Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective: 1919-2020 and Beyond

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives Monthly Series comes to an end. Thanks to all our authors for their insightful contributions and to our readers for their attention.

In these days of looming confined holidays and mass vaccination campaigns, majority-minority relations might not strike as the topic of the day. However, several posts in our Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series suggest that cultural, linguistic and national differences in modern societies can still be a source of contention and often require setting up specific political arrangements to further positive inter-group relations. The first part of our series privileges an historical approach inquiring into the origins of minority questions and dissecting long-term trends in majority-minority relations.

Laura Robson starts off our discussion with a lucid piece about the establishment of the first minority protection regime by the League of Nations in 1919. Robson argues that, behind the smokescreen of minority rights, Great Power interest and colonial exploitation could be pursued under a veneer of international respectability. Hence, ‘new forms of informal authority and friendly client states’ were created at Versailles, which would eventually undermine the legitimacy of the League of Nations regime. In the Middle East, as well as in Eastern Europe, the transition from imperial sovereignties to the nationalist system sanctioned at the Paris Peace Conference unleashed strong homogenising dynamics. Focusing on the case of Christian minorities in French-Occupied Syria, Joel Veldkamp examines the ‘nationalist dilemma’ confronted by Syrian nation-builders. After having tried, unsuccessfully, to include Christian minorities in their nation-state-in-the-making project, these elites moved from persuasion to coercion, thus shattering any chance to build a cohesive Syrian nation (and generating a substantial amount of violence in the process).

As Yoav Peled shows, in Eastern Europe, Polish elites followed similar assimilationist templates. Confronted with a highly diverse country and willing to forge a cohesive nation-state, both dominant Polish parties (Endecja and Sanacja) ‘were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible’. Jewish and German minorities, among others, bore the brunt of this political programme, but ‘while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable’. Assimilation failed, but between 1939 and 1945 the linguistic and national heterogeneity of Polish society changed dramatically because of war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Albeit much less diverse than in the previous two decades, at the end of the Second World War, Poland also acquired new territories formerly under German rule. John Kulczycki tells us how, in these putative ‘Recovered Lands’, Polish authorities set out to sort ‘true Poles’ from ‘Germans’. Recovering ‘Polish souls’ became a national priority, albeit one for which officers tasked with inquiring into the ethnic nature of the inhabitants of these regions received few guidelines. After about two years of mass expulsion, the Polish Ministry of the Recovered Lands had to recognise ‘the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon’. As the Polish case suggests, in interwar Europe minorities became an ‘issue’ mostly because majorities felt insecure about the latter’s loyalty to the institutions of the state, which these majorities felt as their own. Chris Davis then historicises the minority question in interwar Romanian Transylvania as a ‘majority problem’, ‘namely that there were too few Romanians, living too far apart, in a region far too important’. To solve this problem, Romanian anthropologists and historians found a creative solution. Armed with presumably scientific data, they asserted that the sizable Hungarian-speaking population of Transylvania ‘possessed a Romanian ethnogenesis’ and had simply been ‘denationalised’ during centuries of Hungarian rule. Against the background of these theories, assimilation in fact became ‘renationalisation’ and minority rights could be all too easily ignored.

The second half of our series moves from historical analysis to contemporary affairs. Ferran Requejo illuminates the old and recent causes of the considerable rise of demands for independence in Catalonia since 2010. Discussing different factors, ranging from economic to identity variables, Requejo concludes that ‘lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism’. Whatever the outcome of the current tensions between the Catalan and Spanish executive, the Catalan case constitutes an unavoidable reference for the study of self-determination processes in Europe. Adopting a similar mix of historical and political science analysis, Brian Girvin dissects 100 years of majority-minority relations in Northern Ireland. Girvin explains how, by undermining the very concepts of majority and minority, the Good Friday Agreement promoted consensus and cooperation between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. It created a ‘consociational model for power sharing, political cooperation and conflict resolution’ that put the two nationalities on equal terms. Despite its remarkable success, however, demographic changes and Brexit risk unsettling the balance achieved at the end of the 1990s.

