My family and I have arrived in Spain for Christmas, and, during the long ferry journey yesterday, it occurred to me that I have visited three of the key ‘hotspots’ of European independence movements this month. Flanders, Scotland, and now Northern Spain (OK, it’s not Catalunia, but not that far away).

And in all three, I have spoken at length to key actors; politicians, in the case of Scotland and Flanders, and demonstrators in the case of Catalunia. These demonstrators happened to be still in Brussels, following their large ‘manifestacion’ on December 7th, but they were far from hostile when I revealed I was married to a Castillian. We talked for some time.

Earlier in the year, I bumped into Nick Clegg in Asturias, as you do, and had a brief chat (surprisingly, he did not recognise me). I would have loved a longer conversation with him about independence and the Union of Europe. We share a common family narrative – married to a woman from Northern Spain with three sons. He is, I think, half-Dutch, which might partly explain his bold, pro-European stance. I agree with Nick.

Mr Clegg writes much better than I do on this subject, so I will not try to write about political independence and unionism, but instead I offer this reflection as Christmas begins.

The desire for identity and difference is entirely normal and justified. It is what makes us who we are, especially when people love and respect us for our distinctiveness and character. As this is true for individuals, so it is for ethnic and cultural groups. I have gained enormous pleasure from learning about the Asturian culture, folklore and history, and to know that my sons are half-Asturian makes me immensely proud.

But this desire for a separate identity must be framed within a wider responsibility and commitment to a larger and more important sense of ‘oneness’. The inter-connections between diverse groups require regular nourishment, thus taking the edge off division and any lingering ignorance.

This blog is about education and there are some parallels within the educational world with the political independence movements. An unprecedented level of autonomy has come the way of English schools, mirroring the devolution to nations within nations. With this autonomy comes many different models of school organisation, and it has to be said, a real mess in the way schools are now inter-connected.

Many rural schools find themselves disconnected from any wider system of communication. All schools are increasingly confused as to who is speaking for them, so they understandably turn around and say, ‘well, we’ll just go our own way then.’ As Multi-Academy Trusts are challenged on their performance, now to be publicised in league tables, they are highly reluctant to be taking on schools that are ‘challenging’ (one of the more popular educational euphemisms). This rather mirrors the Catalan disgust at having to fund economically weaker parts of Spain.

Greater independence and individuality also comes with great risk. Human beings generally want to be part of something which is bigger.

I continue to be highly influenced by a brilliant book by the Belgian academic Paul Verhoeghe called ‘What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society’. In the book, he explains in depth how human beings, especially those most marginalised, need to be part of wider networks and group structures in order for their individuality to be truly recognised.

What worried me most about the opinions of the Catalan protesters was the apparent reluctance to talk to the ‘other side’. They saw no purpose in it. But without a relationship with different groups, no matter how awkward, we are prone to believe anything, including the worst about people. How often do we hear people say, ‘Well I didn’t think much of him at all, but when I met him I got on with him OK’. Quite a lot I’d say. It’s human nature.

Individually, we are distinctive and different. We are special because of it, not in spite of it. But, for this uniqueness to be allowed to flourish and develop, we need to be part of something bigger. To coin a political slogan, I think we are better together.

Happy Christmas.

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