In the course of a century there are just a few events that change the direction of history. The early 20th century witnessed the First World War and the creation of the League of Nations. The mid-20th saw the second war and the United Nations. The late-20th saw the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of this century saw the events of 9/11 as the symbol of global terrorism.
Through all of this period, the nation-state has been the major agent of international politics and law. To this day, it remains the constituent agent of the international institutions that purport to maintain peace, promote development, strengthen human rights, and respect the rule of law. These form a coherent whole in the movement towards a global community.
But in the mid-20th century, another development began that had less profile yet equal influence on political behaviour – regionalism. The birth and growth of regionalism, especially in Europe and Africa, has filled what was otherwise a missing piece of the mosaic of modern politics linking nationalism to globalism.
Globalism differs from globalisation – the weaving together of the political structures around the world, compared with the interaction between economic entities with global reach. It is the playing out of these two forces, one largely positive, the other largely negative, that characterises our time.
The decision by a simple majority of British voters to leave the European Union is a product of this dynamic, and it will be an agent of its future direction. The motivation to leave is driven by the negatives – financial instability, widening inequality and migration convulsions.
The leave campaign has turned its back on the positives – the historical rationale of a regional institution that binds the warring European tribes together. In voting to withdraw, the UK has performed an about-turn, setting its face towards the past. It is already beginning to realise this; as a result, its national politics are in disarray, and it is almost certainly about to experience a period of indecision and stasis, if not paralysis.
The British withdrawal may come to redefine the nature of modern life, not just in Europe but potentially around the world. If Scotland sets its sights on remaining within the EU, it may well secede from the UK. Scotland’s decision will demonstrate that the level of jurisdiction a people choose for themselves is becoming less rigid and more appropriate to their circumstances.
The EU has, understandably, indicated that it cannot negotiate with Scotland on the basis of its current sub-national status; it can only negotiate with the UK. This ups the ante for a second referendum.
But the fate of Scotland and the UK and the EU are of a different order, in a different league; different because they are such an integral part of the common regional experiment. Whatever happens to these three proud political entities will, to a potentially huge extent, determine what happens elsewhere.
There are some 200 nation-states, and some 10,000 national communities. How we govern ourselves in the 21st century, the age of the global commons, will be influenced to a large extent, by what Edinburgh, and London, and Belfast, and Brussels, decide over the next twelve months.