Our series concludes with three blogs stemming from a very fruitful collaboration with the Centre on Constitutional Change. Writing about Scotland, Michael Keating argues that Scots are not usually seen as a national minority identifying with a kin-state elsewhere but as a minority nation within a plurinational union. Keating explains that ‘Scottish politics have become more self-referential and detached from the British level’, with the COVID-19 crisis allowing the Scottish Government to occupy the main political space. Yet, Scottish independence is not inevitable. Even in the event of independence, Scotland would remain a small nation nested in larger systems of regulation and policy-making. Judith Sijstermans details how dominant strands of Flemish nationalism have incorporated populist narratives and how this populist turn has led to the adoption of an identitarian approach.  Sijstermans explains how, in Vlaams Belang’s rhetoric, ‘Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international “elite” who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people)’. Finally, Patrick Utz dissects the complex and multi-layered nature of national identities in South Tyrol, suggesting that they underpin the success of its consociational institutional design. Utz explains that new forms of regionalism are allowing for a patchwork of identities that combine reinterpretations of historic elements with newly emerging alliances. The SVP offers an illuminating example: the party has become more vocal in portraying both Austria and South Tyrol as ‘motherland’ while promoting a ‘European Region of Tyrol’ as part of the European Union’s cross-border initiatives.

We hope that you have enjoyed the series and we encourage you to continue the discussion commenting on our posts. You will find a full list here.

We thank all our authors for their inspiring contributions; the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Centre on Constitutional Change, and the Swiss National Science Foundation for their support; H-Nationalism, in particular David Prior, for giving us the opportunity to run the series on their platform; and all our readers for their attention. A special thanks also goes to Mona Bieling, Alessandro Ambrosino and Davide Rodogno for their fundamental help.

Hoping that 2021 will be a less eventful and more cheerful year, we wish you all the best!

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Daniel Cetrà

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

South Tyrol: Minority Identities beyond Linguistic Divisions

Photo by Patrick Utz

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the tenth post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Patrick Utz (University of Edinburgh), examines the fluid identities of German-speakers in South Tyrol in the 20th and 21st century.

South Tyrol or Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost province. Mainly populated by German-speakers, the province became part of Italy after the breakup of Austria-Hungary in 1919. Today, far-reaching autonomous competencies and a mandatory power-sharing system includes both German and Italian-speakers. This has assured the peaceful cohabitation of the province’s diverse population. But while contemporary institutions are modelled around linguistic identities, South Tyrol has always been shaped by a multitude of overlapping and frequently ambiguous allegiances. Unpacking this complexity allows for important insights beyond South Tyrol: it sheds new light on how national minorities relate to culturally akin, neighbouring countries without raising fears of historical revanchism and irredentism.

Traditionalist regionalism

When South Tyrol became part of Italy, regional identities tended to be stronger than the linguistic-nationalist divisions that surfaced later in the twentieth century. Allegiances lay with the former Habsburg Crownland of Tyrol that included German-speakers and Italian-speakers between the river Inn in the North and the Lake Garda in the South. This identity built on Catholic conservativism and the collective memory of the resistance against Napoleonic troops in this mainly agrarian region. Clearly, these tenets were at odds with the liberal ideas that inspired the Risorgimento and shaped the Italian state into which South Tyrol was incorporated.

This alienation was not exclusive to the German-speaking minority that found itself in a new nation-state. It was shared by many Italian-speaking Tyroleans in what is now the Province of Trento. Indeed, Trento’s Catholic tradition would become influential within Italy’s powerful Christian democratic movement after 1945. Additionally, in the Austrian part of Tyrol, notions of the wider multilingual region never entirely faded. North Tyrol’s main university, for instance, has continued to offer Italian-language courses and hosts a faculty of Italian law.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism on both sides of the linguistic divide superseded patterns of pre-modern, regional identification.

