The fundamental principle to all forms of nationalism is the idea of the nation as the core political unit. Even so, it has proved extremely difficult to explain exactly what is meant by a nation and what are its key aspects, and this had led to some uncertainty. At its most general level, a nation can be defined as an entity which brings together a group of people who share a common language, culture, religion, traditions and history and who also, usually, share a common territory. However, we can’t fully rely on objective elements similar to the above when defining a nation. Linguistic, cultural, religious or ethnic diversity of some form is a feature of almost all nations. Switzerland is an obvious example of this; there is a strong sense of nationhood there, but at the same time, there exists three linguistic communities (French, German and Italian). Furthermore, there are many examples of different nations who share a common language or religion. For example, there are numerous nations who have English, French or German as common national languages. This means that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to try to compile a final and definitive list of objective criteria to be used in order to establish where and when a nation exists.
Consequently, any attempt to define a nation must consider a combination of objective features, such as a common language, culture or traditions, with the subjective feelings of the nation’s members. Ultimately, as argued by the French philosopher and historian, Ernest Renan (1823-1892), what defines a nation (and distinguishes it from other social groups) is the fact that a specific concentration of people wish to identify themselves as a nation and commit to collaborating in order to ensure that others provide formal recognition of that. Usually, this call for recognition places emphasis on the aspirations of the members to gain recognition as a unique political community, and as a result, to attain a level of political autonomy. This autonomy can be secured by establishing an independent state, or through a more limited federate or confederate arrangement.
The fact that nations can be identified on the basis of a combination of objective and subjective factors has led some scholars to analyse the way in which different national movements have chosen to define their particular nation, along with the conditions which have to be met in order to claim membership of the nation. This has led to the division between ethnic nationalism (or ethno-cultural) and civic nationalism which has claimed a central place in the academic literature on nationalism. These categories are discussed in more detail in Section 5 ‘Nationalism and the civic-ethnic divide’.
Another common trend among nationalists of all types is the belief that the world is divided into a series of different nations, each one possessing its own unique character and identity. Furthermore, nationalists tend to view the adherence which people have towards their nation as one which has extreme significance, and which stands above their adherence to any other collective entity. Whereas other types of adherence, such as class, sex, religion or language, has been significant in some places at certain times, it is claimed that the adherence towards our nation has deeper roots. This adherence has survived over time and is found in all parts of the world.
National sovereignty and self determination
An important step in the development of nationalism as a political ideology occurred when the idea of a national community merged with the idea of the people’s sovereignty. It is claimed that this occurred during the French Revolution and took inspiration from the writings of the philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). In his work, Rousseau did not refer directly to the concept of nation, nor to nationalism; however, it’s assumed that his emphasis on the principle of sovereignty offered the basis to an important ideological development with regard to nationalism. Rousseau argued that sovereignty (that is, the ultimate political power) should not lie in the hands of an all-powerful king, which was usual across extensive parts of Europe at the time, but rather in the hands of community of people united by a common culture. The process of governing should then be based on the common will of this community, which Rousseau referred to as ‘the general will’. During the French Resolution, these arguments gained traction with the revolutionaries claiming that the people of France were all ‘citizens’ who possessed basic rights, rather than ‘subjects’, and that consequently, sovereignty should lie in their hands, the members of the nation. As a result, the French Revolution gave rise to the idea that rational governing arrangements should try to ensure that people organised as a nation should be able to govern themselves.
As a result of the above developments, it became increasingly common to treat nations as the appropriate units for organizing political communities. This led to the principle that all nations should have the right to self-determination. Generally speaking, this right was interpreted as one which should enable the nation to organize itself as one meaningful community, and following that, to possess the political independence to form its own future on its own terms. Until fairly recently, it was generally assumed that self-determination was, in the view of all almost all nationalists, synonymous with the right to establish an independent sovereign state. However, it has recently been argued that many nationalists choose to interpret the principle in a more multifaceted way. This is evident in the work of the political scientist, Michael Keating, on the nature of the constitutional demands put forward by nationalistic movements active across many of Europe’s subnational nations. Despite their emphasis on self-determination with the right to form their own future, Keating shows that many of these movements don’t aspire to establish independent and sovereign states in the traditional sense. He argues that their objectives are more open-ended, and that they understand that political and economic arrangements now encompass a range of different layers – local, national and international. Even in the case of nationalistic movements such as the one in Scotland, which has obviously placed a great deal of emphasis on the idea of independence over the past few years, it is evident that many of the independence models put forward included maintaining some important constitutional (the Crown) and economic (the pound) ties with the remainder of the United Kingdom. Similarly, many of the proposals for independence for Quebec espoused by the Parti Québécois since the late 1970s (including during two referenda in 1980 and 1995), have recommended arrangements for sharing sovereignty with the remainder of Canada.
A great deal of the discussion surrounding nationalism has focused on the kinds of political or constitutional demands connected to the ideology – and specifically the call for national self-determination – but it must be remembered that the cultural dimension has also been central to the agenda put forward by many national movements. As a result, many nationalists weren’t solely concerned with gaining the kind of governmental and civic establishments which would enable the nation to be treated as a political community in its own right. They were also concerned with activity which would promote and strengthen the nation’s traditional culture (or, as in the case of several minority nations, reviving and re-establishing their culture). This cultural activity has often focused on promoting the national language, for example, through efforts to promote its use as the community’s main medium, or efforts to expand its corpus (for example, by coining and standardizing terms) to ensure that the medium can be easily used to discuss modern developments.
During the second half of the twentieth century, it became fashionable among scholars studying nationalism to argue that cultural activity of this kind was favoured by some specific types of nationalists, who espoused ethno-cultural nationalism whilst other nationalists, who espoused civic nationalism were more likely to focus on political aims which involved building establishments which would form the basis of a new embryonic state. This was seen, for example, in the tendency to label Welsh nationalism as being cultural and ethnic in nature due to the emphasis placed on supporting the Welsh language, whilst Scottish nationalism has been consistently labelled as being political or civic in nature, due to the emphasis placed on supporting important establishments such as Scotland’s legal system and its independent education system. However, as shown in the next section, there is a danger in over-emphasising such distinctions, as they can over-simplify the issue. Nationalism in action is almost always a complex combination of cultural, political, ethnic and civic elements.
As seen in the previous section, nationalism is an ideology which has encompassed a wide and diverse range of political viewpoints. Moreover, these are viewpoints which have overlapped nearly each of the other main ideological traditions, including liberalism, conservatism, socialism and fascism. Even so, despite this breadth, some key aspects remain which can be seen to be fundamental to all forms of nationalistic politics. We discuss the most important of these elements below.