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The National Question in Western Europe

The national question in Scotland is one among a number which exist in Western Europe, and which are often lumped together indiscriminately. In this article Murray Smith examines the origin and development of these national questions and why they exist in certain states and not in others. This necessarily involves situating the national question in Western Europe today within a broader framework of analysis of nations and nationalism.

No consensus exists on the definition of what is a nation: some err on the side of excessive rigidity (1); others exaggerate the importance of one particular criteria (language, history, economy…). The Czech historian Miroslav Hroch provides one that seems to me to avoid these pitfalls. Hroch defines a nation as being "a large social group integrated not by one but by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships (economic, political, linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, historical) and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness". Hroch adds three elements that seem to him "irreplaceable": i) a 'memory' of some common past, treated as a 'destiny' of the group – or at least of its core components; ii) a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group than beyond it; iii) a conception of the equality of all members of the group organised as a civil society" (2).

It is the second of these elements that seems to me to be decisive, because at the end of the day what defines the feeling of belonging to a nation is precisely this idea of belonging to a community that has more things in common than those it shares with the world around it. Furthermore Hroch's entire approach is a refutation of any definition of a nation based on race or ethnicity.

Hroch stresses that "the process by which nations were built, around such central elements, was not preordained or irreversible. It could be interrupted, just as it could also be resumed after a long hiatus". He also rejects the idea of artificially constructed nations: "Intellectuals can 'invent' national communities only if certain preconditions for the formation of a nation already exist. (…) For national consciousness to arise, there must be something to become conscious of". On the national movements of the 19th century, Hroch writes: "Much irony has been expended on the historical legends and fictive pasts purveyed by the patriots of the time. But we do not in fact know very much about the real role of history in the emergence and growth of national movements. For, of course, there was a genuine fund of historical experience on which many of them could draw – all the materials deposited by the first, pre-modern stage of the nation-building process itself; and then there were the various forms in which these subsequently found reflection in the consciousness of the non-dominant ethnic group."

These points seem to me to be useful in approaching the national question in Western Europe. We have to take into account not one but several criteria. But what is essential is the feeling of belonging to the same group. In the case of the nations that took shape in the course of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, we saw precisely the formation of nations and states being resumed after a long hiatus. In Western Europe today we are confronted with a series of national or proto-national movements. Almost all of them have as a reference point a past previous to their incorporation into the dominant states. In general they trace their modern origins to the end of the 19th century, have had their ups and downs in the course of the 20th century, only to re-emerge with force in the 60s and 70s. It is not at all inevitable that these movements will lead to the creation of new states. But in some cases it is probable and in the majority of cases possible.

It is clear that the high point of the nation-state in Europe was between 1850 and 1920 and that it coincided with the spread of capitalism. It does not however follow that because the political form that corresponded to the domination of the bourgeoisie was the nation-state and that its ideology was nationalism, before capitalism there were neither nations nor national identity. That is far from being the case, as we shall see.

State and Nation

In "nation-state", there is "nation" and "state". The relationship between the two is not simple. So I can't agree with Eric Hobsbawm when he says that "it is not nations that create states and nationalism, it's the other way round" (3). Because sometimes it's the other way round, and sometimes it isn't. Where it is definitely the other way round is in the case of the nation-states of what I call "the first wave" (see below). There, the state created – slowly – the nation and a nationalist ideology. But in the great wave of the national movements of the 19th century, while it is true that the development of nations was completed by the creation of nation-states, the nations were also the precondition of the creation of states. In the article already quoted, Hroch outlines three phases in the building of a national movement. A 'Phase A' which consists of preparatory research and definition of what sets the nation apart; a 'Phase B' where there emerge groups of activists who act to create a national consciousness, a national movement, the project of a nation; and a 'Phase C" where the national movement takes on a mass character – and in so doing begins to give rise to a differentiation between conservative-clerical and liberal-democratic wings.

The national question exists today in a particular form in Western Europe. It involves peoples that were incorporated into the first European nation-states, without being, or without being entirely or definitively, assimilated. There therefore remain national, linguistic, cultural entities, which feel themselves to varying degrees to be part or not of those states. For example you can find Bretons who, while having a Breton identity, consider themselves to be French. I don't think you find many Basques who would say they were Spanish. And today a large majority of Scots and Welsh no longer consider themselves to be British.

The formation of nation states in Europe can be analysed in three categories. First of all there are the states of the first wave. If Engel's attempt to classify nations as 'historic' and 'non-historic' was unfortunate (4), it remains true that there is a periodisation between nations whose formation took place in the feudal/absolutist period and those whose creation coincides with the development of capitalism.