Nationalist excesses and their remnants

National identities based on linguistic differences had taken shape over the course of the nineteenth century but were exacerbated with the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. While the Italian Fascists aimed to forcefully assimilate German-speaking South Tyroleans, many among the latter hoped for South Tyrol to be incorporated into Hitler’s Reich. As part of their political rapprochement in the 1930s, the Italian and German regimes sought to resolve the issue of South Tyrol through population resettlement. German-speakers should decide whether they wanted to stay in South Tyrol, with the prospect of being forcefully assimilated; or whether they wanted to be resettled to the Reich. The plebiscite on resettlement deeply dived Italy’s German-speaking minority. The two sides accused each other of betraying their German national heritage or their Tyrolean homeland, respectively.

Large-scale resettlement never materialized amidst the devastation of the Second World War. Yet, the plans to do so revealed the deep-seated tension between those South Tyroleans who subscribed to German nationalism; and those, who maintained a regional identity where local allegiances trumped linguistic divisions.

After the Second World War, South Tyrol’s political elites aimed to reconcile these two camps within a common political structure for the whole German-speaking minority. This led to the creation of the South Tyrolean People’s Party (Südtiroler Volkspartei, SVP) in 1945. The SVP was highly successful in bringing together the different segments of the German-speaking minority and obtained over 90 percent of German-speakers’ votes. Yet, the defining characteristics of the minority remained contested. One wing considered the German-speaking South Tyroleans to be a linguistic-cultural group within the wider region of Tyrol that was now split between Austria and Italy. The other wing emphasized South Tyroleans’ membership within a larger German nation.

None of the resulting political aspirations put forth by either wing could feasibly be pursued in South Tyrol’s post-war environment. The aggressive nationalisms had irreversibly politicized the linguistic differences in South Tyrol. Thus, multilingual regionalism was no longer an option. At the same time, Western Europe’s emerging security structure solidified state borders and discredited all forms of pan-Germanism, which precluded the option of secession.

Re-interpreting regionalism

The SVP’s compromise was to demand autonomy for German-speakers within the Italian state, and a neat separation of South Tyrol’s language groups in public institutions. The reinstated Republic of Austria and the Austrian Tyrol were crucial in supporting this cause, despite Austria’s eagerness to differentiate itself from its own infamous German nationalist heritage.

The SVP and Austria’s negotiations with the Italian government succeeded in 1969. Since then, robust mechanisms for territorial autonomy and minority self-government have gradually been put in place.  The autonomous institutions have substantially contributed to South Tyrol’s political stability and economic success. This has turned the institutions themselves into a reference point for collective identification. In 2014, more than 80 percent of German-speakers in the province identified as “South Tyroleans”. Allegiances with pan-Germanic and wider Tyrolean identities have markedly weakened.

At the same time, new forms of regionalism are allowing for a patchwork of identities that straddle linguistic and political borders. Oftentimes the resulting identities combine reinterpretations of historic elements with newly emerging allegiances. The SVP, for example, has become more vocal in portraying Austria as South Tyrol’s “motherland”. This stands in sharp contrast to the party’s previous commitments to the broader German cultural heritage. Simultaneously, the party promotes a “European Region of Tyrol” as part of the European Union’s cross-border initiatives. This embryonic entity resembles the historic Crownland of Tyrol and includes Italian and Germanic-dominated regions. Voters, too, have shown appetite for more political diversity. Votes still tend to be overwhelmingly cast to candidates from one’s own linguistic group. Yet, the once hegemonic conservative SVP now is in fierce competition with liberals, Greens and the populist right; with each challenger presenting their own vision of a South Tyrolean identity.

Conclusion

South Tyrol’s autonomous institutions may correctly be commended as “one of the most successful cases of consociational conflict regulation in the world”. The reasons for their success lie as much in their institutional design as they do in the complex and multi-layered identities of the province’s population. The nationalist excesses of the twentieth century have essentialized individual traits of these identities (in this case, language). However, the recognition of multiple, simultaneously held allegiances can dilute national antagonisms. The future success of South Tyrol’s institutions and of those with the aim to replicate its model depends on giving voice to this diversity.

Sources

Alber, Elisabeth, and Carolin Zwilling. “Continuity and Change in South Tyrol’s Ethnic Governance.” In Autonomy Arrangements around the World: A Collection of Well and Lesser Known Cases, edited by Levente Salat, Sergiu Constantin, Alexander Osipov and István Gergő Székely, 33-66. Cluj-Napoca: Editura Institutului pentru Studierea Problemelor Minorităţilor Naţionale, 2014.

