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About Sir John Elliot on the Catalans and the Scots in early Brexit Britain.

About Sir John Elliot on the Catalans and the Scots in early Brexit Britain.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero (

I attended the recent talk (26th November 2019) by distinguished historian of Spain Sir John Elliot (Reading, 1930, 89-years-old), along with a few others, known and unknown, at Queen Mary, University of London, in a historic immigrant and a bit rundown part of the great global metropolis by the river Thames (there is a historic Sephardic-Jew cemetery in the said University, but this is another matter). The event was organized by the Centre for Catalan Studies, as such it was presided by its Director John London, who is also editor of the Hispanic Research Journal. Hence, the juxtaposition is ab initio that of the Hispanic and Catalan signs in the same billboard of relative light of attraction in early Brexit Britain. Will the two signs stay together in the following years, decades, the end of time inside and outside the institutions of higher education? Who can tell for certain? In the meantime, we may imagine a photographic image of a tandem bicycle with two pairs of legs, Hispanic and Catalan, perhaps in the same official body politic riding the (same) tandem bicycle uphill, put perhaps not pedalling in the same direction. The immediate terrain, English, or better, British, is one that is not entirely conducive to in-depth diving into foreignness. Call it “hostile environment,” if you wish, also in relation to the multi-lingual humanities as well.

This talk represented a rare occasion and the host in question, the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film at Queen Mary, listing in alphabetic order the generic menu of options of Catalan, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian. Noticeable the fall of “literature.” No presence of “culture.” No Italian and two missing Peninsular languages. The European dimension dominates de facto and de iure the notion of the foreign languages in Britain, and non-European dimensions will have to project their minority voices through other formats, most if not all of these undergoing liquidation sales (see my recent account[1]).

A middlebrow literary embellishment graces the said School website:

“the decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation” (John Le Carré, July 2017)[2].

The pro-E.U. internationalism of the old spy-novel writer mirrors identical stance in the old historian whose measured language was one of equidistance between españolistas and catalanistas [Spain-nationalists and Catalan-independentists]. Such “neutrality” does not do away with his “greater-together” inclinations during his talk. We can add two comparative names: Chris Patten and Ken Clarke for the “old” Tory Europeanist sensibility (the current moment with Boris Johnson constitutes a difference, but it is too early to tell how big). Elliott’s compass is, if I may put it thus, this LeCarré-Patten-Clarkesque disposition of a certain forensic distance from the ‘noises’ emanating from the Scots and the Catalans. There is no comparable anti-Europeanism on the Iberian side of things. On the British side, one must immediately put centre stage the stronger force of English nationalism of the Brexit phenomenon untouched discursively by Elliot, and this surely was the elephant in the room in this agreeable London evening.

The session in question was exemplary for its non-acrimonious tone. It turned out to be in general, I found, more dutiful and cautious about a tired story that will not go away than a riveting account by an excited messenger that times are indeed changing drastically and not necessarily for the better. There was no novelty in the information delivery, prior to the dual Spanish and English elections putting Boris Johnson and Pedro Sánchez in power, the former in a strong majority government and the second in precarious multi-party coalition. Precious little has been reported since about Spain in Britain, as though noise in the street is to be the privileged prime-television condition. When very few other units manage to put together a public event about such matters, nothing in the midlands as far as I can see, the London evening invited us to contemplate lessons of history with cool passion and forensic curiosity for its details. There was a bit of both but not an awful lot of either in the end.

