History does not repeat itself exactly, but it does resemble itself fairly often.
If there is an obvious pattern in history it is not a cyclic one, it is an oscillation, between big human groupings and small. Reasons of defence, efficiency and other practical and ideological considerations drive this fluctuation. It explains the expansion and fall of empires, the disintegration of over-complicated polities, and the creation of new alliances and new ideologies. Another way of looking at this is the complementary pull of centralism versus localism, an antagonism that is proceeding apace all over the world among both states and corporations.
Anarchy and dictatorship are the perverted versions of this oscillation; medium-sized states dealing with local separatist movements are the norm, and will probably continue to be so.
Localism can only go so far, then small states decide to reunite or combine in some way, or they are gobbled up by a greater power. This has happened repeatedly in Europe over the last century. For example, the Austro-Hungarian empire fell and was replaced by small states, then parts of it were reassembled within the Warsaw Pact. Now we are back to a map boasting Serbia and even Montenegro. Meanwhile Kosovo wanted to leave Serbia, Scotland still wants to be free, and the EU is trying to take in more members.
The problem is that neither big nor small units have all the answers for all situations, so at all times we find people who are preoccupied with solving the most recent problem while not foreseeing the next. Politics is like that, and will remain so.
Nationalism is a kind of ambitious localism, but one not driven by practicalities; it is an ideological variant, and has many disadvantages and failings. It can be seen as a middle-level localism, between imperial ideas and the kind of deep localism that ignores nationalities, or invents its own sub-nationalities.
Nationalism is probably the most transferable and superficially attractive political idea of all time, and it is by now in danger of eating itself. Its very variability is still both a strength and a weakness. Once ‘British’ nationality was a safely agreed and solid idea, but by now it is like a mirror that will crack if we dare to take it off the wall, while something as complicated as American nationality has had to be carefully divided up into hyphenated chunks. The days of grand, ‘hard’ nationality are gone. The modern world has abolished it.
But localism is flourishing. Practical considerations drive localism, and it is a tenable and sensible idea with a rosy future and a respectable past. Nationalism is not like that, and always strains to exist at a level above practicalities. Nationalists say we must be governed by our like, or by our extended kin, because only they can understand us, only they can be trusted – as if Scots or Serbs did not at times have differing interests, both personally and in larger groupings. Nationalism has acquired an increasingly bogus moral layer. Why should persons of the same nationality be in ruling positions? Because we have the right to rule ‘ourselves’; it is right, it is the best thing. Sometimes this may true, if obvious conflicts of interest are involved, as within empires, but it is not a universalizable principle.
Casting practicality to the wind, the Scots will have their own government because that somehow feels right – better. But is it? Pakistan was born of the same rationale.