Scotland and the erosion of national citizenship

by Lorenzo Piccoli


The referendum on the independence of Scotland has a historical significance for citizenship. The net result has been a degree of convergence between the two campaigns, Yes Scotland and Better Together: while independence has morphed into independence-lite, the case for the Union has developed into a case for a somehow different kind of Union. In his admirable reflection on the matter, Mark Elliott wrote that the devil is in the detail: and detail, particularly about how Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom would be calibrated, is notable by its absence.

In spite of the lack of details, it is now clear that a defining challenge to the dominant paradigm of existing nation-states has emerged from both sides, as they exhibited competing visions of how a plurinational democracy can work. The Better Together campaign pleaded to deliver more powers to Scotland, following the idea that citizens living in Scotland can be better served by stronger Scottish institutions interacting with the central British government. This is not too dissimilar from the claims made by the pro-independence coalition, which had advocated an independence-light keeping five of the six unions Scotland is part of: the EU, the queen, the pound, society, and defense. The future developments in the UK are likely to weaken the link between citizenship and the nation-state in the United Kingdom at a time when the interaction between the EU and nation-states already produces a multilevel architecture of citizenship. This is not an isolated development.

Nation-states are increasingly torn between internal demands from regional institutions and the external pushes coming from international migration and supranational institutions. As a result of these parallel processes, the nation-state is slowly but steadily betraying its absolutist original nature. Historically, nation-states were created through repeated wars between the 17th and the 19th century and eventually came into being as the supreme form of political authority in modern Europe. During the last century, national citizenship has become the absolute form of membership exercised by the direct relationship between the individual and the institutions of the nation-state. This idea of citizenship exercised a powerful function; but today, as a greater number of political actors struggle for power and recognition, things are bound to get more complicated. The idea of a single, all-powerful political authority for each national community is increasingly under pressure. Nowhere is this clearer than in Europe. Over the last few decades many European nation-states have been hollowed-out by the emergence of the European Union in many crucial domains of public policy, from economic regulation to monetary policy and control over immigration. At the same time, many European regions are demanding greater institutional recognition: not only Scotland, but also Catalonia, Basque Country, Galicia, Veneto, South Tyrol, Sardinia, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Corsica, Flanders, just to mention the most vocal ones. Interestingly, even if all these movements are going against one nation-state, most of them still want a state of their own. Apparently, it remains very hard to think beyond the nation-state. However, the parallel processes of supranationalism and regionalism are in fact creating novel forms of multilevel citizenship in Europe.

Forms of strengthened autonomy within a greater multilevel ‘whole’ are somehow akin to the kind of architecture that characterized many sub-state political communities that existed before the rise of the nation-state. In these polities one’s political status resulted from the combined effect of different levels of government. Examples include self-governing cities (eg. the Bishopric of Trent, established as a self-standing political community with its own customary laws and royal privileges, but whose inhabitants remained subjects of the larger Holy Roman Empirestate), Ottoman eyalets (eg. Bosnia, a constituent province of the Ottoman caliphate that was autonomously governed by a vizier as part of the larger kingdom of Ottoman sultans), constituent parts of Empires (eg. the Archiregnum Hungaricum, a complex confection of states and local autonomies that were part of the Habsburg Empire but could retain their own sovereignty to legislate in the areas of justice, education and religious matters, and interior affairs) and, more recently, free cities (eg. the Free City of Danzig, the semi-autonomous city-state that existed between 1920 and 1939 under League of Nations protection and put into a binding customs union with Poland). These are all examples of how individual rights and duties can result from the interaction between different layers of government.

The outcome of the Scottish referendum goes in this direction. The campaign showed that “Independence” and “Union” are not binary concepts: each instead represents a very wide spectrum of constitutional possibilities. The Better Together side won under a promise of delivering more powers to the four nations that are part of the Kingdom. The question that now faces this country is not concerned only with the amount of authority that will be devolved, but also with its nature, purpose, and constitutional security. The most obvious alternative to the present system is federalism, but here, too, we must be careful. Like devolution and independence, federalism can be declined in many different ways and it would unthinkable to transfer the kind of German federalism to the UK. Importantly, however, the Scottish referendum has prompted fundamental rethinking about the distribution of power within the United Kingdom and which layers of government should be responsible for individual rights. Outside Europe, Quebec has shifted focus from “independence” to “special partnership” with the rest of Canada. In the contemporary world, it is becoming more and more common that individual citizenship rights result from a nested structure composed of smaller communities that are contained within larger ones. It is within this institutional setting that plurinational forms of democracy emerge as workable alternatives to the traditional paradigm of absolute national citizenship.

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