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Alex Salmond: The spirit of Scottish nationalism (credit: John Paul)
Last summer, when I was checking the proofs for my book about the Habsburg Empire, Danubia, I found myself reflecting on the way that across Central Europe over the past century and a half different forms of nationalism have done almost untold damage. Wherever I travelled there were entire towns whose populations had been killed or expelled at the command of one form of nationalist zealot or another. My conclusion (which I am sure is an uncontentious one) was that anyone who makes exclusive claims based around flags, songs or mystical and immemorial borders was at some base level evil — that to believe in such things, which have more in common with magic than rationality, puts the believer and his disciples en route to catastrophe. And then I thought about Alex Salmond.

The Habsburg Empire, which was destroyed during the course of the First World War, joined together part or whole of 12 modern European countries and stretched from the Alps to western Ukraine. It was hardly a model of rationality and could often be cynical or incompetent but it seems like a vision of paradise compared to the nihilistic disaster that unfolded for its inhabitants from 1914 to the end of the Cold War. Several generations found themselves savaged by all the most horrible elements in Europe's formidable armoury of creepy prejudices sprinkled with a dusting of intellectualism what language you spoke, your religion, your political views had you herded into different camps at different times. In the end nobody won. Whatever terrible crimes the Communists carried out they at least had a salutary attitude towards the nationalists scattered across Central Europe who had done so much to support the Nazis and to poison community after community that had until then generally lived cheek-by-jowl for centuries, if not in harmony then in grudging indifference.

The lesson of the Habsburg Empire's demise is probably that multinational states are extremely valuable. They define themselves by some measure of tolerance and the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, had until his assassination, planned for his accession all manner of schemes to federalise the Empire. Before the catastrophe of the First World War very few of the Empire's inhabitants imagined that independence was even a rational option. Even Tomáš Masaryk, later to found Czechoslovakia, could only imagine a federal solution the lands of Bohemia and Moravia which he wished to have autonomy were simply filled with too many people who could never be reconciled to rule by Czech-speakers, as turned out to be the case.

This is when I started to think about Salmond. The United Kingdom is Europe's last big multinational state and in that sense vulnerable to what nationalists love to think of as "the tide of history". But the disasters of the 20th century have perhaps taught us that there are many problems with nationalist ideas on sovereignty. Indeed the European Union was created specifically in order to neuter these problems. One hardly discussed reason why the EU might be antagonistic towards Scottish independence is that Salmond's rhetoric and reality swim in exactly the opposite direction to all the most positive European trends since 1945. While most of Europe pools its sovereignty, here is someone yet again making mystical claims for the greater virtue that would emerge from drawing a ring around a particular chunk of land.

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September 7th, 2014
3:09 PM
Very black and white analysis. Yes, nationalism is a horrible thing; yes, there is a nationalist element to scottish politics; yes, it factors in the referendum and there are some very scary things creeping in from the SNP. BUT there is far more to the referendum than that... for many scots wanting independence is the very opposite of a flag waving excersise... many scots who have decided to vote yes would ideally prefer to stay within the UK state, consider themselves british and feel great affinity to other people on these islands but feel that on balance the systems in place at westminster do not serve well- the first past the post voting system being a big one- and are not confident in being able to change these things so with a heavy heart have come to the conclusion that despite the uncertainties and losing the actual and potential benefits of being part of the UK, that independence for scotland would be the best option.

September 6th, 2014
11:09 AM
Mr winder has got about right. The British have been so snug in their tight little island for so long that they are blind to the threat that Scottish Independence brings. Think of the Union like a log of wood it's inert and passive. Until you start to rip it for planks. at this point all the stresses constrained in the lignum and fibres are released and it can take up all sorts of strange twists. Mr Massie can't see this because he hasn't the imagination or he's indulging in some wistful thinking. An 'independent' Scotland will be an uncomfortable place to live.

August 27th, 2014
7:08 AM
What can be more negative than the breaking up of a nation into independant parts.The effects and cots of such will be with us for many many years. The main benifits will be seen by lawyers and Accountants as the assets and such are discussed ad infinitum . Scotland may have better family crèches but as a nation it will be very weak and seen by many as a failed nation.

James K
June 18th, 2014
12:06 AM
The Shetlands will vote against independence, and will be retained in the UK, along with their share of the oil. With or without the Shetlands, Scottish independence will not bring the promised benefits, and there will be a search for scapegoats. English residents in Scotland will be easy targets. The SNP will have fulfilled its purpose and will cease to exist. A Unionist party might take its place, but it will be treated with contempt and even with violence by the majority.

June 15th, 2014
7:06 PM
An independent Scotland would fall over itself to be socialist, internationalist and multicultural. We like to think we were never involved in the Empire and are incapable of racism. We project these things onto the English and hate them for it - hence the reception of Farage.

Robert Burns Glennie
May 3rd, 2014
5:05 AM
I'm uncertain about the conclusions that the author has reached in regard to putative Scottish independence, and the movement that supports, based on his studies of the Hapsburg empire. I do share the certainty that the independence for Scotland is a stupid idea, though. As someone who ancestors hailed from Glasgow and Aberdeen, I state flatly that there is no Scottish `nation.' There is in the U.K. a national group, and that is the British. The Scots, like the English, are as `Anglo-Saxon' as they are `Celtic.'

April 25th, 2014
7:04 PM
The authors point re Nationalism being mixed up with Socialism is a good one.Very dangerous-and, as we saw with the roughing up of Nigel Farage in Edinburgh last year-very troubling.

April 10th, 2014
9:04 PM
What next the Scots eat English babies? The independence movement is as far removed from fascism as it is possible to get. Unlike England, historically, fascism never found a foothold in Scotland. The author is projecting his arrogant prejudices and his gross ignorance of Scotland and her culture. What a shameful piece of writing especially given the history of rapacious militarism and Herrenvolkisch racism that drove the British imperium; a rôle model for the 20th century fascists.

April 5th, 2014
11:04 AM
As others have mentioned, the 'anti' reactions to this piece seem quite hysterical. It seems to me to be a fairly reasonable discussion of the black side of petty nationalism and the damage it can do to a society. After what happened when Yugoslavia split up and local nationalisms burst out in full fury, I am amazed anyone could be in favour of breaking up a successful multinational liberal democracy like the UK on the grounds of pure 'chip on the shoulder' resentment and populist twaddle along the lines if that cartoon-like film, 'Braveheart'!

robert graham
April 4th, 2014
8:04 PM
anyone admit to reading this through to the end ? i have tried but i dont want to be the one who pushes this sad deluded tortured soul over the edge if this is an example of care in the community i think this policy needs investigation quickly

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