“Nations without States: Catalonia and Scotland,” was the title. Whose title is it? The speaker’s? Somehow, I doubt it and I hope what follows will make it clear, even to those who have not heard anything about these matters or about Elliot, who is surely an inevitable interpreter of things Spanish in the British Isles and who enjoys greater visibility than most others. It is at once a generic and formulaic type of title that fails to catch the eye or at least set the eyebrows on fire. In hindsight, the insinuation points its rosy fingers in the long shadow of a desired teleology: the new dawn of the state achievement of the nations in question which are bones of contention, or coins thrown up in the air, of bitter political fights out there currently going on as the few readers deal with these few lines. The title: four names of a route map to be reconstructed by the talk with the official, (major?) two others missing, one “negative” proposition, no verbs, no dominant subject position either. And who wants to be “without” both nominal attributes (nation and state)? Who claims a happy condition beyond the state and the nation? You, whether patriot or not, academic migrant or penniless scholar, want to be not only “in it,” but “fully with it,” since the opposite condition of destitution is also one of fragility in our times of migrant hostility and border patrols. The host institution, the Institut Ramon Llull-Catalan-culture-abroad, the title insinuation is its or the Director and presenter. Yet, the talk did not want a big splash in the water. There was to be an avoidance of naming the names of the principal actors currently breathing and kicking and sometimes screaming over there in Iberia and over here in the U.K. If there was the occasional mention of historical figures, these would be Kings and Queens and protectors of the realm long dead. And there would be not many not to make the talk too heavy on the audience members. John Elliot’s was a comparative history lesson and I do not think he would have wanted to be anything more or less than that. And this type of history: antiquarian?; vaguely culturalist, yet keeping firm and clear from the tentacles of “cultural studies,” with or without its occasional references to the differentialism emanating from the Catalan language; linguistic matters, considerably less pressing on the UK side of things). Elliot’s account was in the antipodes of provocative political history, although somehow politics and history in the vicinity of Spain have been in Elliot’s rucksack in his long trajectory. His history lesson felt, certainly to me, a bit musty and dusty, a bit of background, even decorative wallpaper, to the “theatre of war,” thus theatrically speaking if you wish, over there in Iberia with little echo over here, unless, that is, you manage to link it up to the Scottish situation. That was the strategy of the evening and this is still the quid of the question: there is no strong appetite otherwise for the ‘foreign’ Catalan case in general in Britain as far as I can see and not too much for it either in the comparative company of the Scottish case. The latter can and does function well domestically most often without the strong and explicit comparison for the main reason that the SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party] demarcates itself clearly from the rebellion exemplified by the Catalanist sectors, strongly in the last two or three years. The comparison links up the islands to the continent and perhaps all linkages are good. Remember the John Donne lines (“no man is an island / entire of itself…” and the bell tolling is also for you).

Rule of thumb: 50% native and foreign born among the audience. In Spain, Elliot has been seen mostly in PP-Aznar enclaves, a former Ph.D. of his from Oxford is still visible figure in the Partido Popular with the new leader Pablo Casado. Birds of a feather…? The weather was benign however in the London evening inside and outside the Queen Mary campus. The tone was soft and appropriate to a generalist type of presentation of history to those who may or may not know much about it, partisan calls to arms and revolutionary chants were left at the door. Audience members would have to pin names down with blue tack to the political events of the last few years, decades or days. The cat in question was not going to get close to the hot water but tiptoe around it or the follow a rather general set of history lessons coming out of these “nations without states.” Two parallel lines then with some possible intersections inside a trajectory that was one of divergence between the U.K. and Spain (two other nouns, not explicitly mentioned in the title) since the Early Modern times. Given the little decent coverage there is in Britain of things Iberian, Spanish and Catalan, we better not let long-lived Elliot go unnoticed.