Carlà, Andrea. “Peace in South Tyrol and the Limits of Consociationalism.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 24, no. 3 (2018): 251-75.

Grote, Georg. The South Tyrol Question, 1866–2010: From National Rage to Regional State. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012.

Pallaver, Günther. “The Südtiroler Volkspartei: Success through Conflict, Failure through Consensus.” In Regionalist Parties in Western Europe: Dimensions of Success, edited by Oscar Mazzoleni and Sean Mueller, 107-34. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Steurer, Leopold. “Südtirol 1918-1945.” In Handbuch Zu Neueren Geschichte Tirols. Band 2: Zeitgeschichte. 1. Teil: Politische Geschichte, 179-312. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner, 1993.

Patrick Utz is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on minority nationalism, irredentism and kin-state politics. It has been published in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

The Populism and Sub-State Nationalism Nexus in Flanders

Photo: Tijl Vercaemer

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the ninth post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi- disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham), examines the intermixing of populism and nationalism in today’s Flemish politics.

When Flemish nationalism emerged in the 19 th century, despite comprising approximately 60% of the Belgian population, the Flemish people and language were excluded from public administration, the military, politics, law, education and the media. Flanders was dominated by an agrarian way of life, while Wallonia grew through industrialisation. This period of history engendered a feeling of minoritisation, due to Flemish alienation from the centres of Belgian power at the time. This ‘minoritised majority’ mindset forms the foundation of Flemish nationalist ideology today.

However, in practical terms, Flemish fortunes shifted significantly after the Second World War. The Flemish economy now outperforms Wallonia’s following the decline of the Walloon coal and ‘heavy’ industries. The Flemish nationalist message shifted from ‘poor Flanders’ to a ‘nationalism of the rich’ in which Flanders is portrayed as Wallonia’s ‘milk cow’ (Dalle Mulle, 2017). The Belgian state has decentralized, with significant powers
devolved to the Flemish and Walloon governments.

Flemish sub-state nationalism is now also characterized by a populist turn, driven by the populist radical right and independence-seeking party the Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest). In Belgium’s 2019 elections, the VB’s proportion of the vote rose more than 8% at the federal level and 12% in Flemish Parliament elections. The VB’s sub-state nationalist competitor, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance), remains the largest party in Flanders. However, while it is predominantly a conservative sub-state nationalist party, the N-VA also incorporates populist messaging, particularly directed at Belgian government elites (Van Haute, Pauwels and Sinardet, 2018).

Flanders is not a prototypical case of a minority nationalist movement. It does not represent a minority (demographically or economically) and is increasingly identified by populist rather than autonomist viewpoints. In this blog, I further detail how the Flemish sub-state nationalist approach has incorporated populist narratives and delve into how this populist turn has also led to the adoption of an identitarian approach. In these ways, the Flemish nationalist movement is typical of other emerging patterns of European politics.

Adopting a Populist Sub-state Nationalist Narrative

Populism, academically and politically, has become an inescapable part of the political zeitgeist. For the sake of space and time, I adopt the dominant understanding of the term of populism from political scientist Cas Mudde: populism is a thin-centred ideology concerned with the division between the ‘pure people’ and ‘corrupt elite.’ Populist rhetoric, precisely because of its thin centred nature, fits smoothly in with nationalist ideologies.

Statements from both the N-VA and the VB show how advocating for territorial autonomy can be supported by populist rhetoric. For example, in response to the latest Belgian government formation, which kept both Flemish nationalists parties out, the N-VA placed themselves on the side of the ‘people’: “The N-VA will do everything we can from ourpolitical position during the coming legislature to protect the Flemish people as much as we can from the disastrous plans of this government.” While they raised issues around the legitimacy of the government, the party ultimately stuck to its conservative critique, particularly emphasizing opposition to new taxation.

