Both Brexiters and ‘Regional Nationalists’ are Making the Same Mistakes

In G.K. Chesterton’s neglected 1904 masterpiece The Napoleon of Notting Hill, an insane civil servant called Auberon Quin rises to the office of King, and divides London into dozens of competing quasi-independent statelets, which fosters a growth of bizarre micro-nationalisms.

In attempting to analogise its most extreme proselytiser, Adam Wayne’s passionate patriotism for his native Notting Hill, Chesterton says: “All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be the king of a pathing-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.”

It might be ironic to invoke Chesterton to criticise nationalism when he himself embraced an “Englishry” with an anti-Semitic streak, but the anti-nationalism of the novel speaks for itself. One cannot help but see in that child not only the gung ho Brexiteers aching for a fight with Europe, but also the ‘regional nationalists’ of Scotland and Catalonia (and elsewhere in Europe).

These groups - including other varied groups such as the Frexiteers and the Bavarian separatists and so on - are making a core mistake: they believe that what they consider their national cause and vitality trumps all other factors. They assign—whether they want to or not—their geographic space an essentialist quality that belies the constructed and artificial nature of national identity.

Nationalists cannot help but indulge in supremacism

As Elie Kedourie wrote in his 1961 book Nationalism: “Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It pretends to supply a criterion for the determination of the unit of population proper to enjoy a government exclusively its own…the doctrine holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type of government is national self-government.”

Kedourie quotes the Robespierrist revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just to emphasise how nationalism quickly went from a means of self-determination and trans-European peace—nee Kant—to a justification of violence and oppression: “There is nothing which so much resembles virtue as a great crime…There is something terrible in the sacred love of the fatherland…What produces the general good is always terrible.”

Nationalism belongs to a field of ideological politics that promises a new world where everybody “will live happily ever after”. It sees “society as a canvas which has to be wiped clean”, contrasting with what Kedourie called constitutional politics, which centres on the “common concerns of a particular society”, and the upholding of the rule of law “beyond sectional interests however important or powerful.”

This is of course highly idealised, but then again so are nationalist visions of a utopia after the alien ‘oppressor’ is thrown off.

Desperate to avoid comparisons with the more regressive forms of nationalist politics, Brexiteers and regional nationalists alike insist that their nationalism is one of ‘civic’ qualities.

Nationalists cannot help but indulge in supremacism of a kind, even if a direct appeal to racialism is off the table. Brexiteers uniformly claim they ‘love Europe, but hate the EU’, but the link between the referendum result and rising xenophobia is undeniable. Scottish nationalists often fall back on Anglophobic accusations of “domination” from London; often enough Scotland exists for the nationalist as a kind of ‘anti-England’, free from the horrors of a uniquely English xenophobia, individualism, and class snobbery, while anyone who doesn’t fit the profile of a True Scot must be belittled or patronised.

Even Catalan nationalism, the spontaneous darling of the so-called radical European left, is not free from the supremacism that colours most nationalisms.

Andrew Dowling writes in History Today when comparing Catalonia’s positon to that of northern Italy: “Both Catalonia and northern Italy saw themselves [in the early 20th century] as modernising forces against the indolent, bureaucratic and often corrupt capitals of Madrid and Rome. Both regions also saw themselves as representing a political and cultural vanguard against illiteracy, landlordism and backwardness.”

Demands for Catalan independence cannot also be squared with the fact that the richest region in Spain does not wish support its brethren.

Another contradiction comes about when you realise that Brexiteers and Scottish nationalists use a variation of the same core argument. Scottish nationalists insist that breaking away from the rest of the UK is necessary for the future of Scotland, but are also insistent on continued membership of the EU. Brexiteers on the other hand insist that breaking away from the EU is necessary for the future of the Britain, but almost all of them are staunch unionists who oppose Scottish independence.

Can you see the problem here?

If these petty divisions within European nation-states carry on, they shall bequeath similar yet pettier divisions

Scottish nationalists criticise Brexit on the grounds that breaking away from the EU is divisive, unnecessary and economically disastrous, while demanding the division of the UK; while Brexiteers demand separation from the EU while vigorously opposing the break up of the UK as divisive, unnecessary and economically disastrous. Both of them make the same assertions but in different ways, while criticising the other for doing what they consider the other to be doing.

The Catalan nationalists are the same: they demand separation from Spain while also demanding unconditional, uninterrupted membership of the EU, even though this is simply impossible.

At the end of the discursive strife, all these nationalists are just like that child on Pump Street: guarding a paving stone they cannot possibly claim true ownership of when it is considered not only as part of a pavement, but as part of a world.

Over the course of the novel, Wayne, unable to keep his feet in his pathing stone, conquers neo-feudal London, creating the “Empire of Notting Hill”, but eventually this too falls after a bloody battle of revenge by its constituent fiefdoms.

If these petty divisions within European nation-states carry on, they shall bequeath similar yet pettier divisions, and a totally Balkanised Europe is ripe for vassalisation.

Unless Britons and Spaniards alike get over their trivial differences and arrogant assertions, the consequences for the whole continent will be dire.

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