Tuesday 29 September 2015

We must put out the spark of nationalism in Europe

Whenever there is a Scottish nationalist march, you may notice that amongst all the Saltires there are usually some unfamiliar flags that have never appeared on the flag posts outside the United Nations. There will be groups of nationalists from other parts of Europe and indeed the world, representing places such as Quebec, Flanders, Catalonia and Corsica. Some of these people may come from the most unlikely places. Their support may be tiny at home, but still they march. After all, they can reflect that the SNP once were a group of eccentrics with next to no support. The seed of nationalism may remain hidden in darkness for a long time, but given patience it may well grow into something rather larger.  This is why people from far away take an interest in Scottish politics. They hope that what happens here may influence events at home.

This hope is not one-sided. Scottish nationalists tend to support other secession movements abroad. The reason is obvious. They hope that events in faraway countries will help the cause of independence in Scotland. At the moment many SNP supporters are delighted that Catalan nationalists have won the majority of seats in their regional elections. Why should they be so interested in a regional election in Spain? I know almost nothing about the regional elections in say Germany. I doubt very much that SNP supporters know any more. Why then this sudden interest in a part of Spain?

(By the way the English spelling of this region of Spain is ‘Catalonia.’ Until and unless you write Россия when you mean Russia, I would suggest you stick to it.)

I think I can explain why Scottish nationalists and also some Pro UK people like me are interested in Catalonia. We think that what happens there might influence what happens here.

Imagine the following scenario. Let’s say the Spanish Government said, OK, you’ve won the election, you can now have independence. We’re in a mood to be generous to our Catalan friends. You’ll get to keep the Euro, you’ll get to remain in the EU, we’ll cooperate on defence, we’ll keep our “social union” and Catalan citizens forever more will have all the rights they enjoy at present.  We’ll even allow Barcelona to keep playing Real Madrid. You can have absolutely everything you want right now, but you’ll never have to share your wealth with us Spaniards ever again. Imagine if all this happened easily and seamlessly in a remarkably quick and cooperative fashion. Imagine if in a couple of years we had a new state called Catalonia. A shining example of how easy it is to achieve independence.

Let’s reflect for a minute. Would this make Scottish independence more or less likely to occur? The answer seems obvious. The pros and cons of Scottish independence would still have to be debated, but the Catalan example, would be on the pro side.

Imagine on the other hand, as I suspect is far more likely, that Spain digs its heels in. Spain, after all, thinks Gibraltar ought to be part of Spain even if the vast majority of Gibraltarians disagree. So let’s imagine what might happen if Spain refuses to allow negotiations on Catalan independence and refuses to allow any sort of referendum. After banging their head against the brick wall of Madrid, the Catalans may decide to declare independence anyway. What might happen with such a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)? Well Catalonia could be kicked out of the Euro and kicked out of the EU to boot. Imagine if Spain refused to cooperate, imposed financial sanctions, froze bank accounts and shut the border. I have no idea whether any of these things would happen in the event of UDI. It strikes me that we would be in a sort of #Grexit situation all over again. But just suppose that UDI goes very badly, suppose lots of Catalans were to lose their jobs, suppose indeed that there is political and economic chaos. Imagine then if the Catalans said to Spain, OK, you win we want to be a part of Spain again.

Let’s reflect again. Would this scenario make Scottish independence more or less likely? Again the answer is obvious.  It is natural therefore that Scottish nationalists hope that the first scenario occurs. It is equally natural that Pro UK supporters think that the second scenario is more likely. This does not mean that we have anything against people in Spain or wish them ill. Far from it I imagine the vast majority of Spaniards hope to keep their country intact right now. I sympathise with them and hope they do as well as we have in the UK. 

The reason that I oppose nationalism is fundamentally because I have seen what it can do in Eastern Europe. Secession rarely leaves people better off, but frequently leaves them much worse off. You can count yourself lucky if secession leads only to economic and political chaos. Frequently it leads to war. The vast majority of wars are disputes about boundaries. It is for this reason that I would prefer that the present boundaries of the world, no matter how arbitrary they are should largely remain fixed. The alternative is nearly always worse. I’m not against all independence movements, certainly not in an historical context. There have been good reasons for people to seek independence.  But these reasons rarely apply in the context of a modern western democracy, where each citizen has the same rights as every other citizen.

How many potential states are there in Western Europe? You could make five or six countries out of Spain alone. But if you look at the history books, nearly every EU country is made up of places that were independent, sometimes quite recently. How many wars have started in Eastern Europe since 1991 because of secession? It’s not a small number.  In Russia today there are dozens of peoples with a better claim to independence than those in either Scotland or Catalonia. There are peoples with different languages, religions, cultures and ethnicities. Moreover they don’t live in western democracies. Far from it. If all of these people were to seek independence, Russia would descend into chaos and in the process of fragmenting that huge country I promise you there would be war, possibly nuclear war. The same, no doubt, can be said of China, India and other places.

The problem with nationalism is that there are competing claims and competing ideas on what ought to be a border. Peoples are mixed and have differing identities. Someone in Ukraine during the Soviet Union could feel Soviet, Ukrainian and Russian. But now these mixtures of identities are scarcely possible. People who didn’t even think of themselves as particularly different forty years ago, now fight over identity and because of borders. I oppose nationalism because I have seen what it can do.

Nationalism begets nationalism and if we let it spread it will eventually lead somewhere to conflict, chaos and war. This is why I oppose it everywhere, for even if the UK or Spain might split amicably, the spark of nationalism would spread because of this split and might open a division that would better remain closed. For this reason also I don’t want an example of successful secession in Catalonia. If Spain splits into five or six states, Britain into four and Italy into five and so on, at some point we will reach a split that cannot be resolved amicably.

The borders of Europe are largely the result of war. Germany once stretched much further to the East. Hungary once had a much larger territory than it does now. France was involved in three devastating wars with its neighbour in a conflict that in part had its root in land that each claimed. These conflicts are buried because in most of Europe nationalism is buried. But nationalism is part of human nature. It is in our genes from the time when the tribe had to fight off the outsider. It only needs a spark, for nationalism to spread and then people remember injustices from long ago. We who care about peace, security and prosperity in Europe must stamp out the spark of nationalism before it catches fire in the dry grass. Better by far a little political and economic chaos in Catalonia, or indeed in Scotland, if that should be what's necessary to  put the spark out. The alternative is far, far worse.