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BetweenIndependenceBlogLogoThe recent plebiscite on Scottish independence has triggered a much wider debate in the UK about the organisation of state power in institutional and territorial terms.

In particular, the role and economic position of the main cities vis-à-vis the state have raised headlines about ‘cities going independent’, such as ‘Devo Met’ (The Economist, 25 Oct 14). This not only continues the strong focus on the economic dimension of statehood and its territorial and institutional manifestation, but also that of identity and the sense of community (commonality). No longer, so it seems, does nationality operate automatically through the ‘nation state’ as a territorial and governmental entity. Instead, metropolitanism is encouraging, perhaps requiring, a ‘reterritorialisation of politics’ (Sellers and Walks, 2008). This growing emergence of an urban (metropolitan) dimension to national (and international) discourses on shared values, imaginations and common purpose has come to challenge the nationalisation thesis formulated as part of ‘political modernisation’ (Hofferbert and Sharkansky, 1971), and its primary focus on territorial states as expressions of an existing and cohesive civil society, or as ‘nationalisers’ seeking to shape a national identity (Brubaker, 1995). This once prevailing thesis propagates national contexts as dominant, hegemonial conditioning factors which reach across states, including regional and local identities and discourses, whether urban or not. The understanding of nationality has thus been viewed from a top-down perspective of discursive nationality, and corresponds with the territorial view that cites, being down the scalar hierarchy from the state, are automatically an integral part of that – bigger – entity – geographically, institutionally and discursively.

Such, in effect, triple hierarchisation – where territory, institutional power structures and discourse of identity and belonging (communality) sit in parallel hierarchical arrangements – is now being challenged by a growing urban/metropolitan voice stepping out of the seemingly homogenous sonority of a national discursive ‘backcloth’. This may appear as a reverse step to the integrative, even homogenising, effects of nationalising politics (Caramani, 2004), seeking to overcome spatial and societal differences in identities and sense of belonging. From such a (conventional) perspective, states are seen as the ‘natural’ rallying points of national discourses of self-determination and their geographic manifestation.

The Metropolitan Moment

As cities have increasingly become more confident and vociferous in realising their relative dominance in national economies, they have claimed autonomy in policy-making and shaping their own development trajectories. Consequently, in a quest to draw down powers from the respective ‘national state’, they have begun to establish themselves as both platforms and constructors of a national agenda.

The Basque Eurocity is one example of inter-city collaboration across national borders, and is used as a vehicle to strengthen national confidence and international visibility, all within the EU’s regional policy framework of euro-regions (MOT, 2013; Herrschel, 2011). Schultze (2003) distinguishes here between policy-takers and policy-makers, i.e. a ‘managerial’, hierarchically organised, top-down implementation of policies versus a ‘participatory’ emphasis on grass-roots bottom-up activity in combination with top-down flows of governance. The German model of multi-level governance, based on the ‘principle of counter-flow’ in the way in which policies, but also identities, are framed and implemented through a top-down and bottom-up dialectic, is a good example of this two-way approach (Herrschel and Newman, 2002).

This is done on the basis of a nationalist discourse, albeit one that gains a more metropolitan undertone, because it includes the main cities. Through their network relations, they are moving to the foreground of articulating and utilising their growing international visibility and connectivity to spread a nationalist agenda of independent statehood. Collaborative urban networks are an important vehicle of formulating goals and implementing power, and lobbying and exercising political influence on the nation state. It is this emergence of an urban-centric voice articulating ‘national’ matters that brought the notion of a rescaling state (Brenner, 2004). These variations take on a multi-level dimension – relating to the ‘outside’ at a regional, national and international level, and to the ‘inside’ as a distinction between an urban (metropolitan) ‘progressive’ and ‘avant-garde’ self-perception. And it contrasts with a comparative backwardness and traditionalism of the non-urban (non-metropolitan) parts (Bollens, 2008). As a result, some may gain more voice than others, raising questions about political legitimacy of such decision-making processes.