The Vlaams Belang’s language has been more explicitly populist. The party called the new government an “undemocratic monster coalition” and critiqued the government for increasing the number of jobs, rather than being ‘among the people.’ They emphasized that the government lacked a Flemish majority and that this was seen as a betrayal from ‘traditional parties’ who ‘allowed themselves to be bribed for jobs.’ For both the N-VA and the VB, one elite enemy is the Belgian state. However, for the Vlaams Belang, the Belgian state is not the only enemy of the ‘pure people.’ The VB has also critiqued academics, teachers, journalists and other media professionals as antagonistic to the people (De Cleen, 2016).

Globalization and global elites are also a target. For example, in the party’s membership magazine, VB leader Tom van Grieken critiqued the UN’s Migration Pact. He argued that this was indicative of a wider problem:

“These disconnected globalist elite do not stand alone. Because ivory towers don’t only stand in New York. They also stand in Europe. They also stand in Brussels…The one group is the left side—who eagerly welcome all these new foreign voters—and the other group are the neo-liberals who see this new wave of immigrants as an army of new cheap workers. These two groups get along so well that a clear new political ault line has been created. Namely on one side, left multiculturalists and liberal globalists (united in a coalition against our people) and on the other side patriots, the nationalists that defend ordinary people” (VB Magazine, January 2019)”.

With the increasing electoral power of the Vlaams Belang, sub-state nationalism becomes one part of the movement. However, it is clear that Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international ‘elite’ who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people).

An Identitarian Evolution for Flemish Cultural Nationalism

Just as the Flemish people are pitted against these elites, Flemish culture is pitted against a ‘liberal’ or ‘left wing’ culture which is seen as being diffused through the media and education. The Vlaams Belang and the N-VA have both, for example, advocated for cutting cultural subsidies, particularly for new or emerging projects. The parties were accused by left wing Flemish parties of targeting funding that would support artists not engaging in ‘traditional’ Flemish art or working with Flanders’ migrant communities. One VB Parliamentarian, Klaas Slootmans, was quoted in Politico as saying: “We back the [N-VA led] government if it wants to cut back on experimental art that is good at spitting in the face of the Flemish.”

The Flemish Movement emerged initially in defence of the Dutch language. Early Flemish nationalists were middle class intellectuals concerned with promoting the use of the Dutch language and using that language to defend the ‘spirit’ of the Flemish people (Dewulf, 2012). In 2020, this linguistic nationalism is only one part of a wider nativist ‘defence’ of Flemish culture.

The Vlaams Belang’s cultural nationalism has been supported by identitarian messages. The identitarian movement is concerned with the defence of a particular ‘European’ identity based on an imagined historical cultural landscape, which was homogenous. Identitarian groups describe migration as a ‘replacement’ of white Europeans with migrants and particularly criticise Muslim migrants. The movement is characterized by the use of social media and YouTube, and a purposeful ambiguity about its goals.

The identitarian approach to Flemish nationalism has been spearheaded by VB MP Dries van Langenhove, who founded the Flemish and right wing youth group Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends). Van Langenhove was quoted in the March 2019 Vlaams Belang members magazine promoting a nostalgic nationalism: “The feeling of guilt that has been fed to us since May 1968, and that every European has been carrying since World War Two may well push Europe into the abyss definitively…it ensures that citizens everywhere in Western Europe no longer put their country and people first.” Like the language of putting Flanders first, Vlaams Belang politicians use the language of ‘making Flanders great again’ and supported Donald Trump. Party leader Tom van Grieken tweeted: “The rise of Trump is not
an isolated phenomenon. In Europe too, more and more voters want real change.”

In his work on ‘master frames’, Rydgren (2005) showed that radical right messaging in the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge independently in each European country. Rather, it diffused transnationally, particularly from France’s Front National. The VB’s founding members had a close relationship with the Front National and adopted this master frame. The current identitarian messages and outreach to the Trump movement shows that transnational diffusion of radical right nationalist narratives continues today.

However, ultimately, it is the Vlaams Belang’s particular brand of nationalism which is now on the rise in Flanders. In an October 2020 poll, the VB gained 27.1% of the support compared to the N-VA’s 22.2%. The party’s populist narratives link Flemish autonomy with a wider search for autonomy from globalization. The expanded scope of Flemish nationalism can also be seen in the way that the Flemish Movement has begun to promote different forms of cultural nationalism, and nativism.