In the vicinity of the nation-state and its cultural missions and secret service, it is wise to put good intentions side by side bad intentions, also in relation to the university, “sector” as the managerial lingo has it, undergoing intense turmoil and industrial action as we speak. “Hostile environment” (originally, a phrase used in relation to Tory attitudes at least since Cameron towards immigrants of the non-white commonwealth) is not an exaggeration in the general vicinity of foreign states and nations as they become vocal through their “modern” languages. No amount of withdrawal and studied reticence, typical self-deprecating humour of an island mentality slowly digesting emotionally and processing intellectually the complex Brexit phenomenon will paint a better picture than hostility (see the impact inside universities[3] and outside[4]). The Institut Ramon Llull: Catalan Culture Abroad, is listed as one little oasis sponsor. Subtle wink of the “Catalonia” and the Catalan-and-English introduction by Mr London. No objections there. The conventional photograph of the announcement includes two separate photos, one of a smiling Elliot and the other of the unofficial starred flag of Catalan independence (the estelada of early 20th century designed by Ballester i Camps) and the Scottish flag, the Saltire, adopted in the 16th century, flying together against a black sky. No Union Jack and no Spanish flag: the two dominant political units, the Great Britain and the United Kingdom, on the majority-English side of things, and Spain with less clear majorities on the other. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP total domination of the Scottish political terrain against strong Tory majority under Boris Johnson in the latest election meets the majority-Catalanist vote in the Catalan Parliament with ERC as party leader and the PSOE of Pedro Sánchez-minority central government invoking “dialogue” after the convulsive events of the last three years of rebellious challenge to the constitutional order in Spain (there has been inflation of “constitution discourse” in the U.K. in the last three years and yet this is a political entity with no written constitution; its meaning is more along the lines of what is precedent and customary, the traditional or standard of getting things done). The contrast is stark with the Catalanist challenge to the Spanish constitution of 1978, the official set-up of the current democratic regime after the Franco years.

So, two political entities (Catalonia, Scotland) are part of two other major entities (U.K. and Spain) which are inside at least one major frame (European Union and NATO) also inside what could still be called in grandiloquent fashion Western civilization, one civilization among others. The political and historical imagination stayed very much on this side of the Atlantic this evening, except for occasional references to the Spanish Empire and the British Empire qua extensive additions or vast clothes dressing up the figures of Spain and Britain. The curious word “shibboleth” was mentioned in the abstract of the talk in relation to the point of the Catalan-Scottish comparison. The word remains in the mouth like a funny aftertaste well after the evening in question. Catalonia and Scotland, like apples and oranges? Well, two types of fruit. And what about these two and not others in the salad bowl? Wales is never there. Northern Ireland… I had a brusque encounter with a Northern Irish colleague who was vocal about the transfer of the Republican analogy of Northern Ireland under occupation of the U.K. also for Catalonia (the colleague in question was a “modern linguist” who did not longer work on Spain and moved on to memory management in Chile, Chileans do the memory and reconciliation better than Spaniards, she claimed...). I have heard of passing references to Catalonia and Slovenia… Perhaps we can ask Zizek. There are not that many options available. The EU does not appear welcoming receiver of Catalanist demands and the U.S. could not care less about small-nation claims of any kind, particularly during Trump. The elephant in the room was the English nationalism and Brexit in the U.K., which finds no equivalent in Spain. Should we mention corruption and perennial economic crisis over there as major forces driving disaffection, disaggregation or localism with or without the favoured discourse of the nation in our own century?

