IT is good to read thoughtful “Long Letters” such as that written by Dr D White on the word nationalism (February 16). It is a pity he did not tackle the word nation at the same time.

Are nations natural, self-evident units, which require no definition? Clinging to this assumption in 2020 Scotland is getting risky. The Brexiteer regime in London is currently promoting, with increasing vigour, its own definition of nation, which treats the very idea of a Scottish nation as “logically absurd” and “preposterous”.

Nation is one of those words which are not anchored in a universally recognisable reality. Its meaning is difficult to pin down and hence wide open to manipulation. Etymologically, it is derived from the Latin verb “to be born” (cf ante-natal, post-natal) and, to begin with, it referred simply to the social group in which an individual was born.

It carried no specification regarding the size of that group, the amount of territory it occupied or its political status. In medieval Scotland, the universities grouped their students according to their nation, that is, the part of the country in which they were born – Albany (north-west), Angus (north-east), Lothian (south-east) and Britain (south-west). In 17th-century England, we find the word nation designating “alien tribes”, as in “Why do the nations so furiously rage together [against God’s chosen people]’”(Psalm 2, v.1-2).

In the modern world, the relationship between nations and states varies greatly. Some states recognise the presence within them of more than one nation – in the US and Canada, the Sioux nation and the Inuit nation are considered legitimate entities within the state. In the UK, we can still talk about the “four home nations”. In France, the nation is “one and indivisible”, making reference to a “Breton nation” or a “Basque nation” an almost-treasonable offence.

In European languages, a step-change in the meaning of nation came at the end of the 18th century. The onset of industrialisation called for an expansion in markets for goods and services. The areas around local market towns were too small and had to be increased into much bigger economic units. The expanding markets demanded free movement of goods and services and, hence, standardisation of weights and measures, coinage, legal systems, and, most importantly, of language.

The new economic order ushered in a quite new ordering of society, which rapidly attracted the label nation. The nation was characterised, ideally, by internal cohesion (common allegiance of all citizens to the capital) and external distinction(fixed borders preventing allegiance to and interference from other nations).

Thanks to their disproportionately large capital cities, the first off the mark with the new nation-state system were Britain and France. One by one, in the course of the 19th century, the other countries followed. Competition between “nations” was acute and became increasingly bellicose, spiralling into the catastrophic conflicts of the 20th century.

Two centuries on, contemporary Europeans are only too aware of the destructiveness and inefficacy of nation-states. (A) two murderous world wars and (B) fragmented national markets too small to square up to the new monster powers, the US and now China. Most Europeans have prudently read the runes and moved on. Most, but not all. True to their name, British Conservatives hanker for the past – a golden age, two centuries ago, when England was “top nation”.

The British Army had defeated Napoleon. The Royal Navy ruled the waves. London finance ran the Empire. In their eyes, the Georgian concept of nation must be resuscitated in the 21st century in its pure form. Clamouring for “sovereignty”, the nostalgic Brexiteers contrived in 2019, against all common sense, to re-assert the old “principle of external distinction”. Now they are turning to the “principle of internal cohesion” and “our precious Union”.

Combating this return to the past by simply affirming the historical legitimacy of a Scottish nation will cut very little ice. In nation-state ideology, the nation (the UK) is the primary, irreducible unit, making the notion of a nation (Scotland) within the nation (UK) a logical impossibility. Resistance to this requires, on the level of theory, a demolition of the anachronistic, nation-state way of thinking and, on the level of practice, exposure and denunciation of the dysfunctional nature of nation-state centralism.

In 1972, at the time of Britain’s accession to the EU, a journalist in Le Monde saw two possible trajectories for the UK – towards the social democracies of Scandinavia or towards the nationalist centralism of Franco’s Spain. Fifty years on, a choice has been made and the direction of travel is ominous.

With its fundamental assault on the primacy of the old nation-state, it is easy to see why the Scottish movement for independence in Europe generates such anger among partisans of the current regime in London.

Anthony Lodge