Economic factors are a key dimension in these inter- and intra- state competitions as political actors within and outside governmental organisations seek to pursue greater opportunities. This has triggered a greater sense of local and regional identities, driving of a quest for more scope for independent action, based on cultural, historic and/or rekindled national identities and sense of shared purpose. In this, the more successful city regions feel emboldened to articulate such interests more explicitly. It is something that the recent independence movements in Scotland, the Basque and Catalan regions have demonstrated, going as far as to the point of asking whether city-regions should have the right to ‘go it alone’ as de facto city states, in the pursuit of their perceived opportunities, rather than being tied to the (economic) interests of wider territories (regions, states). The question of self determination seems thus closely linked to economic opportunism – actual and/or perceived. There is an evaluation of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’, and a desire to self-manage and utilise such perceived opportunities to the best of own advantage. These concerns have been a key aspect of the discussions of Scottish independence: ‘can we afford full independence economically’ and ‘which way are we better off – independently or as part of the UK?’ (www.independentscotland.org, accessed 2 Feb 2015). And here, city-regions have become the main foci of both formulation of national discourses as underpinning quests for autonomy, and economic capacity to generate necessary resources (see PSIN 2014).

This has highlighted two seemingly contradictory trends and dynamics. First there is the importance of a ‘national’ agenda as cohesive glue and thus justification of a campaign for statehood in the conventional sense of territorial cohesiveness, along with a differentiation between urban and non-urban variations of that agenda, with the leading cities developing a dual identity, strategy. The second is loyalty, both ‘national’ and metropolitan. The case of Glasgow is telling in this respect: while being one of the few local areas in Scotland voting majority for Scottish independence (BBC News 2014), the city joined the English Core Cities group at the same time. Nationality and local (metropolitan) interests are not necessarily congruent.

Cities and Nationalisation

The larger cities are the places that matter (e.g. le Gales, 1998, Herrschel, 2013) in terms of international competitiveness and ‘success’ for a national economy. They no longer are merely the localisation of national (economic) processes, based on particular economic location factors, but increasingly places of individually articulated modes of political and economic connectivity, dynamics, innovation and contestations. Particularly in urban areas, a more culturally diverse population may act as drivers of challenges to old ways of doing things and lead to a more pro-active political culture that seeks to express its own ambitions and agendas and thus challenge – even resist – conventional top-down flows of power, both institutionally and discursively.

“Cities are [thus] becoming sources of citizenship, not just states” with “corresponding forms of self-rule” (Bollens, 2008, p 198). As such, cities are recapturing their pre-Westphalian status as centres of political culture, diversity through external connections and trading and civic empowerment, vis-à-vis an unfree, unconnected, inward-looking and often feudal hinterland beyond city walls. ‘Stadtluft macht frei’!! (‘urban air liberates’). These are cities that permit multiple citizenships (Bollens, 2008, p 198) and, as part of that, also identities – metropolitan, national, regional, ethnic.

The result is contestations of established state-centric, uniformly hierarchical structures and homogenised ‘national’ discourses of identity, with city-regions reduced to merely a subordinate and therefore dependent actor when it comes to shaping national and, increasingly, international agendas. Cities, especially larger metropolitan areas, are thus locales of inherent contradiction across/between the nature of liberal citizenship. There exists diversity at local level as local capacity/innovativeness, vis-à-vis a projected discursively driven homogeneity of the ‘national’ (in the form of ‘res publica’) at state level. For that reason, “cities have historically been locales of tumult” (Holston and Appadurai, 2008, p 188).

Nowadays however, cities are advancing as localised expressions and articulations of national pride, which may also include manifesting – in an urban form – post independence pride (see Dodman, 2007), as local cristallisation points of national agendas and values. “Like nothing else, the modern urban public signifies both the defamiliarizing enormity of national citizenship and the exhilaration of its liberties. But if cities have historically been the locus of such tumult, they experience today an unsettling of national citizenship, which promises unprecedented change. In some places, the nation itself is no longer a successful arbiter of citizenship” (Holston and Appadurai, 2008, p 2).

Bringing the successful, articulated ‘urban’ together with quests for national articulation and self-determination thus produces powerful allies and agendas. The outcome is a different notion of nationality as a constructed and lived form of citizenship with a particular set of values and connectors. Territorially-based simplifying homogeneity is giving way to a more differentiated picture of more – or less – urbanised interpretations. Urban values merge with national discourses of citizenship, community and identity. “As a result, the project of a national society of citizens, especially liberalism’s twentieth-century version, appears increasingly exhausted and discredited.” (Holston and Appadurai, 2008, p 2). This, in turn, offers new avenues for propagating, justifying and constructing nationality as an underpinning of commonality and citizenship. Cities and city-regions can serve as loci of the mobilisation of rights (Holston and Appadurai, 2008), including a ‘right to decide’ (Guiberneau, 2012; Calzada, 2014).