We must envision a complex historical process that produces a centralist or convergent nation-state configuration typified as the mouthful of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not obvious to outsiders, and the shorter and perhaps more portable, Spain. “Shibboleth” remains a curious term emanating from the Jewish-Hebrew background of idiosyncratic linguistic features that allow the differentiation of the various communities marking the boundaries among the insiders and the outsiders. Think of an accent, a set of gestures, mannerisms, a common way of talking in a certain tone or intonations, my expressions against yours, my idiolect against yours, my handshake and kiss on the cheeks against your body-shy safe distance; say the rolling “r” in Spanish for the non-native speakers, or the guttural “r” among Puerto Ricans, are shibboleths markers of identity claims that will be picked up by keen observers of cultural difference. Do they explain anything or do they simply demarcate who is in and who is not?: the liquid “s” for Spain in the English language thrown at the Spaniards themselves, the very name of Catalan or Valencià, wearing a Hebrew Kippah or a Yiddish Yarmulke, eating pa amb tomaca or pamboli, sipping Codorniu or Freixenet, Haggis or Lorne sausage, this or that type of whisky, etc. Shibboleths can become lazy-lip cliché, useful if questionable, even to identify the turn of a bastard phrase, a trip and trick of the tongue that gets yours mixed up, or does not, against a multitude of other identity markers of the 101 dalmatians in the fog of “war.” I am sure each reader will have its favourite ways of capturing folklore and vernacularity, grasping the “somewhere from the nowhere,” “the local” against the metropolitan streets and the digital globality. The latter use of shibboleth in the digital domain may have caught you by surprise, as when you are asked to input your shibboleth login. If you are successful, you will be recognized as a “federated” identity accepted by the appropriate system. So, we are dealing with an assigned code, the right one and it is typically given to you as it is taken away from you. In the U.K., education sector, this federation is the “UK access management federation.” It is not a matter of choice or consensus. And the interesting tension, you will agree with me, is between what you may wish to call your identity and the granting of your global-digital identity provision or user authentication provided by the appropriate institution for the duration of the association. Someone else inside your organization, someone you are unlikely to meet will assign your shibboleth login capability and terminate you when your time is up. Possibly, the digital life of the shibboleth with its short-term life and planned obsolescence, throws all big claims to time and space, identity and language and what have you, out the window sooner rather than later, certainly the claims of all and any individuality. The non-consensual processes of definition (what others think of you, how others name you) are clearly crucial aspects of this political fight for name and recognition, also for Catalans and Scots. You might have been able to catch the brand “made in Spain.” It is one among many others of relative visibility in Britain and beyond.

The main point of the talk was to list vicissitudes within the assumed frame of discreet, if questionable comparativism between Catalans and Scots inside the perhaps harsher nation-state strictures of the UK and Spain in declared divergence from within the European platform since Early Modernity against a murkier larger background of other possible political-entity formulations. Our speaker, no Scot and no Catalan, English and no Spaniard, but strongly linked to Spain matters, and by extension to Spanish America via the legacy of the Spanish Empire, maintained an impossible pose of polite or even neutral equidistance between catalanistas and españolistas, at least during this session. A neo-Wilsonian assumption of the right to reach such “ideal” political form of the nation-state was nonetheless invoked by the narrative thrust of Elliot. Our long-lived fellow of the British Academy, knighted for “services to history,” also a member of the Orden de Isabel la Católica and, in beautiful almost fearful symmetry, La Creu de Sant Jordi, kicks off with the 1462 of incorporation of Catalonia into Spain as part of the Kingdom Aragon in the vicinity of the 1492 date of American expansionism, Iberian unity in the “composite” Monarchy (primus inter pares of nobility families of its inter-marriages and alliances). Making a run like a good “agent running in the field” with such comparisons, if only to allude to Le Carré’s latest novel[5], we cross the channel to run into James I in 1603, who signals the absorption of Scotland into England and the new composite entity of Great Britain. 1707 is another date for the Union. 1640 sees the revolt of the Catalans against Olivares who suffocated it. Interestingly, Surely other regions mounted other challenges to the central powers of the Monarchy (the comuneros in Castille too, for example, the moriscos in Alpujarras). Elliot did not mention strongly the religious impact of the Reformation and Counter-reformation as though it was too obvious a point. Too obvious the forest from these trees by the long boats in the waterways adjacent to Queen Mary, London? There was a quick detour to the Middle Ages: the condado de Barcelona, not yet a kingdom, will form part of the Franks and later the Kingdom of Aragón under the name of Fernando, consort of Isabel of Castilla, the Catholic Monarchs, bringing about what will be soon the Iberian totality. Elliot insists on the “composite polity” bringing about unity in the diversity. Since the point is to stick to the duopoly of Scots and Catalans, there is clear downplay of the three religions (Jews, Muslims and Christians) before and after 1492. But Elliot will not diverge into Muslim and Jewish Spain. His is an account of elite groups in the vicinity of the state appropriating nations for itself.

