Spanish politics has long been forced to deal with the reality that the country is comprised of a number of culturally and ethnically distinct regions. As each region struggles to maintain and assert its unique identity with the framework of a larger Spanish state, a greater Spanish identity has been difficult to muster. Many Spaniards view themselves and their loyalties in regional or ethnic terms first and foremost, and as Spaniards second, if at all. In contrast, Italy has forged a strong sense of identity that frequently overrides regional differences. Italians usually view themselves as Italians foremost, and identify with regional labels only in a secondary way. There is a move, however, to divide Italy's regions and create a new sense of identity, especially among those in the north of the country. The ultimate objective of this political movement, spearheaded by the Liga Nord party, is to create an independent state with a unique sense of identity. This paper will examine the Spanish and Italian experiences with respect to identity, with particular focus on the critical factors of destabilisation and change that go into the shaping of cultural identity.
Giordano (2002) outlines how the Liga Nord has sought to build a sense of common identity among northern Italians. The party started with the cultural differences between the north and the rest of the country, but its efforts to define a northern identity as distinct from the Italian identity have leveraged the forces of destabilisation and change in order to gain traction for the idea. The Liga Nord enjoyed some success early in its life on the basis of the culture commonality of northern Italians, juxtaposed against the different culture of the country Rome and south. A climate of destabilisation in the Italian political environment allowed for the Liga Nord to gain traction and a platform for its efforts to define a distinct northern Italian identity, the "nation" of Padania. Kickback scandals in particular cause turmoil in the political environment and eroded public trust in the political system. The Liga exploited the scandals as an illustration of the differences between the way Italy was being run by the southerners, in contrast to its vision of how an independent northern Italy would be run (p. 172).
Shortly after the Liga Nord established its presence, a significant change eroded its core arguments and with that its support. This was the acceptance of Italy into the Eurozone (p.173), which signaled that the Italian political system was not as dysfunctional as the LN was making it out to be. The LN switched tactics, creating the idea of a state called Padania. The concept had little historical or cultural basis, but rested on the idea that the differences between northern Italy and the rest of the country was so significant that northern Italians should see themselves as an entirely different group of people. The lack of political stability in Italy allowed the LN to regain prominence, by forming a coalition with Berlusconi's Forza Italia, putting LN back into the national political spotlight, again giving it a platform for its ideas. It also eroded the core support that the party had in the north, however, prompting further changes.
The most significant of these changes was the adoption of the idea of federalism within the mainstream institutions of the country. Federalism was to that point a key element of the party's platform. In order to differentiate itself, the Liga Nord was forced to introduce a new idea, this time pushing the idea of secession for Padania. To achieve this objective, the Liga Nord has undertaken steps to create a distinct cultural and ethnic identity for "Padania" (p.177). This move in response to the change in the political environment extended the discourse of northern uniqueness beyond political institutions, and sought to reinforce the idea of distinct ethnic identity. To support this discourse, the Liga Nord has created the artifacts of culture, introducing symbols intended to galvanize the idea of a unique northern identity (p.178).
The Liga Nord's idea of Padania is entirely artificial, an attempt to create ethnic identity where one did not previously exist. This makes the party relatively unique among nationalism/secessionist parties in Europe. In Spain, regional nationalism has long been a fixture of the political landscape. Muro and Quiroga (2005) argue that Spain's sense of identity arises from the desire of peripheral regions like Catalunya and Euskadi, as well as others, and the desire of Castilians to combat these forces with a strong sense of Spanish national unity. They note that the emergence of Spanish nationalism in the 18th century was relatively weak, and that allowed the more distinctive regions to maintain strong ethnical and cultural identities even while being absorbed into the nascent Spanish state (p. 10).
In Spain, it has been transformation and confrontation that have driven the development of the idea of Spanish nationalism, and characterized the strength of regional nationalism as well. There are many similarities between their depiction of Spain's formative years in the early to mid-19th century and the efforts of Liga Nord in northern Italy. The creation of a common national identity in Spain during this era relied heavily on the creation of a national mythology and dialogue that emphasized "the people" as a singular group. Muro and Quiroga (2005, p. 13) also note, however, that since the beginning Spain needed to strike a balance between the national Spanish identity and regional identity -- the two types of identity were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
By the late 18th century, the first major changes were beginning to reshape the character of the Spanish national identity. Industrialisation brought Castilians to Catalonia and the Basque Country. This reshaped the Castilian sense of Spanish identity, reinforcing the idea that Spain extended into these peripheral regions, but this sociological transformation also stoked nationalist sentiment among Catalonians and Basque, who saw their identity as being under threat from the new migrants. This change also came during a period of destabilisation in Spain, as the country had just lost the Spanish-American war, reshaping the way that the idea of a Spanish national ideal was viewed, particularly by minority nations (p. 16).
In turn, the response of Spanish nationalists was a reaction to this rise of regional nationalism. The tone of Spanish nationalism became more Castilian, and a cycle of conflict between the different visions of the Spanish nation -- a political construct vs. An ethnic one -- became a central method by which both sides exerted their ethnic identities. While progress was made towards reconciling the different ideas of regional and pan-Spanish nationalism in the early 1930s, the Civil War brought about profound destabilisation and change. The existential threat to the Spanish nation that the War represented was an opportunity for the regional nationalists to coalesce their opposition to the idea of incorporation into the Spanish nation. The emergence of Franco and his strongly pro-Castilian policies only further reinforced the need among the peripheral regions to fight for their cultures. The Castilian heartland became the other against which they would define themselves.
There are significant parallels between the experience in northern Italy today and this otherisation of central rule in Franco-era Spain. While part of the regionalist argument centres around the need to defend against the corrupt rule of the central government, it is evident that Liga Nord has sought to create the same tensions between Italy's north and the central government that exist naturally in Spain. Liga Nord has adopted rhetoric that seeks to define the differences between its home region and the rest of Italy as ethnic rather than merely political. There is an implicit recognition that in times of destabilisation and change that voters may tend to gravitate to the familiar. By characterizing the rest of Italy as an 'other', not just on a political level but on an ethnic level as well, Liga Nord is attempting to create the same schism that exists naturally in Spain.
The difference for Liga Nord is that there are more significant ethnic differences in Spain. The distinction between Catalans and Castilians was pre-existing during the formation of Spain, and the weakness of the Spanish state has served to reinforce those differences. The experience in Italy was different, as regional linguistic and cultural heritage was understated in the north. Northern Italians and those in the rest of the country share a common language, and they have shared in a common Italian history. Italians north and south went through Mussolini and World War Two together, without any strong regional schism. This is not the case in Spain. Regional groups, isolated by the nation's geography, have kept the languages and cultural institutions more fully than the majority of Italian regions. The destabilising effect of the Civil War, and the change in national dialogue that Franco initiated to one of Spain as a Castilian nation served to strengthen the schism with the peripheral regions.
In its short span, Liga Nord has attempted to build a national identity…