In the case of the first group, if we take as our point of departure the year 1550, that is on the eve of the first bourgeois revolution (the Dutch Revolution), we can count the following states: France, England, Scotland, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Spain. At the time of the formation of these states, at any rate the oldest among them, they didn't have a national character. But by the 16th century at the latest, and sometimes earlier, they did. Engels wrote that "from the chaos of the peoples at the beginning of the Middle Ages, there appeared little by little the new nationalities" (5). These first states were structured from top to bottom, without the opposition between exploiting and exploited classes taking the form of an ethnic conflict. In England there had already been a fusion between Norman conquerors and Saxons, in France between Franks and Gallo-Romans. The ruling class was not, or was no longer, a foreign imposition.


National identity was forged around a state and a monarchy. This identity, as well as the state's borders, were forged through war – Scotland against England, England against France and vice versa, Spain through the Reconquista (6), Sweden against Denmark, from whom it only definitively won its independence in 1523, Portugal against Spain. A key element of state formation was the adoption of a national language, in general the dialect of the area around the capital. Eric Hobsbawm rightly points out that "dialects, as everyone knows, are just languages without the backing of an army and a police force" (7). Consequently, a dialect that does have the force of the state behind it rapidly acquires the status of a language, to the detriment of others. Thus, the francilien dialect became French, the dialect of the Home Counties became English. They became official languages of the courts and the government – English from 1362, French by the Edict of Villers-Cotteret in 1549 (but in practice earlier). The Castilian dialect imposed itself as the language of the Spanish state that was being built through conquest.

In the Middle Ages, the fact that the national language coexisted with a multitude of dialects and other languages, sometimes spoken by a large majority of the population, was unimportant. Feudalism didn't need a single language. Imposed cultural uniformity is a speciality of capitalism. The main thing was that the national language was the language of the upper classes and of official documents. And as the provincial upper classes, literate people who came from other language groups, gradually adopted the language of the centre, this language became the dominant literary language, to the detriment of others which became languages and dialects of the lower classes, spoken but less and less written. It was only with the development of capitalism, the capitalist market and the bourgeois state that minority languages were actively repressed.

The nation states that were formed after this first wave, especially in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were in general formed in a struggle against the domination of a state and/or a ruling class of a different nationality. That was the case with almost all the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, which came out of the break-up of the Russian, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. In Western Europe it was the case with Holland in the 16th century, Belgium in the 19th, Norway and Ireland in the 20th.

Two states, and not the least important, stand out as exceptions. They are Italy and Germany, where the process of state formation came late and through a process of political unification of territories whose populations already had a shared national-cultural identity and all the attributes for the rapid formation of a national state.

National Questions Today

If we look at the national questions that exist in Western Europe today we see that they are essentially limited to three big states, the United Kingdom, France and Spain. National questions exist in these states for reasons linked to their formation. They are countries whose state formation and geographical delimitation preceded the process of linguistic, cultural and national unification. (In the case of Belgium, the state was formed in a struggle against Dutch domination, but subsequently marked by a national question whose origin was the struggle of the Flemings against the domination of a French-speaking bourgeoisie and state).

These three states took form during the Middle Ages. First of all, geographically: England has had its present frontiers since the 10th century, Spain since 1492, and even if the process took longer in France, the framework was already there in the 13th century. In the course of building these states, nationalities and peoples were incorporated which were more or less different from the dominant people. Since this took place during the feudal-absolutist epoch the societies in question were incorporated at feudal or pre-feudal stages of their development. This involved in particular the Basques, the Bretons, the Galicians, the Catalans, the Occitanians, the Welsh and the the Irish. There are two exceptions, Scotland and Corsica, which I will come back to.

Let's look again at the case of the two major countries of Western Europe, Germany and Italy, who had no nation-state in the 16th century, and indeed not before the 19th century. In these countries the national question is today practically absent (with the exception of Sardinia). Nevertheless the differences between regions were and are extremely pronounced and in each case there was a history of independent regional states. Eric Hobsbawm puts forward an explanation for this state of affairs which I don't find convincing – the federal systems adopted after 1945, which gave extended powers to the regions (8). But we could just as well say that it is precisely because there were no national questions in these two countries that the policies of decentralisation could be effective without threatening the unity of the country. (It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the phenomenon of the Northern League in Italy has nothing to do with a national question but is an example of rich region chauvinism). I think that the explanation is to be found elsewhere, in the fact that the cultural unification of these countries, and even the birth of a national consciousness, preceded their political unification.

