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Home Uncategorized ‘Noble’ Nations, ‘Plebeian’ Nations

‘Noble’ Nations, ‘Plebeian’ Nations

Andreas Hess

Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion, by JH Elliott, Yale University Press, 339 pp, $30, ISBN: 978-0300234954

The Spanish translation of JH Elliott’s study was recently praised in El País’s best books of the year list as “a comparative historical exercise that shows that the two cases of Scotland and Catalonia are not comparable”. Such a recommendation speaks for itself: it expresses a very “Spanish” interpretation of the text. However, there exists of course also a second possible reading of El País’s recommendation, namely that the paper’s comment truthfully reflects the book’s intellectual-conceptual construction.

Against the latter interpretation, there are the strengths of Elliott’s book, which seem, at least on first sight, to make it highly recommendable: there simply exists no other book whose subject has been a comprehensive historical treatment of both Scotland and Catalonia; furthermore, the study has been authored by an Oxford don who is not only regarded as one of the most knowledgeable historians of Catalonia but also of Spain and its imperial history; last but not least, the text appears to be timely because it promises to provide useful information which might help to explain Scotland’s and Catalonia’s current struggles for independence.

And praise where praise is due: Elliott distinguishes six historical periods (identical with the main sections of the text) and he does so magnificently and with all the skills of a distinguished historian. The narrative begins with a description of the emergence of the dynastic unions of Spain and Britain (1469-1625), including their respective foundation myths and built-in tensions. These dynastic unions each faced succession crises, leading to choices which in turn gave rise to politically more solid configurations (1625-1707/16). Despite some remaining tensions and against resurgent social and political discontent and protest, these unions allowed for hitherto unknown possibilities of development, opportunities that in both cases found expression in various degrees of theoretical and practical Enlightenment – at least for Scottish and Catalan elites and aspiring middle classes (1707-1789). The following modernisation period (1789-1860) was marked by two important processes: first, that of nation-building, including the rise of dual patriotisms and the emergence of unique national narratives in Scotland and in Catalonia; and, second, that of industrialisation and the new social questions and challenges that arose in the context of new class conflicts and constellations. Home rule and devolution and the attempts to make them work were the distinguishing features of the next period (1860-1975). However, these struggles were conditioned by and became entwined with even larger events: the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and the experiences and lasting impacts of war, dictatorship and democracy, of course with different emphases and impact for Spain than for the United Kingdom (and for Scotland and Catalonia respectively). For Spain and Catalonia, the challenges were mostly of a political and democratic nature; for the UK and Scotland they were primarily economic. The most recent period (1975-2017) saw various attempts to come to terms with these different historical legacies, yet in both cases the period was also marked by some convergence, not at least because both Spain (including Catalonia) and the UK (including Scotland) had become fully-fledged EU members. While the EU provided new opportunities, it also presented both countries and their regions and nations with some novel political challenges. Like other observers, Elliott detects the rise of centripetal forces of varying quality and strength which were brought forward in parts by the crisis of the centralised state and its lack of meaningful steering capacity, changed international market conditions (globalisation and “glocalisation”), and opportunist but often also apparently indifferent supra-national (EU) governance structures.

So much for the good features of the book. Now the difficulties and problems. Elliott’s narrative is constructed as that of an apparently neutral political historian who occasionally nods to various social and cultural aspects of history if and when the opportunity presents itself. He moves elegantly between common features and differences in this complex comparative history, and it is chiefly for this that the book can be commended to the interested reader. However, as he approaches the present, Elliott becomes both more agitated and more opinionated. There is, of course, nothing wrong with voicing an opinion, even a strong one; the problem with Elliott’s concluding chapters, however, is that such strong opinions are not supported by proper evidence and argument, with too many issues discussed without being properly integrated into an argument. Economic justice, democratic governance and voice (or the lack thereof), the difficulty of properly addressing and balancing the interests of admittedly unequally constituted nations in a meaningful union, questions of constitutional checks and balances including those of  the regions and/or nations of the two unions concerned, questions of modern multi-level citizenship, federalist and republican models, the problematic applications of what seems to be a static interpretation of the rule of law  ̶ each of these is discussed, but each would require proper attention and probably some extensive sociological and/or political-theoretical treatment to be convincingly treated. Instead we get snippets of all of them, but the narrator appears unable to weave them into an integrated story that would make sense, particularly in relation to the first five sections of the book.

What had looked up to this point like a successfully integrated, comparative political history now starts to come apart, with the last chapter, “Going for broke”, and the epilogue in particular appearing to be too hastily put together. In this final part of the study it is almost without exception some negatively portrayed Scottish or Catalan nationalism that seeks independence that is at the root of the contemporary crisis and almost never those who defend the unreformed and unreconstructed unions of Spain or the UK, never mind their reckless conservative governments. In Elliott’s hasty interpretation constitutions, written or unwritten, appear as everlasting and seemingly unreformable founding documents of faith to which allegiance should be pledged and to which obligation is owed – regardless of how outdated, unjust and politicised they may have become in the hands of highly centralised and often unchecked governments. Moreover, it seems to be the author’s conviction that it is primarily nationalism and its discourses that are the cause of present evil. And it is the “plebeian” nations of Scotland and Catalonia which have succumbed to this retrograde ideology, while nothing similar ever seems to have infected the “noble” unions of Spain and the United Kingdom. The lack of balance here is almost absent in the first few sections of the book, but the partisan rhetoric of the concluding chapters throws a long shadow over the entire comparative project.

Michael Walzer once pointed out that civic and democratic national sentiment weren’t necessarily always bad or disastrous in their impact. Noble nations, he argued, appeared always to be threatening; in contrast, plebeian nations appeared always to be threatened. One wishes that Elliott had considered the Princeton philosopher’s observation. As it stands, we have learned a lot about the Scottish and Catalan past, but we still lack a proper compass with which to judge their current independence movements.


Andreas Hess is professor of sociology at University College Dublin. His latest book, Tocqueville and Beaumont. Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2018.



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