The people of Scotland are voting today to determine whether they should be independent of the United Kingdom or remain within it. (Watch this Guardian video for background). Bill Clinton recently encouraged Scots to remain within the U.K., asserting
Unity with maximum self-determination sends a powerful message to a world torn by identity conflicts that it is possible to respect our differences while living and working together. This is the great challenge of our time. The Scots can show us how to meet it.
His sentiment here, calling for respect “while living and working together,” is something that many of us desire. His reference to “unity,” though, becomes another instance of naturalizing a historical construction, much like my post yesterday about attitudes towards texts. The “unity” that he advocates obviously references the current international boundaries of the U.K. and the notion that those within those boundaries form a singular community. Those boundaries, of course, have shifted time and time again. Treating them as sacrosanct where they are now suggests a timelessness that conveniently forgets past shifts. This sentiment is not unique to the U.K. but occurs frequently with references to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Iraq, Turkey, India, . . ., as if those boundaries were automatic.
I am not interested in entering the debate over the unity of any particular nation-state or undermining that unity. Both separation and unity require significant blood, sweat, and tears. But we should also be mindful of whose interests are served when “territorial integrity” of contemporary nation-states is treated as if it should never be questioned.