Other signposts are mentioned. Charles I is against the Presbytarians. The religious reasons appear to give way to fiscal reasons. Scots do not forget about Cromwell and the Catalans do not forget about Olivares, sort of. 1707 sees the Treaty of the Union between England and Scotland under Queen Anne. Scots keep their laws and their religion. After the surrender of Barcelona to Olivares, there is the Contrato de Nueva Planta. The Generalitat [Catalan word for the commonwealth] or the symbol of contractual agreement is abolished and Spain adopts the French model of a centralized nation-state with clearly subordinate parts. This is not difficult to understand in the U.K., one of the most heavily centralized political entities, London-centred. The Diada celebrations installed later in the 19th century will make this surrender date the mythical end of the Catalan nation. There is something of a perfunctory recitation in the narrative which avoids value statements at least in this London presentation. The Habsburg Monarchy “settled down to do the best of a bad job.” It was at least until the end of 1800 bumpier for the Scots than the Catalans. 1714 & 1745: Jacobite rebellions. There is higher repression of clan society in Scotland, with no equivalence in Catalonia. In relation to the Imperio de las Indias, Spain’s American Empire, the Catalans have difficulty breaking into the Spanish Empire, given the commotion of the displacement of the Mediterreanean sea in favour of the plus ultra of the Atlantic ocean: the sea in the middle of the European earth, historically leaning on the Latin South, the legacy of the Roman Empire, the Christian centrality in Rome, will gradually migrate to the Americas. It is a re-shifting that lasted five centuries and since the 1950s, becoming the North-Atlantic axis of world domination now presumably on its gradual way out. In relation to the British Imperial Project, the Scots enthusiastically throw the kitchen sink at it. This is a case of double nationalism, Scot and imperial British (Elliot refers to Josep Fradera in relation to this English and Scottish union). One retired English civil servant who served in Barcelona commented later that no one in his day thought about such good English and Scottish collaboration abroad as anything special. The word success was mentioned here on the U.K. imperial legacy. The Spanish case is deemed as less successful.