The United Kingdom is a particular case. The political unification of England within its present borders took place very early. The process of colonisation of Ireland was begun in the 12th century but not completed before the 16th century. Furthermore the roots of the partition of the island and the still unresolved problem of the North are to be found in the capitalist rather than feudal nature of 16th century colonisation. The conquest of Wales took place in the 13th century and the country was incorporated into England in 1536. Starting in 1290 there was a very serious attempt to conquer Scotland, which sparked off the Wars of Independence. We have to start from this period to understand the process of the formation of the British state.


The kingdom of Scotland took shape between the 9th and the 11th centuries in the course of prolonged resistance against the Viking invasions. The kingdom, but not yet the nation. William the Lion (1165-1214) addressed his "faithful subjects, French, English, Scottish, Welsh, and Gallovidians". The Scots were only one component of the kingdom, even if they gave it its name. A hundred years after William's death, Bannockburn established the independence of Scotland, confirmed by the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 and recognised by England in 1328. It was in the crucible of the War of Independence that the nation was forged, that we can begin to talk about a Scottish nation. And this war didn't have much about it that was feudal; it was anything but a banal war between two feudal kingdoms. It was a national war that mobilised the whole people.

The first stage was the popular uprising under Wallace and Andrew Moray, whose backbone was an armed peasantry led by minor gentry. If there were some full-scale battles, there was also a guerrilla war. Subsequently a part of the class of feudal lords (the Bruce faction) took over the leadership of the movement, forging an alliance, which included the gentry, the Scottish Church, the peasantry, burghers, artisans and Highland clans. Bruce used decidedly unfeudal forms of warfare, for example in systematically destroying castles rather than occupying them. Up to then the Scottish feudal class, largely of Norman origin, imported from the 12th century onwards to implant feudalism, owned lands in England as well as in Scotland. The war forced them to choose, and the (at least) half who chose England had their Scottish lands purely and simply expropriated. Henceforth there was a Scottish feudal class and a Scottish people. The Declaration of Arbroath reflected the radical and national character of the war, both by its affirmation of the freedom of the Scottish nation from England and by the declaration that if ever Robert Bruce, for all his status as a national hero, should betray, he would be overthrown and replaced by another king.

The Scottish War of Independence coincided with anti-feudal revolts elsewhere in Europe. From the military point of view, the victory of Bannockburn was the victory of pikemen on foot against armoured knights. Exactly like the Swiss who defeated the Austrians at Morgarten in 1315 or the Flemish burghers and peasants who defeated the French knights at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. And if the result in Scotland was a feudal kingdom, it was a feudal kingdom marked by a new relationship of forces between the classes. In a sign of the changed times, serfdom died out in the decades following the War of Independence.

This national existence, these three centuries of independence were of decisive importance for subsequent history. At the moment of its unification with England (the England that came out of the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century) Scotland had a history as an independent state and was already experiencing a capitalist transformation of its society. That made it different not only from Ireland and Wales but also from the nationalities that were incorporated into France or Spain at a feudal or pre-feudal stage. The other exception is Corsica, where an embryonic independent state existed at the time of the French conquest in the late 18th century. That is why the Corsican question occupies a place apart in France and why it is there that the national question is most sharply posed.


But the state that is threatened by centrifugal tendencies today isn't called England, but Great Britain or the United Kingdom. The British state (and the British national consciousness that went with it) is a peculiar animal. The name 'Great Britain' was adopted with the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The term covered England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland continued to have a colonial relationship with Great Britain, which continued even after its incorporation into the United Kingdom in 1801, after an unsuccessful bourgeois revolution.

In 1603 and for more than a hundred years afterwards, nobody thought of themselves as British. It was with the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and the creation of a single state that people began to talk about being 'British', that a British nationality was manufactured which had no historical antecedent. The united state and British identity are therefore entirely bourgeois creations. That brings us to the nature of the union between England and Scotland. Much ink has been spilled over the subject. But it's quite simple. Faced with a dynastic crisis the English ruling class wanted to eliminate the risk that the Scottish Parliament would not choose the same king as the English, would break the dynastic union by restoring the Stuarts, would turn towards France. The majority of the Scottish ruling class was coming to the conclusion that it could no longer compete with its Southern neighbour and that it was preferable to join with it. No one of course consulted the Scottish people, and widespread popular opposition greeted the Union.


