Homage to Catalonia

The tension between the local and the national is not a recent development in human affairs. Independence movements throughout history stem from this tension. It led to the Confederacy seceding from the United States of America, the Republic of Ireland breaking away from the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom voting for Brexit.

Despite, or perhaps because of the globalising consensus over the last few decades, this tension has acquired a new salience in recent years. In 2014, the people of Scotland voted by a margin of only 5.3% to remain within the United Kingdom. In the following year, the Yes California Independence Campaign was formed. In 2016, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This very month has seen Spain enter a constitutional crisis as Catalonia proclaims itself an independent republic. Meanwhile, recent referendums in the Italian regions of Veneto and Lombardy confirmed that they too want greater autonomy.

In short: globalisation, unionism, federalism and “Ever Closer Union” have their discontents.

The question is whether, in the event that greater powers are devolved to these regions and states, would their discontent be placated? Another way of framing this question could be: would Britain and Catalonia have voted for independence if the EU and the Spanish government had granted them greater autonomy in the first place?

Economists, constitutional theorists and political scientists will speculate. But the answer may lie in human nature itself.

Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man was written after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism, and it celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy across the globe. What is often overlooked, however, is that Fukuyama warns that states who ignore the human ‘desire for recognition’ do so at their peril. As he notes, ‘Plato spoke of thymos, Machiavelli of man’s desire for glory, Hobbes of his pride or vainglory, Rousseau of his amour-propre, Alexander Hamilton of the love of fame and James Madison of ambition, Hegel of Recognition, and Nietzsche of man as the “beast with red cheeks” …The drive for recognition is the most specifically political part of the human personality’.

It is because of this that regions, nations and states want to be self-governing; and therefore anything other than this will never be enough.

It takes carefully configured political structures such as the United Kingdom and the United States to manage the tension between the local and the national – and even they have struggled. Until the other powers that be recognise this, there will only be more cases like Catalonia.

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