1800 represents the origins of Romantic nationalism or the second stage. It is the conjunction of liberalism and nationalism. The Liberal Constitution of 1812 (the so-called “Mari Pepa”) will find the conservative reaction. Napoleon’s occupation. There is the growth of the type of double nationalism aforementioned. The regional patriotism sees the birth of philology: the national character will find pasture in the vernacular. 1848, the Revolutions. The Renaixenca, the revival of the Catalan language, initially a literary revival. The situation is very different in Scotland, where the Gallic was widely considered the tongue of barbaric peoples of the High Lands and it is largely abandoned. The XIX sees stability in Britain and upheaval in Spain. Scotland sees impressive growth, besides some of the original thinkers of the Industrial Revolution. Spain sees a concentration of capital in Basque and Catalan territories versus the concentration of political capital in Madrid. Anarco-sindicalismo in Barcelona is an extension of cultural nationalism and there is a pull of the latter in Elliot’s sketchy narrative, more a series of vignettes than pulling from a red-thread coherent narrative with clear central subject inside an overarching comparative frame, history of European nationalism, global capitalism, or any other. Campbó and Enric Prat de la Riba are mentioned as narrow brands of nationalism in the Catalan case. Ireland and Scotland see the beginning of the “home-rule movement.” The idea of the “organic nation,” separate from the state is picked up then until today. Elliot made quick reference to the 2014 conference, “Spain against Catalonia,” which he declared a fallacious distinction. The fingers pass quickly the rosary of dates: the great War brings about bonds of unity, given the neutrality of Spain. There is no cohesion, no enforcement. One must imagine, I suppose, forces of integration coalescing for example around disaggregated Germanic and Italian nationalisms in the grand moment of XIX Opera, Verdi and Wagner. 1914 is the Mancomunitat with four provinces. It is short-lived. Second decade of the 20th century. 19 Sept. 1923, dictatorship of Primo De Rivera. 1930, Primo de Rivera falls. Inauguration of the 1st Republic. 1936-39, 2nd Spanish Civil War. During the Second Republic, Estatuto de Autonomía for Catalonia. Lluís Companys and Esquerra Republicana per Catalunya (ERC). 1932, it is approved by Congress. Oct 1934, farcical bid to declare independence. Companys is court-martialed and executed. 30-year repression under Francisco Franco. His death opened the flood gates. During this recitation, I was wondering where was the United Kingdom, what was happening there, seemingly a Johnny-come-lately to cultural-differentialist nationalist tendencies, but I may be wrong. Elliot did not show love of detail on this side of things. Since 1975, there has been the declaration of 17 semi-autonomous regions in Spain, the well-known light expression of “coffee for everybody” (“café para todos”). 23 years of Jordi Pujol, President of the Catalan Generalitat, and his infamous accusation that “Madrid steals from us” from the balcony coming from a politician accused of systematic corruption, but never condemned. Elliot’s language is one of the disparity between the “home-rule” and that of “devolution” (British varieties of centralism and autonomy elsewhere) as the latter came to be known in Britain under Blair[6]. Until the 1960s, Scottish Nationalism was very much in the margins. Today it is on the 40% threshold as in the Catalan-independence vote. 1980: semi-autonomous Catalonia and Scotland willing to stay in the Union with greater powers. Today we can see separatists in the driving seats in their respective regional parliaments. No majority for independence in either situation. International-press-attention-seeking situation in Catalonia due to turmoil and scenes of violence in the streets plus the deliberate institutional disobedience on the part of the Catalanist parties that saw some of its leading members in exile (former Catalonia President, Carles Puigdemont, Junts Per Catalunya Party) or in jail (Oriol Junqueras, leader of ERC). There has been some receptivity in Britain, for example some commentators in The Guardian, but generally there is lukewarm attitude, if not a general attitude of exasperation with the troubles existing in Spain. More “balanced,” also more invested professionally, Elliot did not still manage to mention any of the contemporary figures on any side by name in what has to be seen as evasion from contemporary forensic detail, with or without protection glasses and gloves, from the thistles and bushes, flowers and blue berries, living bodies and historical corpses still of collective significance. Yet his own position (centralist, one-nation-Tory in old vein of Ken Clarke and Chris Patten, or even John Le Carré in the UK, and españolista, and “conservative,” but not stridently so, is not so much in the Aznar or Rajoy vein, more conciliatory, if I may put it thus on the Spain side of things). The night in question was therefore a gentle London night as though the issue of the nation-state was not a burning one.

Given the host, there was some receptivity to certain grievances emanating from the long Franco dictatorship and its repression of the Catalan language (it is less popular to focus on the Catalan bourgeoisie collaboration with the Franco Regime in the vicinity of the Liceu, the paper La Vanguardia [Española] and the historical growth of the industrial complex since the XIX century to which peninsular migrants flocked). It is understandable that with democracy there would be a promotion of the Catalan nationalism via the Catalan language, strongly felt in Channel 3 (Canal 3). The process of Catalanization has continued strongly since inside all education sectors. Elliot would have no problems with that. But he would not go as far as endorsing the “victim of the Spanish state” narrative that has reached an apotheosis and current impasse. A second anecdote of mine would have to mention the remark of a young English colleague making a living in the discreet business of translation who would not hesitate in public to equate the discrimination of the Catalans and that of the Jews in the history of Europe in the same breath (some would say that the Catalans are the current Jews of Europe!). Elliot speaks of the current impasse building up since the 1980s. The Northern-Sea oil is a possibility for Scotland to “go it alone,” as the push is said to be by the SNP, after the tight loss in the Independence Vote and the distressing phenomenon of Brexit, opposed by a majority of Scotland starkly pitted against the vote in Wales and England, but not Northern Ireland, siding with Scotland in opposition. Surely, Brexit cannot be good for “modern languages” unit and one would need to drape the classrooms in black cloth. Elliot asserted the devastating impact of Thatcher in Scotland and how 1997 has kicked off the devolution mechanism (Elliot mentioned that it is not a casual matter that the architect of the Scottish Parliament is a Catalan (Enric Miralles); the National Assembly for Wales, by contrast, has the name of Richard Rogers Partnership, and it is always a very difficult task to justify its being against a miniscule pro-Wales independence tendency). Wales barely gets talked about in these matters, probably the strongest display of national difference, not necessarily independence, is the international sport of rugby.

