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24 December 2021updated 01 Jan 2022 12:24pm

What José Ortega y Gasset can teach post-Brexit Britain

A century ago the philosopher anatomised a Spain fractured by separatisms. What can his prescient polemic tell us about the UK today?

By Harry Eyres

Just over 100 years ago a short book appeared, hardly more than a provocative essay, whose prophetic power would become apparent a decade and a half later when the once-great nation it anatomised in scathing detail descended into civil war. José Ortega y Gasset’s Invertebrate Spain (1921) is an indictment of a country that had been in decline for centuries, and was disintegrating into mutually uncomprehending factions and separatist nationalisms.

In Ortega’s telling, Spain’s fragmentation is a dark reversal of its earlier process of integration into a nation state and empire, which Ortega defines, following the great German historian of ancient Rome, Theodor Mommsen, not as the expansion of an initial nucleus but as a dynamic process of incorporation of entities that retain individuality in the larger whole. What drives this incorporation is not simply greed or military conquest, as most modern interpretations would have it, but a “project of a life in common”. When that project decays, the empire, and then the nation, falls apart.

Ortega y Gasset, founder of the pre-civil war periodical Revista de Occidente and widely regarded as Spain’s greatest 20th-century philosopher and leading public intellectual, was writing not long after the humiliating loss of Spain’s last outposts of empire (Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam) in the Spanish-American war of 1898. Separatist pressures were growing in the proudly independent-minded regions of Catalonia and the Basque country. A Basque nationalist party, the EAJ-PNV, had been established in 1895, and Catalonia’s first pro-independence political party, Francesc Macià’s Estat Català, was being founded as Ortega wrote his book. Ten years later, on April 14 1931, Macià would stand on the balcony of the Generalitat in Barcelona to proclaim a Catalan republic.

Ortega explained the rise of separatist movements less in terms of their inherent strength than of the weakness and carelessness of the central power. The government in Madrid was not attentive to the wishes of the peripheral “nations”, but above all had ceased to offer the inducement of a convincing “project of a life in common”, which might override petty grievances.

Separatist nationalisms for Ortega were symptoms of a deeper and more pervasive malaise, which he called “particularism” – the increasing inability of different segments, factions or classes of the body politic to take one another into account. These parts or factions included the monarchy (entirely self-centred, as Ortega charged in a well-known article entitled “Delenda est monarchia”, published not long before the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in April 1931), the Church (ditto), the military and the workers.

What can we, in another of Europe’s former imperial powers and “multi-national” nations, now apparently disintegrating, learn from Ortega’s premonitory broadside? Perhaps the most suggestive lesson stems from Ortega’s central insight into nation-building and its opposite. Great nations come about by facing outwards, not inwards. So it was in Spain – first with the consolidation of Castile and then with the unification of Spain under Isabella I of Castile and her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, who won over traditionally independent Peninsular peoples not accustomed to vassalage, by raising, as Machiavelli observed from Florence, “great expectation”. This extroversion and expectation culminated in the extraordinary feat – suspending, for a moment, moral judgement – of the colonisation of a large part of the Americas in the space of 80 or so years.

Something comparable happened with the creation and expansion of the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, initially powered more by commerce than religion (or the naked desire for conquest) – an “expectation” of advantage no less felt by the Scots, Irish and Welsh than by the English. The Acts of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 did not represent a subjugation of the latter by the former. A deal was done whereby the Scots accepted the Hanoverian succession and in return gained access to English and colonial markets, but retained its own established church and legal system. Scotland prospered (relatively) as a result: touring the Western Isles in 1773, Samuel Johnson observed “a nation of which the commerce is hourly extending, and the wealth increasing”. (He was a little early to witness the effect of the Highland Clearances.)

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Reuniting a disintegrating nation presumably requires the discovery of a new project of a life in common. The irony of the UK’s current situation is that the country embarked on such a project when it joined the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, in 1973 – but then chose to abandon it in 2016. The EU was never presented to the British people as a genuinely inspiring enterprise, offering “great expectations” that transcended mere economic opportunities to embrace a new kind of fraternal “living together” (the Spanish word convivencia expresses it best) with our closest neighbours.

The case was very different in Spain, whose enthusiasm for the EU has hardly waned since its accession in 1986. In a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center looking at how favourable people in EU member states felt towards the EU, Spain (67 per cent favourable) came second behind Poland. There are various possible reasons for the EU’s comparative popularity in Spain, among them the widespread feeling that joining the EU was a way of cementing the country’s (re)nascent post-Franco democracy, and that Spain has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of EU structural funds and the biggest recipient of Cohesion Policy funds in absolute terms, to the tune of €200bn euros between 1989 and 2020. The transformation of the country’s infrastructure over the last 30 years, largely funded by EU subvention, has been remarkable to behold.

None of this would have surprised Ortega, who pronounced that “Spain is the problem, Europe is the solution”. Ortega was an early supporter of the Pan-European Union founded in 1923. Like Winston Churchill, Ortega argued for a “United States of Europe”. He hoped for a federalist middle ground between a homogenised European state that eradicated national differences – a prospect he regarded with horror – and the smorgasbord of nationalisms that had led to two world wars.

Invertebrate Spain does not end on a hopeful note. Ortega thought Spain doomed, barring an improbable conversion of the Spanish soul, to continue on its path of decomposition. Particularism seemed entrenched and likely to intensify. He was briefly inspired by the prospects of the Second Republic which was established in 1931, and, as the leader of a group of luminaries known as the Agrupación al Servicio de la República, was elected deputy (MP) in the Constituent Assembly for the province of León in the parliamentary elections in June 1931.

In speeches to parliament, Ortega delineated a vision of a Spain made up of autonomous regions under the aegis of a sovereign state, rather than a federal Spain of “mini-states”. What he outlined was not far from what came to pass under the democratic post-Franco Constitution of 1978. With a subtlety that might have helped pacify recent bitter disputes, he called the Catalan question one that could not be resolved but rather had to be lived with.

Disillusionment quickly followed. Ortega expressed disquiet at what he saw as the new republic’s increasing extremism. He resigned from his parliamentary seat and in October 1932 announced the dissolution of the Agrupación. Many have wondered whether history might have taken a different course if Ortega’s views had gained a wider hearing and he had enjoyed a less antagonistic relationship with Manuel Azaña, the leader of the Popular Front and last president of the republic.

If one were to take bets on the survival of Spain and the United Kingdom as political entities for another 20 years, I’d guess the odds would favour Spain, but not by much. Catalan independence, despite the constitutional crisis of 2017-2018, when the Catalan authorities attempted to hold an independence referendum deemed illegal by Madrid, still seems a more distant prospect than a breakaway Scotland.

Those in the UK who voted to leave the EU no doubt regard Brexit as exactly the kind of “project of a life in common” praised by Ortega. But it’s a project that faces inwards, seeking a chimerical national essence compounded of myths and fantasies, and operates by exclusions (all too literally, as the EU citizens held in detention centres would attest) rather than inclusions.

The UK Internal Market Act, a by-product of Brexit passed despite the opposition of the Scottish and Welsh administrations in late 2020, has had the effect, according to Stephen Weatherill, professor of European law at Oxford, of shifting the UK’s governance from a consensual model to “an involuntary Union held together only by the force of laws imposed by English votes with little regard for the aspirations of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland”. It looks likely to hasten the sad unravelling of a United Kingdom whose name rings increasingly hollow.

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance