 18th and 19th century was very closely bound up with the need to be a ‘Protestant bastion against Roman ambitions’. The ‘we’ was dependent on the ‘they’, the ‘us’ dependent on the ‘them’. Arguably, fragments of this still lurk somewhere in the British ‘national consciousness’, but the cohering and opposition forces of religious identities are clearly no longer as significant as they were. And although there’s no shortage of politicians at home or abroad who are prepared to create a sense of purpose by defining themselves in opposition to threats – actual, perceived or invented it’s harder – though not impossible – to create ‘the other’ in liberal democracies which celebrate difference and diversity.  

Evoking a common sense of a single history or culture might be another approach (British values, anyone?). Benedict Anderson called this the ‘imagined community’. But whether you think they’re imagined or real, there are many different ways to perceive and attach. Currently, nation states and patriotic attachment to them are constantly critiqued and questioned – not least because of their failure to create the kind of prosperous lives we have come to expect – while more local and specific identities and cosmopolitan global communities are increasing in power.

Absent some single defining national struggle or traumatic experience, what’s left?

As some commentators have suggested, there are strong resemblances between Scottish and the Catalan independence movements. Austerity and a rejection of failing or politically distant national elites (as with Scotland, Catalonia is strongly left–leaning) provide the backdrop. In other ways, of course, they are in very different positions.

First, Scotland is a beneficiary of fiscal transfer, so that even in the overall context of austerity it still receives more than it supports in taxes. The Catalan region – on the other hand – is a net contributor to the Spanish economy. As polarised as the politics of the Scottish referendum was, imagine what it would have been had it been a fiscal net contributor. This in itself, however, isn’t enough. Area’s that have benefited greatly from European structural funding voted heavily to leave. Poorer areas of Scotland voted more strongly for independence. You can’t buy love.

Second, then – and a key for Scotland rejecting independence, was the fact that it has benefited from an ever more expansive devolution settlement, including getting the nod for a referendum from David Cameron. Over the last decade Catalonia has had its wings clipped by the Spanish courts, and now their attempt at a referendum has been met with the swing of a police baton, which is both terrible ‘optics’ and terrible tactics (why not just encourage ‘no’ voters to boycott the poll?). There’s a very real prospect that the region will unilaterally declare independence within the next few days.

National cohesion isn’t ‘all about the money’. Nor is it necessarily something which can only be received from history. Instead, it is also something which can be chosen and reinforced again and again in tangible ways, including financially but also through greater subsidiary and devolution. 

Which takes us belatedly to the English regions. At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester yesterday Philip Hammond announced £400 million extra for the Northern Powerhouse agenda (300 of which for ‘rail futureproofing’). Such announcements are simultaneously welcome and insufficient. It’s small beer in terms of the huge imbalance in infrastructure spending (the now–opening Crossrail’s budget was £14.8 billon – that is £14,800 million), but worse than this, it doesn’t release control to the regions.

There are large swathes of the country for which we are expressing little real solidarity – where we are allowing the centrifugal forces to slowly do their work. The North East of England, for example, has the lowest rate of employment in the UK, the lowest productivity, and the lowest forecast growth rate, and the lowest earnings. More than one in five jobs are in the public sector – more than in any other English region. These are not immutable facts – successive governments have done somethings but they need to do more, not least because if we are a nation in a meaningful sense, then we should seek the flourishing of all – when “one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it”.

Meanwhile, churches and faith–based organisations ask what it is to work within and against a context where some regions suffer from structural disadvantages that materially will affect the flourishing of every person they are looking to serve. That’s why we’re holding a conference on neighbourhood resilience in Newcastle in October. Last weekend’s events in Catalonia (and Brexit vote) are examples of what can happen when you refuse to give people appropriate influence over the own future – it’s time we changed our approach.  


Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme for Theos and author of The Problem of Proselytism | @mrbickley 

Image from Wikimedia.com under this Creative Commons Licence

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Posted 3 October 2017

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