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Introduction to 1997 Conference, by Graham Williamson

To the casual observer it may seem odd that a group dedicated to the principle of the nation-state would host a conference of secessionist and independence groups in conflict with established and sometimes long-lived states. In reality, however, many so-called “nation states” are in fact artificial entities, based on geographical or geometrical factors as in many parts of Africa, or historical compromises as in Belgium. Many such states either do not now, or have never, represented homogeneous nations; they consist of more than one nation, or contain fragments of another nation — such as Kurdistan, split into five pieces. Globalisation of the world economy has increased trans-national labour mobility and further complicated the picture.

The impulse towards secession and independence is in fact a struggle for recognition of identity, in political terms. Calls for separation are often made when a cultural identity is perceived as being under threat.

Many so-called nationalists have come to identify themselves not with the people or culture, but with the State and its trappings. Many of these people have aligned themselves with the status quo particularly in cases where a number of nations exist within a larger State. This supranational entity creates an artificial, although often powerful, identity. The competing calls for loyalty and identification inject a schizophrenia into the psyche of the people. “British” identity versus English, Welsh, Scottish or Ulster identity is a prime example.

The confusion and contradiction is, I contend, the result of two factors. First, nationalism is not a monolithic concept. It contains many strains, some of which are in conflict. Put in simple terms, one strain is wedded firmly to the state and measures a nation’s well-being and strength in terms of the power of that state. This might be by the innocuous tally of sporting medals, or the more serious creation of a traditional or cultural Empire. Minority cultures within the state are absorbed or repressed.

The other strain recognises that the nation is the people. Relationships between people — through families, friends, partners, workmates and communities — are what create a stable and vibrant society. This is universal. We should recognise the right of all peoples to cultural integrity and, if it is their desire, self-determination. “Nationalists” who mouth the slogans of “State before Nation” are worthy of contempt.

The second factor is the post-war corruption of the concept of the “nation state”. Its origin sprang from the 19th century Risorgemento. The enemies of the nation state were then the multi-national empires. The nationalist agenda at this time included calls for greater freedom and accountability of government. Today the concept of the nation state is expressed in economic terms, and used to argue not for progress but for reaction.

All of the states created from the ashes of the empires were heralded as nation states. Many were formulated around expediency rather than national identity — as buffer-states, or within defendable frontiers, or to create a balanced economy. Nations were split, or artificially united with others. Many post-imperial states were created in Europe after World War I; few of them consisted of homogeneous nations. Indeed, they often contained substantial national minorities or, at worst, competing nations. Therein lay some of the conflicts which led to World War II. Outside of the Americas most territory at the turn of the 20th century was the preserve of the grand colonial empires. The transition to independence was mapped by this reality. Boundaries were based on colonial fault-lines or administrative boundaries. Independence movements generally sought to hold all existing territory — they were influenced by an economic model of progress, and therefore sought as large a territory and population as possible.

The resultant conflicts and wars have largely been attempts to reverse that decision and assert a separate identity. Secessionism has therefore been associated with armed conflict; but the turmoil in fact stems from the denial of identity inherent in keeping the former colonial borders.

So, if secessionists have been misunderstood by nationalists and not given the support they deserve, what does the future hold?

Events in central and eastern Europe have broken resistance to the redrawing of borders and the creation of new or re-creation of old states. At the same time the EU has promoted regionalism at the expense of established States. There are many now who demand statehood. This is not to say that all are deserving of support. Our judgement must be based on whether beneath the political demands there is a living identity. It is this identity which confers the right to independence. We should give all such claims a fair hearing. That is one reason why we have convened this conference

Graham Williamson, a graduate in international politics, is Chairman of Third Way



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