Which leads us into the pairings of what we could call globalization and (minority) nationalism standing, figuratively, unevenly on the verge of statism. There is no majority votes for either nationalism pushing for independent nation-state status at the moment, certainly a laborious process that necessitates the recognition of other nation-states typically inside larger confederations, the European Union is the closest and most influential one, there is also the European Parliament, where Puigdemont currently sits, uncomfortably and for how long. Catalan-language is essential and central to claims to Catalonia in the same way Gaelic is not for Scotland, Elliot asserted, enjoying no official status (4 millions of native speakers of Catalan, with official recognition inside about 40 million for Spain, also inside a Catalan-preferential-option inside Catalonia in official organisms; versus 57,000 fluent speakers, 80,000 some knowledge[7], 1.1% per cent of Scottish population of about 5 million inside a U.K. population of about 70 million, a flea on the side of the mammoth versus a decent “donkey,” official symbol of Catalonia, in the animal farm). John Elliot sounded to me vaguely culturalist in the vein of a Benedict Anderson, but without mentioning him, in his quick culture-and-language comments about demarcations of separatist Catalan nationalism (it is fair to say there were no winks to colleagues in the historical profession or any other discipline for that matter in either favoured political entity). Elliot’s not global but Europe-platform-focused presentation was bereft of the names of influential contemporary figures, also in the profession of history in his native England. He was standing alone in the storm, almost like a King Lear with some tactful forensic appreciation, although entirely composed and calm and with no unreliable daughters nearby. “Nations without states” appear not to be about tragedy. There was no need to raise the voice, not even during the generous Q&A period which remained consistently polite among spectators surely of diverse provenance and walks of life. Bilingualism is a non-issue for the U.K. and it was not made to be one, inside the chronic decline in the study of the languages[8]. Le Carré was not invoked by John Elliot and this might have been a nice cultural embellishment. But his talk had not many cultural embellishment, past and present, high culture or popular culture. There was, it was asserted, a more successful British than Spanish cohesion and there were more legitimate grounds for grievance in Catalonia after Franco. So, in a sense, it appeared that there was less pressure on this side of Dover cliffs. But Brexit shone in its absence even though 2008 represented the crash and 1997 is the official beginning of devolution with demands for secession remaining strong in Scotland. These demands are systematically denied by Westminster no matter the eloquence of the SNP leader in the House of Commons, Ian Blackford (the latest cold shoulder provided by Boris Johnson soon after his strong general-election results). Elliot referred to the “emotional power of a simplified narrative used by a minority with clear objectives.” He went to the shambles, he talked shop, he plied his trade, generally speaking like a good generalist, he appealed to historians to take a good look at all claims in the “cold light of evidence.” Class and race were factors not at all considered in these matters. No mention of women. Religion and aesthetics: neither. Economic considerations were not directly brought by their ears to the discussion table. The teleology of the nation-state remained the proper frame of intelligibility of these political histories, yet these were kept at bay from latest or recent avatars, not wanting to upset the hosts, say. Elliot in the end declared himself against referendum which presented a simplified, clear-cut polarizing question to the population. No explicit mention of Cameron. And there was no mention either of a possible way out of these dilemmas in the near future. Yet, his “better together” demeanour shone through in favour of the abstract notion of the “composite polity,” not only in the 17th century but also in ours in relation to two official nation-states that have polite neighbours but not close allies for too long. With Brexit, one must presume a divergence from things Spanish and things Catalan inside the larger EU frame. The cursory succession of dates and events taking place in Spain did not find a correlative trajectory in Britain in the same 20th century. This is a pity. The comparative analysis of the two nationalisms, more or less official, yet lacking single-state recognition, did not in the end provide an exegetical lesson in matters historical and contemporary. There was no incisiveness. No genuine biting of the bitter apple, no Adam and Even fall from the paradise either, the paradise does not exist in the realm of the nation-state, the nation, or the imaginable above or below domains. The compass remained a shibboleth of a comparison with yes, some points of similarity and myriad differences. Does any significant political leader go up to Scotland to say a few things about Spain and Catalonia? Does Nicola Sturgeon pick up the microphone and eloquently gives the Spaniards and the Catalans a piece of her mind? I have not witnesses a positive answer to either question. In the end, there is the larger divergence of the United Kingdom and of Spain kicking in four centuries earlier, expanding unto the Atlantic Ocean, Americanizing itself so to speak, acquiring other possibilities of sameness and difference in contrast to what is assumed to be ever so unique and natural on the European side of things with or without Brexit. Is there no other nation in embryo reaching out convincingly to its state status to achieve something worthy of imitation that we would want to memory and desire? The nation, what for? Should we clap hands with Hobbes at the cannon salute of the strong state? Nationalism but also statism remained the ultimate horizon of this antiquarian approach to historical politics that did not spring back to life in a discernible shape or form that will kick us all in the teeth. There was no predilection for a specific subject of history: Elliot’s choice of a group? No reliable company on the native historical front either: no Christopher-Hill insights apropos the “English Revolution” that could have been made to travel to Iberian shores worthy of critical attention if not emulation. Any Spanish historian to bring to this side of Dover to tell us about things Spanish, or even better about English things? Now, wouldn’t that be “revolutionary”? Are we dealing with a period of serious “revolution” or with messy “revolts of the masses,” as the old formula has it, with or without the recurrent invocation of independent nations, among the conventional university courses on a sliding scale, or the mainstream news, framed by the customary strings of garlic, about the international-football competition images, touristic escapes, gastronomic delights and precious little else?