The Flemish Movement is not prototypical of sub-state nationalism. However, examining the evolution of the Flemish Movement provides an insight into complex intersections between nationalism, populism, and nativism which are increasingly relevant beyond Flanders as well.

Alternative transnational narratives about Flemish sub-state nationalism also emerge. The N- VA, for example, has continued to ally itself with sub-state nationalists in Catalonia, showing support during and after the Catalan independence referendum. Most recently, the N-VA’s Flemish Minister President Jan Jambon spoke out against sanctions made against Catalonia’s President Quim Torra. The Vlaams Belang also looks to other sub-state nationalist movements, with representatives expressing interest in the Scottish independence process, for example.

Sources

Dalle Mulle, E. (2017). The nationalism of the rich: discourses and strategies of separatist parties in Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland. Routledge.

De Cleen, B. (2016). Representing the People: The Articulation of Nationalism and Populism in the Rhetoric of the Vlaams Belang. In J. Jamin (Ed.), L’Extrême Droite en Europe (pp. 223-242). Brussels: Éditions Bruylant.

Rydgren, J. (2005). Is extreme right‐wing populism contagious? Explaining the emergence of a new party family. European journal of political research, 44(3), 413-437.

Van Haute, E., Pauwels, T., & Sinardet, D. (2018). Sub-state nationalism and populism: the cases of Vlaams Belang, New Flemish Alliance and DéFI in Belgium. Comparative European Politics, 16(6), 954-975.

Judith Sijstermans is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLSIS) in the University of Birmingham. She is currently working on an ESRC funded project ‘The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe’ (aka “Populism In Action”) (ES/R011540/1).

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.


For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

Scotland as a Permanent Minority

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the eighth post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Michael Keating (University of Aberdeen), examines Scotland’s position as a minority nation within the UK political unionThe series is a collaboration with the Centre on Constitutional Change and H-Nationalism.

Scotland is not usually seen as a ‘national minority’ in the sense of a people living within a nation-state but not identifying with it. Certainly, Scots are not a minority identifying with a kin-state elsewhere. Scotland, rather, is seen as a self-recognizing nation within a plurinational union. As in any nation, the criteria for membership are multiple but the exercise of political rights is defined by territorial criteria, as shown in the franchise for Scottish Parliament and local elections and the independence referendum of 2014. This means UK, Commonwealth and (until Brexit) European citizens over the age of 16 and resident in Scotland.

It would, however, be accurate to call Scotland a minority nation since it accounts for only some eight per cent of the population of the United Kingdom. Scottish votes have rarely decided the outcome of a UK election and the first-past-the-post electoral system usually produces enough seats for the winning party in England to guarantee a majority across the UK as a whole.

Historically, Scotland was managed as a distinct part of the union, without conceding legislative power. Important domains for the reproduction of the nation, including established religion and education, were governed by local institutions. A dedicated government department, the Scottish Office, with its own minister in the UK government, administered domestic policy outside of taxation and welfare. UK regional policies and the distribution of public expenditure were handled with a view to Scotland. The British political parties dominated political representation but took care to present a Scottish image and cultivate their local roots. Patronage networks in the cities (dominated by Labour) and the rural areas (the Unionists, as Conservatives were known) bolstered support both for the parties and for the union.

For long periods of the twentieth century, the Labour and Conservative parties largely monopolized the Scottish vote, while performing there more or less as well as they did in England. There were two exceptions. One was the late nineteenth century, when Conservative dominance in England co-existed with Liberal hegemony in Scotland. This was one factor in sparking demands for legislative autonomy or Home Rule, the other factor being the example of Ireland. From the 1960s, the gap opened again as the Unionists/ Conservatives (dominant in the 1950s) went into long-term decline. Labour gained a plurality of votes and a majority seats and at every election between 1964 and 2010. The Home Rule movement revived although it was not until 1999 that Scotland gained a devolved Parliament.

