Is Catalonia a nation? In 2010 the Spanish Supreme Court ruled ‘YES’, but went on to say that it was a historical and cultural term only with “no legal value” that would violate the Spanish constitution.
Nationalism in Spain is complicated. In 2011, I published a piece in the “London Review of Books” on bedbugs. It was translated into Catalan, and appeared in the journal L’Espill, published by the University of Valencia. L’Espill (the mirror) describes itself as “Revista fundada per Joan Fuster.” Fuster was a Valencian, and a proponent of pan-Catalan nationalism. He said that Catalans and Valencians belonged to the same nation. They spoke the same language and had the same flag. Valencians disagreed, particularly the blaverists. They insist that Valencian is a different language, not a Catalan dialect. Their flag may be the Catalan “Senyera”, but it must have a blue (blava) border.
So what is a “nation?” Walter Bagehot wrote at length about nations in his “Physics and Politics” (1872). But he couldn’t give a crisp, concise objective definition. Philosophically, his approach was the same as Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court who, when considering obscenity in 1964, said: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced- but I know it when I see it”.
Eric Hobsbawm in his “Nations and Nationalism since 1780” (1992) quoted Ernest Renan’s famous subjective definition made just after the Franco-Prussian war that “a nation is a daily referendum”, but pointed out that defining a nation by its members’ consciousness of belonging to it is tautological.
History muddies the waters. The term “nation” formally appears in the thirteenth century, when students at the universities of Paris and Bologna were grouped into “nations” according to their place of birth. At Oxford, nations were first recorded in 1250. Two years later, the northern nation (Boreales: English north of the River Nene and the Scots) had a violent encounter with the southern (the Australes: English south of the Nene, the Welsh, and the Irish). Because their existence seemed to engender conflict, they lost formal recognition in 1274, but unofficially they remained, with bloody conflicts continuing along these national lines for another three centuries.
“Nations” were established in the three Scottish universities founded in the fifteenth century. Their main function was to elect members of an electoral college that in turn elected the Rector. There are no records of them encouraging violence. But their members as a whole were stimulated by the process to go on the rampage. The 1950 contest in Glasgow was notable. George McNicol (who later as Principal became my boss at Aberdeen) supported the Tory candidate. He was captured, put in a cage borrowed from Glasgow Zoo, and fed buns in George Square. The Scottish nationalist John M MacCormick received 661 votes out of 2,248, and won two of the four nations. His two main opponents won one each, so MacCormick was elected. His installation was very noisy. When he sat down, a firework exploded under his seat. Bags of flour were thrown. More fireworks went off; trumpets and whistles sounded, and a kilted piper marched through the hall. A cardboard replica of the Stone of Scone was put on the Speaker’s table, and a live goose appeared on the platform.
In 1927 MacCormick founded the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association, one of the most important incubators for the hatching of SNP politicians. The First Minister and two Current Cabinet Secretaries (Angela Constance and Derek Mackay) were GUSNA members.
Universities, university students, and politics have very intimate connections; from the harmless, such as the student- led demonstration in Oslo on May 17 1829 celebrating the Eidsvoll constitution (called the Battle of the Square although nobody was hurt) which cemented that date as Norwegian National Day, to the much less agreeable, like Martin Heidegger’s notorious Rectorial Address and associated ceremonial at the University of Freiburg on 27 May 1933 (ten days before he joined the Nazi party).