Whose Unity?

A blue and white map of ScotlandThe 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.


Map of Scotland within the United Kingdom” by Peeperman – This file was derived from: British Isles United Kingdom.svg . Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

2 Replies to “Whose Unity?”

  1. This is an essential point. The natural state of current boundaries is always an illusion papering over the long and contested process of construction and negotiation that went into them. And as the case of Czechoslovakia or even Ukraine – this illusion takes almost no time to establish itself. But the same thing applies equally to independence. The idea that Slovaks, Scots, Ukrainians are somehow natural entities worthy of self-determination above all other concerns is also very much embedded in the needs and preferences of the actors involved in the discourse. It is not a value-free description. It is more or less an accident of history that the Scots aren’t English or Celtic. Czechs are not Germans, Slovaks not Hungarians, Ukrainians not Russians or Tatars. It’s our Hegelian selves that can only perceive one direction of our own fate.

    1. Absolutely. This observation is not simply about the boundaries of the nation-state or any community/nation but about the ways people classify themselves and others as if they are describing something that exists outside their act of classification. These boundaries and classifications intersect with a whole range of competing interests that are often forgotten in the assumption that the classifications simply describe life as it is.

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