Nationalism has discovered the global economy and fallen in love with it

Related Topics
'WHY do they call us separatists?' Liane asked me. 'We don't want to stop the world and get off. We want to join the world]'

Liane is an Abkhazian. Her minute country demanded federal status within Georgia, found itself at war and was slightly amazed to emerge victorious. Now Abkhazia is 'sovereign' but in ruins, unrecognised and broke. The ambition of its leaders is to keep the sovereignty but get into the great global free-market economy.

I remembered Liane last week when the Parti Quebecois won the elections in Quebec - with a majority of parliamentary seats but only a narrow margin of the popular vote. Jacques Parizeau, the PQ leader, intends to hold a referendum on independence when he thinks the moment ripe. 'Separatism]' roared the world, and delivered a torrent of warnings about how petty, divisive nationalism would pitch Quebec into poverty and isolation as business packed its coffers and fled.

Has nobody noticed that the world has changed? George Robertson, Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, used Quebec last week as a bogey: 'The separatists are winning, but with enormous economic damage as a consequence (which) will remind the Scots of the expensive risks in secession.' Robertson, a man with a lot of sound international experience, should have known better. In the past few years, moderate nationalism (not the blood and soil type) has turned itself inside-out.

Parizeau said the other day: 'The fundamental discovery of our time is that a small country can prosper so far as it exists within larger markets.' What has happened is that nationalism has discovered the global economy and fallen in love with it. And this love is requited.

There was a time when nationalist movements were truly separatist. An independent nation-state would be established, barriers set on the movement of capital, local industries protected or even nationalised, land purchase restricted to 'natives', new taxes and a new currency introduced with exchange rates controlled by government. I remember how, at a business conference at Aviemore 20 years ago, Peter Jay electrified the audience by saying that the biggest argument for Scottish independence was that a Scottish pound could be devalued.

All that is dead now, or dying. As a shrewd article in the Wall Street Journal observed, 'now even tiny groups of people can contemplate breaking away from the central state and plugging into the world economy on their own . . . In the past, separatist movements were inward-looking and chauvinistic. But the new ones see themselves as internationalists and free- traders'. The examples of small countries like Ireland, Luxemburg or Switzerland have impressed newcomers like the Czech Republic or Estonia, which associate protectionism not with independence but with backwardness and dependence. Even the Scottish National Party now stands for 'independence in Europe' - within the single European market.

In his book, Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff made this discovery for himself. He went to see Claude Beland, president of the huge Caisse Desjardins bank in Montreal, and was fascinated to find that he was a nationalist. 'As men like Beland join the global economy as players, they become more, not less, interested in national sovereignty for a little corner of the globe called Quebec . . . The coming of continental free trade and globalisation of capital markets strengthened, rather than weakened, the case for a sovereign Quebec.'

Separatism is passing away. What remains is the idea of a community which takes charge of its own culture and resources for three reasons: to empower itself politically, to protect its identity, and to participate directly - rather than indirectly - in the global scramble for prosperity. But does a community - or a 'nationality' - need a fully-fledged nation- state to achieve those three things?

The answer seems to be: sometimes, but less often than in the past. The power and glamour is gradually ebbing out of nation- states. Regions, by contrast, are growing stronger, and this is part of the reason why multinational business is attracted to them. Government intervention in the economy is waning all over the world, but what remains of it is increasingly regional. A German company interested in siting a new factory near Cardiff would not approach London to discuss planning permission but would send its people to the Welsh Office or the Welsh Development Agency. An American chemicals firm with its eye on German skilled labour would start talking to the Land governments at Dresden or Stuttgart, not to the federal government in Bonn.

The next question is whether free-market nationalists are less inclined to expel or murder their ethnic minorities than old-fashioned nationalists. Talk about single currencies is not impressive in those lands where the Terminator and Rambo - whistling a folk- song and carrying grenades stuffed into their ethnically embroidered waistbands - saunter across the hills looking for people with the wrong headdress. For people like the Kurds or the Crimean Tatars, the struggle to win a state of their own or to regain the land seized from their fathers is about life or death. The nationalism of the 'haves' who want to have more can afford tolerance and an open door. Those who have nothing, who feel they are clinging to a ledge above extinction, will take anything they can grab but dare not give an inch.

Quebec has a choice ahead. One argument is that Quebec can gain the effective sovereignty it needs without secession; in many ways it already functions as a full member of the North American Free Trade Area. The other is that anything with less clarity than formal statehood would send the wrong message to other Canadians - that they still had some residual rights over Quebec's future.

But the danger is that the people will be cheated out of that choice. Jacques Parizeau and the PQ have an interest in fouling up negotiations with Ottawa over a new status. That could persuade the Quebecois that there is no halfway house between the status quo and independence - and corner them into taking independence as the lesser evil. Something similar happened to the Slovaks last year. In the world of free-market nationalism, statehood for Slovakia or Quebec is no disaster. It may well turn out a success, ending generations of wrangling and laying ethnic paranoia to rest. But even when nation-states have lost their old splendour, when independence means joining the world rather than leaping off it, these remain solemn decisions.

If Quebec is a nation, then the Quebecois are entitled to make up their own minds on what to do about it. Nationalists talk of the ''right to self-determination'. If it exists, then it should start at home.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager (technical, applications, infrastructure)

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Proj...

Science Teacher (Swindon and Wiltshire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Science Teachers of all specialisms fo...

EBD Learning Support Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced Learn...

Science Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Science Teachers of all specialisms fo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence  

Scottish independence: Five reasons Salmond is secretly hoping for a No vote

Oliver Wright

Scottish independence: Starting afresh could lead to economic miracles

Jamie McCallum
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week