Monday 8 September 2014

Can nations separate without violence?

My great-aunt used to say, with some justification, that there was only one kind of nationalism that Liberals could ever stomach. That was Irish nationalism.

I suppose the point is that, while the nationalism of big nations is always abhorrent, the nationalism of small nations or regions or counties, or even put-upon towns and cities, looks like a demand for self-determination.

So there is a Liberal argument for Scottish independence. The trouble is that nationalism usually comes packaged up with a kind of intolerance which no Liberal could stomach.

And now that the pollsters are beginning to say the independence referendum is too close to call, these issues suddenly matter very much. Because I’m not sure that the separation of nations can happen without violence.

There will be unionist groups who regard themselves as betrayed, just as there were in Ireland. Generally speaking, the home nations of former empires do not separate without the risk, at least, of civil war.

But there is another way of looking at this. There is an argument that the division of nations is going to be the predominant force in the 21st century. That is the logic of the prevailing political and economic doctrines that are now mainstream.

In that case, it is hardly surprising that the UK – the great industrial innovators of the world – is leading the way. It therefore matters hugely that this early separation should be carried out in a civilised way, and that we show it can be possible to do so peacefully.

Where we go, the rest of Europe may follow, raising the question of what supranational co-ordination these islands, and this continent still requires.

It has become almost a truism to say that the unionist case has been badly handled. At its heart it is a case for economies of scale, and – although these are clearly possible – they are not clear and not proven.

Quite the reverse, the diseconomies of scale of big, centralised nations are all too obvious.

The looming disaster that the establishment, right and left, are scribbling their columns about is not about economics – it is about emotions and symbolism. The real fear is that it will mean Irish-style civil war (who will wield the Black and Tans this time?).

Unfortunately, the political establishment has already allowed this to become a referendum on the way we are governed, by civil servants, politicians and businesses.

I have just moved house, so I have some insight into this. I have spent days stuck on my mobile phone (BT can’t provide us with a line for three weeks) in call centre hell, as business after business betrays its customer service promises.

I haven’t been able to get through to Eon at all, even to tell them I’m switching to a sustainable energy supplier. As for BT, I felt like scrubbing myself clean after my conversation with them.

There is a parallel here with the establishment’s case for continuing the union. It has all been threat, bluster and bribe.

The assumptions of BT is that I am able to be nudged by small sums of money, which they dangle before me, and by little else. They assume I have no ideals, no objectives and that I am some kind of utilitarian machine able to experience only two emotions: fear and greed.

That is how we have come to be treated by those who rule us, and by those whose services we are forced to buy from. Those are the trappings of modern, rationalised centralisation.

Will voting for Scottish independence allow the Scots to escape from this? I very much doubt it – because independence is almost meaningless in a world of increasing interdependence (except to the constitutional lawyers, who will be raking it in).

The basic problem is that big, centralised systems tend to treat people with contempt. They reduce human beings to make them easier to process.

Devolution of power is a real antidote to that, but clearly the case has yet to be made as powerfully as it could be.  Nationhood is a dangerous concoction of emotion in comparison.

1 comment:

Iain King said...

Note that Czechoslovakia split into two republics in 1993, with little animosity and (I think) even less violence.