Such developments, however, depend also on external context. In particular, this includes the institutional and state-structural scope for local, especially city-regional, articulation and implementation of nationalist agendas. The EU’s principle of multi-level governance offers an arena for a more diverse formulation and articulation of identities – civic and nationalistic. This cuts across tiers of institutions and administration, as well as territorial levels. So, the question could be asked whether ‘Europe’ is becoming less defined by collaboration between nation-states, than the sum of local constructs (Bollens, 2008, p 192). Nearly 20 years ago, now, Le Gales (1998) pointed to then emerging empowered roles of cities/ city regions as ‘collective actors’ amidst European Government, at a time, when traditional regions were still at the forefront of the EU’s territorial politics and policies. The European Union’s regional policies and institutions provide a sounding board and platform/framework for sub-national actors such as city regions, to gain more independent bargaining positions and political space to voice ‘self-rule’ ambitions and exercise pressure for more devolution (a recognition of the pre-eminent role of city-regions in a globalised economy) (Bollens, 2008, p192). In this context, the claim to a right to decide (Guiberneau, 2012; Calzada 2014), or being more in control of one’s own destiny, is a powerful one. It is a claim that has been given new impetus through the result of the Scottish, Catalan and Basque independence debates, and the growing economic independence enjoyed by some of the main cities.

Yet, pushing the regional and also national level of governance more into the background in favour of the urban arena translates into a parallel rescaling of citizenship and, related to that, notions of national identity. This raises questions about their compatibility and interrelationship. Citizenship as a sense of belonging and identity, but also as practised political engagement, is thus showing signs of becoming unhinged from its traditionally dominant tie to the nation-state. It is being re-interpreted and translated into smaller and thus more cohesive (if separate) entities. This localisation (or, urbanisation) of citizenship may be expected to correlate more closely with the increasingly more place-specific nature of civil society in urban areas, offering better scope for ‘getting involved’ in governance than at the more distant, ‘homogenised’ notion of national level. The outcome is a “re-territorialisation of ideology, civic engagement and partisanship” (Sellers and Walks, 2013). And this, in turn, challenges established national political systems, notions of identity and democratic traditions. Drawing on the concept of political opportunity structure (Koopmans, 1999, Tarrow 1998), metropolitan action may be seen as revolving around urban actors’ interpretations and, with their growing experience, reinterpretations of the scope and value of engaging with national and international arenas/realms of governance. This includes the quest for self-determination and self- government. The result is emerging new forms of politics between national and sub-national entities, as they seek to map out best effective strategies to pursue greater ‘success’ in this competition for recognition and position. “Even if nationalising effects persist along with these others, the result is a multiscalar, rather than uniformly national process of political differentiation” (Sellers and Walks, 2008, p 4).

Context and Multi-Level Independence

The European Union’s regional policy and multi-level arrangement of governance have provided an important instrumentarium, as well as likely platform, for such para-diplomatic activities on the basis of growing urban – especially metropolitan – consciousness as places ‘that matter’ (more than the rest). There is also increased regional awareness formulated around a new/old identity as a defined place of commonality and distinctive individuality in agenda and aspiration. This is increasingly a direct challenge to existing ‘nation-states’. Internationalising ‘new’ localism and ‘new’ identity-based sub-national regionalism are important manifestations of that drive. The Basque Country is a particularly interesting example where EU multi-level governance mechanisms and principles are being utilised to articulate – and push – an agenda of national autonomy and independent statehood from within an existing territorial state. Here, also, the urban dimension has become particularly evident as a strategic choice and platform for pursuing a nationalist agenda in the form of Basque Eurocity (MOT, 2013).

This focus on urban centres as increasingly independently articulated nodes of a national political activity questions the established notion of a hierarchically organised identity from the top down. Instead, it suggests a dual, layered, territorially-scaled view of the collective choices which citizens make. In this view, localities and metropolitan regions produce political identities as part of a wider entity and in close communication with that. It is something that German public administration calls the ‘principle of counter-flow’ (Gegenstromprinzip). It proposes that political national processes are defined as a multi-level dialectic between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of a state hierarchy. And these dialectics may vary in their nature, depending on the respective power and influence of the relevant players. The outcome is a complex, multi-level, continuously re-negotiated, composite political identity, which can express itself through local, regional, or ‘national’ narratives.



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