Warwick, 27 Jan. 2020.





[5] Agent running in the field, includes an impassioned anti-Brexit character Edward Shannon, or “Ned,” playing badminton, as well as the mirror image, or the second banana, to the main aged narrator Nat. The Cold-War spy-novel convention always has a murky combination of “decent” people whilst doing double-dealings for love of country, other loves and other countries. In our post-Cold-War, there is no radical difference from the formula of deceit, although it must be said that there is no ambiguity as to where David John Moore Cornwell (Le Carré) stands in relation to Brexit: very much on Ned’s side. No confusion, however, between the deeds of the fictional characters and the real author, declared or assumed intentions on the page and outside.

[6] I am yet to see good attempts at the comparison between Labour and PSOE at least since the Blair Labour and González PSOE moments, in the same way that I have not witnessed serious accounts in academic discourse or mass media to set up possible comparisons between PSOE – Labour generally, despite the photo of Corbyn and Sánchez emerging in the press. The fringe Socialist Workers Party is lukewarm and largely always critical of the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos now in government. The theme is that of the social-democratic and left sectors of the political spectrum against historically dominant Right, Tory and the Spanish Conservatives (Alianza Popular onwards, Partido Popular, Ciudadanos, even Vox...) also in relation to nationalism, statism, globalism, etc.

[7] (access date, 27 Jan. 2020).

[8] See the recent document put together by HEPI, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 123: (access date, 27 Jan. 2020). This is standard chronic situation in the Anglo world on both sides of the Atlantic, the U.S. and the U.K.


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