The lure of the past in Europe is now as strong as, or stronger than, that of the future. The great futuristic project of the United States of Europe is quietly but unmistakably over. And the prolonged torture which Brexit has enforced on Britain’s politics is a warning, like a skeleton on a mediaeval gibbet, to any other country rash enough to attempt to leave the European Union, even as the popular pressures which caused Brexit are surging in states across Europe. The EU parliamentary elections on May 23-26 will show how strong the populist-nationalist forces are: If they make large gains, Brexit will cease to be the Union’s largest problem.
French President Emmanuel Macron is the only major figure with an active vision for a more integrated Europe; little encouragement now comes from Germany, the indispensable country. In March, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chosen successor as leader of the ruling Christian Democrats—and thus the politician best placed to succeed her—said in March that the EU should focus on concrete issues instead of pushing for more integration. It was a clear snub to Macron.
With the soaring vision of the European future grounded, the European past, in many national forms, strides on to the stage. One version of that past, long waiting in the wings, is the attempt to resurrect the statehood of old nations, taken in centuries ago by larger states and reduced to mere regions. Those nations have so far had little luck with secession, but if one breaks through to statehood, a cascade may follow.
The most likely to make the break is Scotland.
Scotland, one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, is the model for the other European areas wishing to recover long-lost independence. Those most actively pursuing this end are, first of all, Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and Flanders, in northern Belgium. The region of Veneto, in northeastern Italy with Venice as its capital, has a strongly pro-independence president, Luca Zaia, who has mooted a referendum on independence some years ago but has since withdrawn it. It may, however, come back on the agenda if Scotland prompts a wave of small country nationalism.
Catalonia, Flanders, and Scotland, are relatively wealthy; all three have storied histories of fighting for independence; all three make a claim that they, as an historically separate people, should rule themselves; all three have pro-independence parties which dominate their politics. Though these parties are the most powerful secessionist forces in Europe, other regions harbour separatist movements that could eventually rival them. When I was growing up in Scotland in the 60s and 70s, the Scots nationalists were regarded, indulgently, as a bit of a joke. Now they are somehow the largest political force in their home nation, and stand as an example to others.
With the support of the small Green Party, the Scottish National Party presently has a majority in the National Assembly, and sends a 35-strong delegation to the House of Commons—the largest party after the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party. Though no law governs this, everyone in both the British and Scottish governments accept that if a simple majority—even 50.1 per cent—is achieved in a future referendum, Scotland can initiate secession without hindrance from Westminster or the judiciary.
Scotland’s desertion would, literally, destroy the United Kingdom. The 1707 Act of Union of what had been two independent and often warring nation states, created it. With the Scots gone, it could no longer claim to be “united”. In a discussion with a former senior civil servant (who requested anonymity), I was told that the UK’s position on the UN security council, its profile in the Commonwealth, and its status in Europe and the world would all suffer badly: The nationalists’ demand that the country’s main base for nuclear-armed submarines be relocated to England would cost billions and weaken Britain’s position in NATO.
Scotland’s secession would encourage others to follow suit. The principle of being freed from the sometimes-unwelcome decisions taken by a distant capital, and of “being governed by our own people”, would be given a living existence.
Catalonian nationalists have long envied Scotland’s freedom to maneuver. Spain’s constitution, like most in Europe, proclaims the national state as indivisible: Attempts to convince citizens to secede are criminalised. When in October 2017 the secessionist parties in the Catalonian parliament declared independence from Spain, the Madrid government invoked article 155 of the constitution, which permits it, with the backing of the senate, to take the “necessary measures” to discipline any region which fails to comply with the constitution, or “undermines the interests of Spain”.
Nine pro-independence activists, seven of them politicians, were jailed, where they remain; the former Catalonian president, Carles Puigdemont, is in exile in Belgium, and six of his colleagues also fled abroad, including the former education minister, Clara Ponsati, who returned to her job in Scotland as an economics professor at the University of St Andrews. The current government in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona is strongly pro-independence, but there is presently a stalemate between Barcelona and Madrid.
The Spanish general election last weekend saw the Socialists become, by some way, the largest party: though either they must run a minority government, or try to attract coalition partners to achieve a majority. At the same time, a far right party, Vox, entered the national parliament with 10 per cent of the vote and 24 seats: the first time a party explicitly of the far right has done so since the death of the Caudillo (broadly, the dictator) Francisco Franco in 1973. The Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, is prepared to negotiate with the Catalan separatists, but his room for maneuver is limited. If there is a prolonged delay in forming a government, the Catalan separatists may argue—like the Scots—that national politics are a mess, and thus secession is the better model.
