In the Scottish parliamentary election held in early May, the Scots voted just slightly less than half for a party in favour of secession from Britain. One wonders what is happening to the continent that gave birth to nationalism as an alternative to monarchy backed by religion as an ideology of governance. Until 1603 AD, England and Scotland were quite separate countries. It so happened that Henry VII’s daughter was married to the then King of Scotland and their great grandson was King James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, had no possible successor in England.
Her nearest relation happened to be the Scottish James VI, Henry VII having been the Queen’s grandfather. She approved of him and when she died James (as James I of England) moved to London and was crowned in 1603. He wished throughout his reign that the two countries be merged under a common monarch. But the English nobles did not agree; eventually, it was in 1707, in the reign of Queen Anne that the merger took place. Now after over three centuries they seem to be heading for separation. Scottish desire to part ways with the UK enjoys the support of almost half its population, but in England this desire raises tempers.
The English feel that the Scottish want independence because they dislike the English. This issue is a serious one that requires attention. At least in its social and political attitudes, Scotland seems to have become like a Scandinavian social democrat country. Scotland has a lot of oil, and wants to be like oil-rich Norway. Countries like Sweden and Denmark too, are seen as some sort of role models, where the state has a large welfare spending for its citizens. But this is easier said than done. The UK has a parliamentary system. Nearly 90 per cent of its population is English. England is one of the most conservative places in the world.
While the UK has deliberately created parliamentary seats to over-represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England’s share is 532 out of 650 seats. Plus, 40 MPs are from Wales, where the Conservative Party dominates. Northern Ireland has 18 seats, of which 11 are held by Unionist parties. The Unionists are effectively allied to the Conservatives, which means more bad news. There is also a plan to redraw the parliamentary boundaries to give England its fair share of seats based on population. The picture becomes starker for Scotland. A Scot can be elected British prime minister, but only with the support of the English, who do not have a history of supporting true socialists, although Britain has been voting Labour governments to office in the past. Gordon Brown, who was the Prime Minister of the UK before David Cameron, is a Scot.
Scotland voted in 2014 to remain within the U.K. by a 10-point margin, but Brexit has changed outlooks. From the Scottish point of view, English-preponderant governments tend to be South-East centric in their outlook and care about Scotland only as a cash cow to be milked in order to subsidize the UK. However, an independent Scotland is not easy. British law would require approval from Westminster, which depends on consent from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to hold a binding independence vote.
Johnson is not keen to become the Prime Minister who lost Scotland. The Scots could possibly win support of some EU countries in their membership bid for the European Union, as Scotland was a member of the EU for decades. But that was as part of the UK. There are roadblocks here too. EU accession requires a unanimous vote of its members. Spain, fighting Catalan separatism, will not make it easy for Scotland, in order to avoid setting a dangerous precedent. The biggest problem for Scotland might be a complete break from the UK. The UK was part of the EU for 47 years.
Scotland has been part of Britain for 314. There is no quick cut that will set Scotland free in a jiffy. The UK government, fearful of similar trends in Northern Ireland, has no incentive to make things easy. Since 1991, the number of new countries on the map of Europe that have asserted their independence in just 30 years is almost unbelievable. The ball was set in motion by the Soviet Union in 1991 when President Mikhail Gorbachev allowed each federating unit to go its own way. Mother
Russia would go its way. That cataclysmic event created 16 countries where only one existed, in both Europe and Asia. A few years earlier, the two Germanys divided after World War II became one when the Berlin Wall fell to popular will. Yugoslavia followed soon after, breaking into seven countries; namely Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Thereafter in a few years Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia to function as separate countries. Until 1918, some or all these were provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a result of the Empire’s defeat in World War I, the League of Nations rearranged these nations. Catalonia or eastern Spain centered around Barcelona wishes to secede from Spain. In contradiction to these many separations, there is also a reverse trend of loose amalgamation. That began soon after the end of World War II when one by one several common communities of several European countries decided to come together.
Under a European Coal and Steel Community, then European Economic Community, and then as a Customs Union the EEC and Euratom merged in 1967. More and more joined these six or seven countries; like Denmark, Ireland and the UK, later Spain and Portugal. The list kept getting longer. In 2002, the EU emerged with a common currency called the Euro and around the same time a common visa called Schengen was introduced. Two general elections to a European Parliament of 20 countries have also been held and EU parliamentarians attend its sessions at Brussels.
Further ahead, the European Common Market too came about and finally the European Union with a common currency and a common visa became a reality. One of the secrets of Europe’s success on many fronts through the 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries was nationalism, which was a successor of Christianity as an ideological guide to rulers. Monarchy and the divine right of the king were not adequate as an ideological aid. Nationalism implicitly demanded an effective government, regardless of whether the state was small, medium or large. Unfortunately, Leftist and or liberal thinkers deliberately confused nationalism with Hitler’s Nazism and Mussolini’s fascism and most of the wrong they did.
The thinkers’ attempt was to damn nationalism in order to make space for communism or its allies to be able to come to power. A genuine nationalist did cast his wistful eye on someone else’s territory; no doubt that in the earlier centuries, Asia and Africa were looked upon as national game as an individual hunter looked upon a wild tiger. Neither questioned the morality of their hunting sport. Morally speaking, that gave the European countries considerable initiative and competitiveness. After the end of World War II, these values have been diluted as a result of the amalgamation in the European Union, which is an antithesis of nationalism. If this sounds theoretical, let us look at practical experience.
During my visit to Greece to see its ancient sights, a taxi driver complained to me when I asked him how much I owed him. Before answering me, he went off at a tangent, saying common Greeks were much happier with their currency, the drachma. The Euro had ruined their country, as the EU expected them to conduct their affairs like Germany. How were they to do so? Greece was a favourite of tourists and if required could even devalue its drachma. It no longer could do the same with the Euro. Thus, coming to Greece became expensive for tourists.
The cabbie bitterly said his leaders who signed the agreement in Brussels thought that Greece would become rich like Germany! And Greece by no means is the only European country where such anti-EU sentiments can be found. With growing anti-immigration feelings thanks to the large numbers of migrant population from the countries of the Middle East, and their increasing stridency over issues like global terrorism, many European countries, notably France, Italy, Poland and Hungary and post-Brexit Britain pose a huge question mark over the very future of the European Union itself.
(The writer is an author, thinker and former Member of Parliament)