In a post at his blog, science fiction writer Charlie Stross announces his support for Scottish separatism. This support, it turns out, is not only motivated by support for the independence of Scotland. Stross favours the more general breakdown of nation-states.
In the long term I favour a Europe—indeed, a world—of much smaller states. I don’t just favour breaking up the UK; I favour breaking up the United States, India, and China. Break up the Westphalian system. We live today in a world dominated by two types of group entity; the nation-states with defined borders and treaty obligations that emerged after the end of the 30 Years War, and the transnational corporate entities which thrive atop the free trade framework provided by the treaty organizations binding those Westphalian states together.
I believe the Westphalian nation-state system isn’t simply showing its age: it’s creaking at the seams and teetering on the edge of catastrophic breakdown. The world today is far smaller than the world of 1648; the entire planet, in travel terms, is shrunk to the size of the English home counties. In 1648 to travel from the south of Scotland (from, say, Berwick-upon-Tweed, the debatable walled border city) to the far north-west would take, at a minimum, a couple of weeks by sea; to travel that distance by land was a harsh journey of hundreds of miles across mountains and bogs and through still-forested glens, on foot or horseback. Today it’s a couple of noisy hours on board a turboprop airliner. Distance has collapsed under us. To some extent the definition of the Westphalian state as being able to control its own internal territory was a side-effect of distance: a foreign army couldn’t rapidly and easily penetrate the inner lands of a state without fear of retaliation. (Tell that to the residents of the tribal provinces in Pakistan.)
Moreover, our nations today have not only undergone a strange geographical implosion since the 17th century: they have exploded in population terms. The population of the American Colonies in 1790 is estimated at roughly 2.7 million; the United States today has over 300 million inhabitants. In 1780 England and Wales had around 7.5 million inhabitants; they’re now at 57 million. So we have a 1-2 order of magnitude increase in population and a 2-3 order of magnitude decrease in travel time … and possibly a 3-5 order of magnitude decrease in communications latency.
Today we’re seeing the fallout from this problem everywhere. Westphalian states can’t, for the most part, control their own territory to the extent of keeping intruders out; just look at the ghastly situation in Ukraine right now. Non-state actors play an increasingly huge role in dictating our economic conditions. And it seems to me that something goes badly wrong with representative democracy in polities that grow beyond somewhere in the range 5-15 million people; direct accountability vanishes and we end up with what I’ve termed the beige dictatorship. Beige isn’t the worst colour‐some of the non-beige contenders are distinctly alarming—but their popular appeal is a symptom of an institutional failure, a representational deficit: many voters feel so alienated by the beige that they’ll vote for the brownshirts.
My feeling is that we’d be better served by a group of much smaller nations working in a loose confederation or treaty structure. Their job should be to handle local issues(yes, this is localism) while compartmentalizing failure modes: the failure modes of a gigantic imperial power are almost always far worse than those of a smaller nation (compare the disintegration of the Soviet Union with that of Czecheslovakia). Rather than large monolithic states run by people at the top who are so remote from their constituents that they set policy to please lobbyists rather than their electors, I’d prefer to see treaty organizations like NATO and the EU emerging at consensus after discussions among numerous smaller stakeholder entities, where representatives are actually accountable to their electors. (Call me a utopian, if you will.)
Yes, this is also an argument for Wales, the North of England, and London itself all becoming independent nations. But they aren’t on the ballot. So Scottish independence is a starting point.
Thoughts? I’m rather more skeptical of this argument for a general breakdown than Stross, or many of the commenters at his blog. Isn’t the construction of larger federations with some degree of democratic responsibility preferable to more fragile and less legitimate coalitions of smaller states? There’s room for flexibility, but a general reconfiguration strikes me as a non-starter.