A number of questions are open to discussion: the nature of the Scottish ruling class, the extent of capitalist development in Scotland before the Union, the role played by the national question in the Jacobite uprisings. What is not open to discussion is that the Union created the biggest common market in the world at that time, a capitalist power that was going to emerge victorious from the trial of strength with France, first of all absolutist and then Napoleonic, experience the first industrial revolution, conquer an empire and dominate the world. All in a little over a century. This world power was British. Scotland took part in establishing it, and its bourgeoisie and middle classes did very well out of it.

It is mistaken to describe the Union that gave birth to the British state as an annexation. It was an agreement between two ruling classes, two oligarchies. Of course it was done without consulting the people (who consulted the people in the 18th century?). Of course, the Scottish MPs were bribed. Of course, England was ready to impose a solution by force if the Scottish Parliament had voted the wrong way. It was a lop-sided agreement, given the relationship of forces, but it was an agreement that the Scottish ruling class ultimately gained from.

Furthermore, the agreement guaranteed the 'independence' of the Scottish legal system and the Church of Scotland, that is to say it left them in the hands of the ruling class, which thus retained the mechanisms of physical and ideological, temporal and spiritual, control over the lower orders.

The British identity that was now invented was identified with the empire. It did not replace but coexisted with a Scottish identity, in due course sanitised and located safely in the past by the novels of that fervent unionist Sir Walter Scott. From 1746 to the 20th century, no significant representative of the Scottish ruling class questioned the Union. Political movements of a national and republican nature came from below, in particular at the time of the French Revolution and after 1815. In the last quarter of the 19th century the budding working-class movement adopted a position in favour of Home Rule (not independence). A few middle-class intellectuals tried to lay the basis for a national movement. That was no doubt to some extent the reflection in Britain of the international climate during the century of nationalisms. It was also at this period that there were the first stirrings of a national movement in Wales. But there wasn't much of an echo at a time when the British Empire was still at its zenith.

Modern national movements

It is after the First World War that there appear the first real signs of a national movement with a certain echo in Scottish society, accompanied by a literary renaissance. It is striking how exactly this coincided with the end of the world hegemony of British imperialism. The Second World War, the feeling of (British) national unity against Nazism, the post-war boom and the Welfare State gave a temporary lease of life to the British edifice, but the national movement came back in force in the 60s. It seems to me absolutely clear that the revival of the national question in the United Kingdom is linked to the decline of British imperialism and the crisis of a state that was built as a vehicle for that imperialism.

The question is often asked, is Scotland an oppressed nation? Not in the sense that it is, or necessarily will be, kept in the Union by force. The British ruling class is fiercely opposed to Scottish independence and will seek to prevent it by all sorts of manoeuvres, blackmail and pressures. But if there is a clear and solid majority for independence, there is every chance that London will acquiesce, while seeking to make sure that an independent Scottish government won't threaten its vital interests. After all the British ruling class has a long experience of granting formal 'independence' while holding on to the reins of power. And it is not difficult to think of candidates for an 'independent' Scottish government who would be happy to oblige. Of course if an independent Scotland looked like getting out of control, that would be another kettle of fish.

But there are different forms of oppression. First of all up until 1997, all the decisions concerning Scotland were taken not in Scotland but in London. That was felt extremely sharply between 1979 and 1997, when Thatcher and Major never had a majority in Scotland (or in Wales). And even today, control over the real levers of power, especially the levers of finance, remains in London. On a deeper level, three centuries of being a nation with a strong identity but no state, without independent existence, without control over its own affairs, has left many traces on the national psyche. To touch on only one aspect, it is not an accident that it was a Scottish writer who created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a recurring theme in Scottish culture.


It was under pressure that had been building up over several decades that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were set up in 1997. They were supposed to defuse the national question, keep it within the bounds of the United Kingdom. In fact, their creation opened the way to independent political life in Scotland and Wales, it allowed the real relationship of political and social forces to be expressed, which was in both cases much more favourable to the Left and the working-class movement than in England. As for defusing the national question, nothing is less sure. Where there are just regional inequalities or economic problems, a federal system can be quite effective in dealing with them. Where there is a real national question, autonomy can often be just a step on the road to independence.

Four years into the Scottish parliament, the support for Scottish independence seems to be stronger rather than weaker, the difference being that no one party can any longer claim to be the sole representative of independence. In Wales, the leadership of Plaid Cymru was always a bit bashful about independence, resorting to circumlocutions like 'full national status'. But after the setbacks the party experienced in the May elections a new leadership has taken over and the recent conference of the party came out massively and noisily for independence. At the same time Plaid denounced Labour for having abandoned "all its old socialist values in favour of creeping privatisation".

