(National) Identity Politics

A little while ago the UK almost tore itself in two over the issue of Scottish independence. It was a universally unpopular idea south of the border and, as it turns out, not quite as popular north of it as the fishwives, Salmon and Sturgeon had hoped for. At one time I shared most of my compatriot’s view that breaking up the union would be about as bleak an outcome as could be imagined for our country, but of course that was before the clusterfuck that is Brexit. If it were possible for one cankerous bout of identity politics to be topped by another even more toxic, gout ridden, rash of vile nationalistic sentiment it wasn’t something anyone anticipated in 2015. Brexit is a carbuncle on the pustule ridden body of identity politics.


And yet I can empathise, perhaps even sympathise, with the overwhelming sense of national sovereignty that fuelled Scottish independence. In conversation with a Scottish colleague, who was herself fiercely in favour of the union (hardly surprising since she’d made London her home for the last 30 years),  and rather scornful of those who would break it up, I found myself being rather contrary and making the argument in favour of independence. How often does history give you the opportunity to declare yourself a sovereign state, to throw of your chains and embrace liberty?


“To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights [and duties] of humanity.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a point and I found myself realising that if I were Scottish I might well be embracing sovereignty rather than renouncing it.


Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in Barcelona, mostly by coincidence of suddenly having several key clients with offices there that I need to visit. I learned a few years ago that life’s too short to see only the inside of airports, hotels and offices when undertaking business trips so I always make sure I schedule trips to overlap with a little time off with my camera. Being exposed to the overwhelming sense of Catalan national identity has been something of an eye opener especially in the context of our recent history with independence referenda. It is fascinating to try and understand how a nascent sense of national identity emerges into either fervent sovereignty or vile sedition, depending on your perspective. Just what are the necessary conditions, what role does language play in that identity, how far back can the loss of historical independence go before it’s reasonable to dismiss it as whimsy of a bygone era. What about culture and what the hell is that anyway?


I don’t for one moment pretend to understand the history Catalonian identity or why the desire to reclaim their liberty has surfaced now (well apart from the fact that most of the western world seems intent on loosing itself up the rectum of identity politics and over bearing nationalism but that’s a slightly different problem), but it is interesting to meet people who feel strongly enough about who they are to spend a good part of their waking day protesting about it and trying to get their political leaders freed from jail. And it does seem like a crowning irony for a democratic and sovereign state to jail its own citizens for sedition arising from holding an otherwise democratic vote even if that vote were to break up an otherwise really good party.