Scottish devolution has been interpreted in different ways. For some, it represents an adjustment of policy roles in a unitary state. Westminster has lent powers to Scotland, which can be taken back at any time. There has been no reform of the central state to take account to devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Rather, they remain exceptions to the norm of majoritarian Westminster politics. Under the principle of ‘devolve and forget’ they have been allowed to make policy within their own domains, representing a significant extension of the sphere of local autonomy but not a break in principle.

For others, devolution represents a measure of self-determination, affirmed in the referendum of 1997 setting up the new Parliament. This builds on early ideas about the union as a partnership of nations in which the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was never resolved. The two interpretations have coexisted ever since. Strangely enough, even the independence referendum of 2014 barely touched on this issue, since that was about whether Scotland should become a separate, sovereign state, not about what devolution meant.  Only at the end of the campaign did the unionist parties agree on a package of measures that were vaguely linked to federal understandings. What the referendum did, however, was establish a rather clear division within Scotland between those who believe that the logical consequence of Scottish nationhood is an independent state and those who give primacy to the British nation and UK state.

The division was deepened by the results of the Brexit referendum when Scotland voted by a majority of 62 per cent to remain in the UK while England and the UK as a whole voted narrowly to leave. While the various formulas of autonomy, devolution, Home Rule and federalism can be managed to map out ‘middle ways’ between the unitary state and independence, membership of the EU is a clear cut choice of ‘in’ or ‘out’. This was reinforced by the turn on the part of the UK Government to a ‘hard’ Brexit, excluding membership of the EU single market or customs union, and by the refusal to allow a differentiated Brexit for Scotland.

This has been accompanied by a more muscular unionism within the UK Government, determined to assert its presence in Scotland. Powers coming back from Europe have been taken back to the centre rather than devolved, although not as comprehensively as originally proposed. The UK Government has started to spend in Scotland in both reserved and devolved matters. The language of ‘unitary state’ has been revived (for example in the Internal Market White Paper).

At the same time, the old model of territorial management through the party system has broken down. The Scottish National Party (helped by the electoral system) has won a large majority of Scottish seats at the last three UK General Elections. Labour, the main party of territorial management since the 1960s, has been reduced twice to only one seat. The Conservative ‘revival’ has been limited.

In many ways, Scottish politics have become more self-referential and detached from the British level. The UK Government is barely visible except to collect taxes and distribute payments from a welfare system that itself has been stigmatized and no longer underpinned by a concept of social citizenship. The Covid crisis has allowed the Scottish Government to occupy the main political space as it takes the lead in responding – even if the substantive policies are not so different from those south of the border.

Support for independence, which was 45 per cent in the referendum of 2014, has held up and even increased in response to Brexit and Covid.

A return to the managed union would require a revival of the fortunes of the British parties in Scotland. This looks unlikely. Indeed, their retreat has deprived them of troops on the ground and contacts with Scottish opinion, making it ever more difficult to know how to respond to the new politics. Alternatively, they could accept the new party panorama and seek to accommodate Scottish nationalism within UK politics at the centre, the way the Gladstonian Liberals did with the Irish Party in the late nineteenth century. That, however, risks alienating support in England. In any case, Scottish nationalism is now associated with independence and not with the gamut of formulas from Home Rule to devolution-max, which have served to blur the issue in the past. It is also linked with a commitment to Europe which neither of the main UK parties would countenance.

There is no teleological rule that nations must become states. Scottish independence is not inevitable and support for it, while over 50 per cent, is not overwhelming. The meaning of independence itself is in question in the modern world. In the independence referendum campaign of 2014, SNP leader Alex Salmond promised that Scotland would remain within five ‘unions’ – monarchical, monetary, defence, European and social – and withdraw only from the political one.  The independence prospectus is now closely linked to membership of the European Union – or perhaps the European Economic Area. There are multiple other external reference points, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the world trading system, the Council of Europe and NATO. Scotland will remain, as before, a small nation nested in larger systems of regulation and policy-making but can no longer be understood just as a minority within the United Kingdom.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen. His new book, State and Nation in the United Kingdom: The Fragmented Union, will appear from Oxford University Press in the Spring of 2021.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.