There are certainly reasons inherent in the Welsh situation which help to explain this evolution, in particular the shift to the left of the Welsh Labour Party. But if the support for independence is stronger and Plaid has moved to the left it is also because of the example of Scotland, where the situation is more advanced. And in coming out clearly for independence and taking up a position to the left of Labour, Plaid is following the example of the SSP rather than the SNP, which is now abandoning such a position in favour of neoliberal policies. What kind of independence

The question that is posed, and posed very concretely in Scotland at the moment, is not just the issue of independence, but of what independence. It is posed for those who are already in favour of independence, but it is also vital for winning over those who are not yet convinced. It is worth recalling at this point that 'independence /national movement' does not equal 'nationalism'. That would be to confuse a political objective with an ideology. Miroslav Hroch explains: "the current tendency to speak of them (national movements, MS) as 'nationalist' leads to serious confusion. Because nationalism in the strict sense is something else: namely, that outlook which gives an absolute priority to the values of the nation over all other values and interests" (emphasis in the original) (9).

Independence is always concrete. It leads to the creation of states and states have a class character. That is why it is when independence becomes a real possibility that national movements begin to crystallise into different currents, as is happening in Scotland today. The SNP is a nationalist party, which is furthermore in the process of seriously watering down its commitment to independence, in the framework of its rightward evolution. The SSP is a party that rejects nationalist ideology, which is internationalist but which aims to be the best fighter for Scottish independence, while giving that independence a socialist content. It is from this position of strength that the SSP can support the idea of a pole for independence in the shape of the Independence Convention, which will put the SNP leadership in contradiction with part of its own supporters.


Independence doesn't mean separatism. Nobody in Scotland today defends autarky. Everyone knows that the future lies in international cooperation, in federations or confederations of states. But in the first place, for nations without a state, there is a difference between entering into this process of international cooperation in an independent and sovereign way and being dragged into it in the baggages of another state. It's a question of democracy. Secondly, socialism doesn't mean the elimination of national and cultural differences; on the contrary it will enable even greater diversity, and national entities will continue to exist.

It is obviously not possible to deal here with all the national questions in Western Europe. Some of them clearly have a dynamic towards independence. That is the case with the Basque national movement, where in spite of the bloody and suicidal dead-end that ETA is in and the banning of Batasuna, the PNV and other forces have just launched a constitutional initiative which is likely to bring them into direct confrontation with the Spanish chauvinist government of Aznar, who is already threatening them with the Constitution (10).

Elsewhere, it would be unwise to make too hasty a judgment on the potential of national or proto-national movements. What is certain is that if the right to self-determination can be the starting point, it is largely insufficient. When you intervene from within Scottish, Corsican, Breton or Galician society, you can't say to people "whatever you want". You have to have an opinion – in favour of independence, political and/or cultural autonomy or whatever. In France, faced with the tradition of (so-called) Jacobin centralism and with strong assimilationist tendencies, there is a long way to go. Some elementary battles remain to be won, for the ratification by France of the European Convention on minority languages, for a Basque department, for a region comprising the whole of Brittany and so on. It is only when the peoples concerned will have conquered certain spaces of liberty, won a certain number of political, cultural and linguistic rights, that we will be able to see the real extent of the national question.

This is a modified version of an article that will appear in the next issue of Critique Communiste, quarterly journal of the LCR.


1) You only have to think of Stalin's famous definition: "The nation is a stable human community, historically constituted, born on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychic formation which is expressed in a common culture". Stalin, "Marxism and the National Question", 1913.

(2) Miroslav Hroch, "From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: the nation-building process in Europe", New Left Review 198, London 1993. See also his "Social Conditions of National Revival en Europe. A Comparative Study of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations", Cambridge 1985.

(3) Eric Hobsbawm, "Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality", Cambridge University Press, 1990.

(4) See Roman Rosdolsky, "Engels and the 'Nonhistoric" Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848", Critique Books, Glasgow 1986.

(5) Engels, "Anti-Dühring".

(6) The prolonged "reconquest" of the Iberian peninsula from the Moorish invaders who had occupied most of it.

(7) Eric Hobsbawm, "The Age of Empire", London, 1987.

(8) Eric Hobsbawm, "Some Reflections on 'The Break-Up of Britain'" , New Left Review 105, 1977.

(9) Miroslav Hroch, op. cit.

(10) The PNV is a bourgeois nationalist party that governs the autonomous Basque region.