Belgium, created as an independent constitutional monarchy in 1831, has evolved into a federal state, with no prohibition on organizing for independence. Thus in Dutch-speaking Flanders—the more populous and wealthy of the two major regions, the other being French-speaking Wallonia—the New Flemish Alliance has been free to become the largest party both in Flanders and Belgium itself. It has adopted the “civic nationalism” position of the SNP—that is, a liberal politics which largely eschews the anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric of the national populists elsewhere, and which favours a slow but decisive break with the Belgian state.
On its right in Flanders is the Vlaams Belang party, much more in the mainstream European populist tradition, which the Alliance’s success had relegated to the status of a minor player—though in the past year, under the new, 32-year old leader Tom Van Grieken, it displays signs of an upturn, with strong showings in the 2018 local elections on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform. The problem for the Flemish nationalists of all stripes is the status of the capital, Brussels, enfolded in Flanders but with a French-speaking majority. Until a new status is agreed, a split in Belgium cannot be carried through. Various proposals have been mooted, including the creation of a city-state, or “European capital district”; none command agreement. Anti-immigrant feeling, which remains high all over Europe, may again favour a harder line: Scots independence would enthuse the activists and increase pressure for change.
The politics of Veneto are bound up with the creation, in 1991, of the Lega Nord, a party which drew most of its support from Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont and which called for autonomy, sometimes amounting to independence, for what it called “Padania”, an area taking in these states with others in the northern parts of the country.
Since Matteo Salvini, the current deputy prime minister of Italy, took over leadership, the party has dropped the “Nord” and sought, successfully, to present itself as a Euroskeptic, anti-immigration party of the nationalist-populist Right. In its own area, however, it continues to attract those who, like President Zaia, seek at least autonomy for Veneto. Any separatist ambition would, however, run up against article Five of the Constitution, which declares Italy, like Spain, “one and indivisible”. But how far would the coalition government, whose most popular party, the Lega, had itself supported independence in the past, strongly oppose?
As noted earlier, Scotland’s nationalists face no such encumbrances. The rise of the SNP in the 2000s has been partly due to the organizing and rhetorical abilities of its two most recent leaders: first, Alex Salmond, and, since 2014, Nicola Sturgeon. Both, especially Salmond, were able to rouse and politicize the resentment many Scots felt toward the English and, for those with a grasp of Scottish history, the loss of a Scots parliament and statehood in 1707.
Scots, however loyal to the Union, have always insisted on the preservation of the separate institutions to which the Union had agreed: a separate judiciary, a separate education system, and a separate national church. Scots—a dialect of English, in its strong form unintelligible to an English speaker—was widely spoken, especially in the working and lower-middle classes. Scots culture, even where (or especially where) it shaded into kitsch, preserved a much greater popularity than the largely lost traditions in England, especially with regard to music and dance. The Union had preserved Scottish culture, but not Scottish sovereignty.
To this the nationalists add political and economic grievances. Scotland, especially in the western agglomerations of population around Glasgow and in the great shipyards of the River Clyde, had been the “workshop of the world” in the imperial 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning in the 1920s, however, the rise of the U.S. and European states like Germany and France tore apart the heavy industries on which Scotland’s wealth had depended. Scotland declined, especially when compared to London and the southeast of England, the richest part of the UK.
Over the course of her long premiership, Margaret Thatcher set out to whittle away the state in its role as owner and subsidiser. Her regime privileged finance, services, and emerging industries. But it rang the death knell for those sectors that had survived from the 19th century—coal mining in particular, reduced to near extinction after a grinding year-long strike. Her economic policies, and the cost of high unemployment, were greatly assisted by the discovery and exploitation of large oil and gas deposits in the North Sea. In a bitter irony, the sudden windfall that could have allowed a successful nationalist party to make an independent Scotland among the richest in Europe—as oil rich Norway, with still-large deposits in the North Sea, presently is—rose to its peak at a time of SNP weakness, only to decline, in recent years, when the SNP was at its strongest.
Thatcher remains one of the Scots nationalists’ greatest allies: her brusque refusal to regard Scotland as special, her opposition to any kind of devolution, and her unpopular poll tax to fund local authorities in Scotland were gifts both to a party which could claim that only independence could protect the Scots from leaders like Thatcher.
As Conservative rule continued through the 1990s under Thatcher’s successor John Major, that message—only independence could properly address Scotland’s problems—began to eat away at the once-dominant Scots Labour’s heartlands: the SNP emerged, in the late 1990s, as its strongest opposition. Devolution to a Scots parliament in 1998 was seen as a way to kill nationalism, but an aggressively-led SNP used the new forum as its loudspeaker, successfully taking leadership in the Edinburgh parliament from Labour in 2007. In 2015, the nationalists secured an absolute majority in Scotland and all but wiped out the main parties’ representation at Westminster, leaving Scottish Labour, Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats with one seat each.
