Commentary by Christopher Silver
Nigel Farage has already branded 2016 as a year of political revolution.
Last week, the UKIP leader beamed, like a small boy on Christmas morning, as he proclaimed from a day-time TV sofa that “nation-state democracy is back on the map”.
But the new order of nation states is not some Wilsonian vision of self-determination of free peoples. Rather, it would have been more accurate for Mr Farage to claim that the wealthiest nation-states, with their traditional hunger for dominance, are back on the map.
As the power of the west has waned with the rise of economic juggernauts in the east, the old privileges feel threatened. But to think of the alt-right insurgencies of 2016 as simply anti-globalist is to miss the point
Alt-right rule cannot and will not abolish globalisation, it simply wants to re-order it to make sure that the traditional master (white) nations, remain at the top of the pile.
Donald Trump’s chief strategist, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon, recently rejected the “white nationalist” label that the liberal media has tagged him with, yet proudly identified himself as an “economic nationalist.” Whatever way you look at it, the question of supremacy is key.
A reactionary revolt against the direction of globalisation was always going to look strange, but its impetus stems from a clear common factor. In the west we have privileges conferred as birth-right. We won’t give them up, or more accurately, we won’t sit idly by while Asia grabs an ever larger slice of the pie.
This, strangely, is what links the stockbroker to the ex-steelworker in the Brexit and Trump camps. The offer is to protect the former’s elite status by reviving latter’s elite-national identity.
An old game
Nationalism, for many, is one of the few reservoirs of meaning and dignity they can cling to in the face of unprecedented change. As the western nations get progressively older these spasms of denial, of exclusivity and nostalgia, are a compulsive means to deny this major demographic crisis.
Ultimately, though, Farage-Trump nationalism is just self-regard applied to every difficult question. Greatness can be assured by re-asserting national borders and “taking back control.” Shut out the foreign element and all the rest falls into place.
It’s an old game. Older than Jim Crow, older than the Raj. Virtue and self-interest are inseparable, to strive for imperial greatness is an inherent good, while only the worst (the weak and the vulnerable) opt for co-operation.
This new golden age of the nation-state means nations locked in perpetual rivalry and competition. To make this vision possible, the great nations of the earth must first be unshackled from the deadweight of 20th century bureaucracies and the complex, imperfect, transnational institutions that have been tasked with managing the globalised scene for over half a century.
For those who live in smaller nations, or who don’t fit within the parameters of legitimate nationality or elite-nation citizenship, the space that they have been afforded is rapidly shrinking.
The new instability
With an articulate, moderate, president in the White House it was all too easy to reflect that the concentration of power in Washington seemed like it could be a benign force.
Under such circumstances, the world could overlook the doctrine that the universal projection of American power was legitimate, that the sovereignty of smaller states continued to be conditional, that extra-judicial killing and mass surveillance were part of a tolerable reality.
Those who wielded such power took great care to be seen to do so with a sense of responsibility. There was a universal order to things.
Not anymore. If elections have the potential to make large swathes of a nation’s population feel, overnight, that they live in a foreign country, the recent contest for the American presidency has caused us all to wonder where we will be allowed to feel at home. Every political certainty has to be reassessed, everywhere.
Scotland is no exception. The modern case for independence was made in a world radically different to the one we now live in. 2014 already belongs to a radically different era.
On the face of it, this ought to mean that the ardent hopes of independence might be afforded a new chance. Stability wasn’t just central to the case of the union, it was the case for the union.
In a world of (relative) stability and established norms, the place of the small state, flying its “global citizen” flag with pride, deploying soft power with a deft hand, was a major part of the independence dream.
But the rules that underpinned such a system are no longer certain. The common theme that has defined all that Trump stands for is a disdain for niceties, a disdain for rules and above all, a disdain for the weak.
So this is the flip-side of the new nation-state golden age. If Trump and Putin share a mutual admiration for strong-man pragmatism, it seems logical that respect for the borders of nation states will become still more conditional. Old-fashioned, complex, liberal multilateralism will give way to the explicit drawing up of spheres of influence.
The voiceless and stateless
When might is right the vulnerable must suffer. Perhaps this is why, at times of great international upheaval, Scotland has traditionally hoped that it wouldn’t be noticed.
A voiceless entity on the world stage, it does not have to grapple directly with all the challenges that the new man in the White House presents.
But strange though it might seem, Scotland’s statelessness – in a world that is becoming increasingly merciless to the stateless – makes the task of registering our voice on the international stage that bit more vital.
Because if we are a mongrel tradition, in a world where the most powerful nations on earth are indulging in dangerous nativist fantasies, we cannot be idle. What do the emigrant nations, like ours, have to say to the face of post-modern fascism?
As a small country we have a greater ability to experiment, but with that comes a kind of responsibility. If Scottish independence is not a beacon in a darkening world, it is nothing.
The sense that we are all, the weaker and the stronger, dependent on the other and part of a community of nations is a basic condition that independence requires. It is not some kind of cosmopolitan fantasy.
The beginnings of the new order still seem to strange to contemplate. But we can’t escape them. As leaders of the US’s vassals traipse in and out of gold plated lifts in downtown Manhattan, there are tough lessons from our own history and experience that we ought to heed.
It’s a sight that still feels like a piece of satire. Adjusting to, accepting and bargaining with this new reality is an inescapable task. But the manner in which we do so will not be forgotten.
Is Scotland still a place, as the stories tell us, where we talk back to imperial power?
We’ll find out soon enough.