Does the use of majority and minority mislead when addressing nationalism?

Published: 24 April 2019

In February 2019, the CCC hosted an international workshop on majority nationalism in plurinational states. Over two days, participants presented their findings from a diverse range of countries. Over the coming weeks, we will share a series of blogs with these findings. In a theoretical contribution, Brian Girvin assesses the language of majority and minority nationalism.

Is it time to reconsider the use of majority and minority in the study of nationalism in multinational states? Some of the problems associated with their usage occurred to me while thinking about movements for autonomy, devolution and secession. There is considerable disagreement about who the people are in a political context, but there is agreement that political legitimacy is based on both the ‘will of the people’ and the nation. Yet it is unclear how that will is reflected within multinational states when alternative national communities are in competition for power and resources.

In these circumstances the relationship between majority and minority is rarely benign and nearly always asymmetrical. Nations do not have ‘parity’ even in the most liberal multinational state. There’s a bias towards the majority nation which writes the political rules of the game (the Constitution for instance). Furthermore, the majority nation usually has a privileged position in respect of how these rules are applied through legislation and in the courts.

We need then to distinguish between a democratic majority and a national majority. With the democratic majority, political competition takes place within the territorial state and is ‘blind’ to the national composition of the state; the electorate comprises the citizens of the state. Majorities and minorities are temporary and electorates can reconstitute the majority whenever there is an election.

In contemporary politics outcomes based on majoritarian principles appear legitimate and reasonable. However, if the idea of a national majority is invoked the situation changes dramatically. The majority within a multinational state reflects a specific nationality - this often excludes other nations from influence and power. There is the further danger that other nations can become permanent minorities due to the differences between the majority and minority in terms of history, norms and values, and culture. The application of the rules of the game as determined by the majority can exclude other nations from exercising power or indeed from participating in government.

The democratic conceit that every vote is equal and that each voter has an equal possibility of exercising influence is flawed in itself. In multinational states majority outcomes are determined by national vote banks. It is the existence of different nations that constitute the limits to majority and minority. The majority nation will determine in a democratic fashion the nature of the state. To continue to use majority and minority is to reinforce a dominant position on the part of one nation and to deem it legitimate. It also fails to address the unequal power relationship between the majority nation and other nations in the polity. If majority and minority continue to be used, there is a danger that decisions taken on majority grounds have the appearance of legitimacy but disadvantage other nations.

What could be done to avert this confusion? One approach is to recognise the equality of all nations within a polity and ascribe rights to each on an equal basis irrespective of size. This might entail a right of veto over major constitutional issues, such as the decision to leave the EU. This would involve concurrent majorities along national lines rather than a majority vote across the state. The so called Good Friday/Belfast Agreement 1998 points the way forward. The two national communities in Northern Ireland are treated as equal for the purposes of the agreement. Most major issues have to be decided by concurrent majorities, thus recognising that each national community has interests that cannot be overridden. Although this only applies to one region of the UK, it is a model that requires a break with classic majoritarian democratic forms and also the assumptions contained in the institutional arrangements of the nation-state.

If we abandon majority/minority when addressing conflicts within multinational states, what could replace it? I have used dominant to reflect the uneven nature of power, although other options include hegemonic and non-hegemonic which acknowledges both coercive and non-coercive forms of power.

Brian Girvin is an Honorary Professor of Politics and Professor of Comparative Politics (Emeritus) University of Glasgow.

Read more from Brian Girvin in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics Special Issue "State and Majority Nationalism in Plurinational States: Responding to Challenges from Below". The article analyses the changing nature of nationalism in India since independence in 1947

Image Credit: Steve Snodgrass on flickr

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