Why Stay Together? Unionism and State Nationalism in the UK and Spain

Published: 28 April 2020

In a recent article for Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Coree Brown Swan (University of Edinburgh) and Daniel Cetrà (University of Aberdeen) compare unionism and nationalism in the UK and Spain. In this blog they've given us a teaser of what you can expect.

In a recently published article, we compared the way political parties in the UK and Spain justify state unity in response to Catalan and Scottish demands for self-determination.

We found that British and Spanish party elites struggle to articulate well-developed cases for staying together. This may be because state elites in general tend to present state maintenance as self-evidently desirable and are less practised in legitimising their national projects.

But how exactly do they justify state unity? We found that the case for unity is primarily negative in Spain, with self-determination viewed unconstitutional and independence divisive and backwards, and more positive in the UK, with the Union seen as the instrument to facilitate the success of its four nations.

Our contention is that this variation may be explained by the dominant conception of the state in each case, a single and indivisible nation of equal citizens in Spain and a flexible and plurinational Union in the UK.

Let us put it differently. We suggest that the prevalent view of Spain as a single nation facilitates the framing of self-determination demands as an existential threat and the deployment of a more emotive and reactive vocabulary to prevent the ‘dissolution of the nation’. The Constitution codifies the mononational view and the principle of state unity. This means that self-determination may be deemed unconstitutional and articulating a compelling case about state unity is less necessary. In contrast, the UK is usually presented as a partnership into willingly and requiring the consent of its constituent nations. As a result, a case must be made for its continuation.

Bottom line – the recognition of different peoples within the state may contribute to a more dispassionate political debate on these issues. In fact, the national question is not a matter of party competition at the centre in the UK to the same degree as in Spain. But national recognition in the UK coexists uneasily with the doctrine of a single sovereignty lying in Westminster.

We structure our paper along two main themes: the conceptions of the state and the claims for staying together. In what follows, we provide a ‘teaser’ for each:

Who are we? The nation(s) within the state

‘One part cannot decide for the whole thing’, as former PM Mariano Rajoy repeatedly argued. The view of a single and indivisible Spanish sovereignty and nation permeates political discourse. It is especially salient among conservative parties, who may express it in organicist or civic forms. The organicist view stresses that ‘the idea of Spain without Catalonia is unbearable, unthinkable, a mutilation’ (Alfonso Alonso, Popular Party). A more common view is that shared nationhood grounds democracy and the Spanish civic and constitutional project.

The Socialists’ discourse on the nation fluctuates as a result of changes in party leadership and electoral interests. The Socialists typically support the equal sovereignty claim while expressing pride for the nation’s diversity. The leftist coalition Unidas Podemos has sought to adapt the vocabulary of patriotism along plurinational and social lines.

In contrast, UK political elites acknowledge the plurinational nature of the state and use the Union, rather than the nation, as the main point of reference. Former PM Theresa May reiterated that ‘our Union rests on, and is defined by, the support of its people. It is not held together by a rigid constitution or by trying to stifle criticisms of it. It will endure as long as people want it to – for as long as it enjoys the popular support of the people of Scotland and Wales, England and Northern Ireland’.

Why stay together? The case for state unity

We found that party elites in both places make combined claims against independence and for state unity. But there is strong variation in the balance between negative and positive arguments, and in the content of these arguments.

In Spain, the discourse focuses on the Constitution and the negative framing of independence. Spanish parties self-describe as ‘constitutionalists’ and present the Constitution as a symbol of compromise, democracy, modernity and harmony. For PM Pedro Sánchez (Socialists), the independence movement is like Brexit: ‘both create a narrative of invented and exaggerated grievances, force the population to make a binary decision, and blame a third party’.

In contrast, while British party elites also emphasise similar issues around risk and division, they adopt a comparatively more positive and developed case for the Union, avoiding broad principles and focusing instead on pragmatic benefits.

The Union is presented as a common project which benefits Scotland in three ways. Firstly, with historical and contemporaneous achievements, most notably the defeat of fascism and the development of the welfare state, an argument made by all three Unionist parties. Secondly, found among Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Union is one of solidarity, allowing for the sharing of risks and resources throughout the UK. And finally, a Conservative argument spoke of the global influence of Scotland within the UK.

'Why Stay Together? State Nationalism and Justifications for State Unity in Spain and the UK' was published on 19 February 2020 as part of Nationalism and Ethnic Politics Special Issue "State and Majority Nationalism in Plurinational States: Responding to Challenges from Below".

Photo by Adrià Tormo on Unsplash

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