The tension between the local and the national is not a recent development in human affairs. From America’s “Out of Many, One” to Europe’s “Ever Closer Union”, political thinkers and politicians have recognised the need to address this friction. The failure to resolve it led to the Confederacy seceding from the United States of America, the Republic of Ireland breaking away from the United Kingdom, and, more recently, the United Kingdom voting for Brexit.
Today, Brussels, Washington D.C., London, Moscow, Madrid and Rome have all become bywords for distant centres of imperial power. Over the last four years alone independence movements have gathered momentum from Ukraine to Scotland to California. In October last year, the world saw Catalonia proclaim itself an independent republic, whilst Italian regions Veneto and Lombardy voted for greater autonomy within the Italian state. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union may be a victory for an “English nationalist movement”, but similar movements can be found on continents across the globe. There was nothing peculiarly “English” about Brexit.
These movements speak volumes about the manifestations of personal identity in a global age. True, narratives of national self-determination have reappeared – but this is the symptom of a wider problem. British journalist David Goodhart has charted the emergence of two social groups in Britain: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. The former are more educated, more mobile and more cosmopolitan; the latter tend to be less-educated, more conservative and rooted in their local communities. Until the twentieth century “Somewheres” constituted the overwhelming majority of the global population. Self-contained forms of local governance such as the county and the parish were the norm; this all changed with the expansion of central governments and the need for interdependence during the Great Depression and the Second World War. It was no coincidence that NATO, the UN, the IMF and the EEC were all formed during the 1940s and 1950s. Consequently, free movement and pooled sovereignty have given rise to an international network of “Anywheres”.
Some states were better equipped than others at handling the transfer of power from the local to the national, and, eventually, the supranational. For example, the US Constitution was designed to create a strong federal government that was also sensitive to the rights of the states. As colonies, the Americans had enjoyed powers of self-governance, which is why they revolted against London in 1776. Unsurprisingly the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights reaffirms that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” It is this provision which has ensured a relatively successful relationship between Washington D.C. and the rest of the United States since 1787, even following the Civil War and the New Deal. Political movements such as the Tea Party may complain about the size of the federal government, but American federalism itself remains intact. Indeed, California would need a supermajority in Congress or the state legislatures in order to amend the Constitution to allow it to secede; this which is why Californian secession is ‘far-fetched’.
The experience of European states has proven far more varied. Historically, the tension between the local and the national was not immediately addressed – it may not even have been perceived. The Kingdom of Spain’s Constitution illustrates this, as it is based on a seemingly contradictory claim. According to Section 2: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognises and guarantees the right to self government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.” The ambivalence here has led to Catalonia’s status as an autonomous community being challenged by the national government on several occasions. This happened firstly under General Franco, and more recently when the Constitutional Court of Spain rewrote much of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy.
By point of comparison, as soon as the United Kingdom was formed in 1603, the Scottish Saltire was incorporated into the Union Jack. More recently, the Scotland Act 1998 created a Scottish Parliament with the power to enact legislation on any policy not “reserved” for Westminster. Last December, Holyrood exercised this power by introducing a change to income tax that affects high-earners in Scotland exclusively. Such concessions from Westminster might go some way in explaining why Scotland voted to remain within the UK in 2014.
But is the devolution of power enough for local communities to accept national and supranational governance? Constitutional theorists and political scientists can speculate, but the answer may lie in human nature itself. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man warns that states who ignore the human ‘desire for recognition’ do so at their peril. “Plato spoke of thymos, Machiavelli of man’s desire for glory, Hobbes of his pride or vainglory, Rousseau of his amour-propre, Alexander Hamilton of the love of fame, Hegel of Recognition and Nietzsche of man as the “beast with red cheeks”…the drive for recognition is the most specifically political part of the human personality”. In short, Britain and Catalonia may have voted for independence even if the EU and Spain had granted them greater autonomy.
Clearly, slogans such as Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control”, Catalonia’s “We Are a Nation, We Decide” and the Northern League’s “Big Thief Rome” appeal directly to this part of the human personality. Equally, they also play into the fact that these communities enjoyed autonomy at some point in history, and this is not untrue. Catalonia has twice enjoyed status as an independent republic. From 1688 to 1973 Britain had been ruled by a monarchy of European descent, but the Crown was constitutionally subordinate to elected representatives in Parliament. Italy’s Risorgimento, which unified the peninsula into one nation under Rome, took place under 150 years ago. Before that Italy had been a patchwork of independent city-states, kingdoms and republics.
Of course, it is to the credit of concepts such as “Ever Closer Union” that continental wars are no longer frequent. But global peace and the preservation of identity, whether local or national, are not mutually exclusive. The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and established the principle of national sovereignty; the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War and enshrined the right to national self-determination in international law. And yet, it’s in Europe at the moment where unionism and federalism are experiencing the greatest difficulty.
Clearly, it takes carefully configured political structures, whether federal or unitary, to manage the tension between the local and the national. Globalisation renders the world increasingly smaller and countries are becoming ever closer, yet localised identities still persist. The creation of America’s federal system perhaps testifies to the fact that you can create nations out of states, but not states out of nations. In Europe, the more that communities feel like their identity is being taken away from them, the more the tension between the local, the national and the global will intensify. As Fukuyama predicted, the struggle for recognition lives on.
Greg Hall is a third-year History student at King’s College London who writes regularly about history, culture and politics for the History Society’s Muse Magazine and his own blog De Facto. He wrote ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for the latest issue of Dialogue.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.
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