2015 was the high watermark for the SNP: the election of 2017 saw the unlikely rebound of the Scots conservatives under a young, bright, jolly woman named Ruth Davidson, a proclaimed lesbian who is, since October last year, with her partner Jen Wilson, parent of a baby son. Even as the SNP reached new heights of popularity and party membership, the 2014 referendum on independence which the party had demanded showed a majority of 55 per cent for continued union. Scots, it seems, like the SNP as an idea, but not a core policy.
The SNP now faces the pressures and disillusion common to long-serving parties in democracies. Schools, once seen as Scotland’s strength, are underperforming badly. The health system, part of the National Health Service but independently administered, suffers delays and rising complaints. Alex Salmond, who resigned after the 2014 referendum defeat, now faces serious charges of sexual assault and two of attempted rape while in office as First Minister, while his job as a presenter for the Russian propaganda channel RT continues to attract criticism. The latest version of the party’s economic program for an independent Scotland has come under fire from opponents for being far too optimistic, and from the party’s left for being too austere.
Yet Brexit may be its savior, by giving the party a ready-made cause. Where England and Wales voted decisively for leaving the EU, Scotland voted much more heavily—by nearly 2:1—for remaining. First Minister Sturgeon can play the party’s strongest card: that British government does not represent Scotland.
She did so last weekend, at the Party’s spring conference in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Pointing to polls that showed a majority for independence—especially if the UK leaves the EU with no agreed deal, the so-called “hard Brexit”—Sturgeon, to a standing ovation in a crowded hall, said she would initiate legislation in the Scottish assembly to prepare for a referendum. Though after the failure of the first independence referendum five years ago, she will doubtless be cautious as to when exactly it will be mounted.
The prolonged, crisis-ridden efforts by UK Prime Minister Theresa May to secure a deal with the EU which could command the assent of parliament has exasperated the British and pointed more Scots than before to exit, not from the European but British Union. A recent poll showed 53 per cent of Scots prefer independence to Brexit, rising to 59 per cent if Britain leaves with no deal.
The stakes are thus high for the UK—and high, too, for Europe and beyond. A successful achievement of what Scots nationalists call “freedom”, in imitation of the cry of William Wallace from 1995 Hollywood film “Braveheart”, will likely cause a chain reaction. The Catalonian, Flemish, Venetian and perhaps other nationalists would be on their mettle to follow suit—well-positioned as the richest parts of their nation states, each with a major seaport: Barcelona in Catalonia, Antwerp in Flanders, and Venice in Veneto: Scotland itself has Glasgow, once the centre of world shipbuilding and, with Liverpool, the chief Atlantic port.
And there could be more. Quebec secessionists all but won a referendum in 1995, polling 49.4% to 50.6%. Since then, support for independence has waned, to the point where, in the provincial elections last year, a new party of the Right, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, came from nowhere to sweep the polls on an explicitly anti-independence platform. But the very rapidity of the switch in voters’ choice betrays an unsettled polity: given an economic turndown, and turmoil in the Canadian capital Ottawa, the banner for “Liberté!” could be hoisted again.
If relative wealth is a prompt for secession, then both Germany’s Bavaria and the America’s California come into the frame. Leaders of California’s secession movements—there are more than one—claim that their memberships have doubled since the election of Donald Trump, and that California’s position as the fifth-largest economy in the world easily qualifies it for a wealthy independence. Californians presently oppose secession by 2:1, but that too could change with a national economic downturn, or a full-blown conflict between Democrats and pro-Trump Republicans causing prolonged blockage in Washington.
Bavaria, Germany’s second richest state after North Rhine-Westphalia, has long had an independence movement, ever since Bavaria was brought within the new German state in 1871. The independence party was a member of a coalition governing the state in the 1950s; since then, its support has fallen to low single figures, as its powerful economy was thought to have been assisted by Germany’s success. Yet in 2017, a YouGov poll showed 32 per cent of Bavarians want independence from Germany. Meanwhile the national economy is trembling on the edge of a recession as Europe’s economy as a whole slows, together with China—a crucial market for Germany.
These are long shots: So far, popular fear of the unknown and opposition from the existing states have prevented a breach in the wall. But the fragility of Europe, the continuing popularity of the nationalist-populists, and the attraction of “governing ourselves”, especially where “ourselves” live in a rich region, give the independence movements hope that tomorrow belongs to them. If Scotland’s nationalists seize the chance that Brexit may give them and their fellow Scots give them a majority this time, they are quite likely to spark a deluge.