Saturday, 6 October 2012

The unfulfilled promises of independence

One of the most important things to realise about the referendum on independence is that no one really knows what would happen if Scotland chose to secede from the UK. Both unionists and nationalists speculate, each striving to gain some advantage from these speculations, but in the absence of a working crystal ball, everyone must finally accept that the future is unknown. The past, on the other hand, at least the recent past, is both known and well documented. History is an imperfect guide to the future, but however flawed, it is the only guide we have. It is worthwhile therefore looking at recent instances of independence in Europe and, as it were, ask ourselves how did secession work out for these countries.
The boundaries of European countries had changed hardly at all from the post-war settlement until 1990, but this all began to change with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was probably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It has always struck me as something of a miracle that the collapse of the USSR did not lead to World War 3, but it did lead to a number of quite serious conflicts and territorial disputes. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought each other over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. This conflict is as yet unresolved. Georgia seceded from the USSR and then fought two wars when the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia chose to secede from Georgia. Moldova fought a war with separatists in Transnistria, who succeeded in setting up a tiny strip of a country, which is de facto independent even if unrecognised by the rest of the world. Russia, of course, fought two very bloody wars with separatists in Chechnya.
Even when there have not been wars there have been conflicts. Ukraine is a potential future flash point owing to the fact that there are Russian majorities in the eastern and southern parts of the country, some of whom would prefer to be part of Russia now. The Baltic states likewise have sizable Russian minorities, many of whom are denied the rights of citizenship owing to the various nationality tests administered in these states.
During the Olympics, I came across a nationalist MSP writing about how glad he was to see all the former Soviet Republics competing on their own. No doubt, he could plead ignorance as the reason for this remark, but he not only showed ignorance of history, he also showed ignorance of the present. How has independence in Europe worked out for all these newly formed states? According to the well respected Democracy Index 2011, not one former Soviet Republic is a full democracy. Some are categorized as flawed democracies, some as hybrid regimes and a number as authoritarian regimes.
Prior to independence in each of these countries there were nationalists, who promised the people living there that all manner of good things would be theirs if only their country was independent. Such nationalists promised their supporters that they would gain freedom. But this promise turned out to be an illusion. No doubt, many people now who expected freedom wonder if these nationalists were lying.
Not only are these countries lacking in political freedom, they are also corrupt. According to the well respected Corruption index, each former Soviet Republic remains highly corrupt.
What about wealth? Well, according to the following index, each of the former Soviet Republics remains by western standards poor. Sometimes extremely so.
The reason for this is that each of these countries remains fundamentally uncompetitive.
Separatists in all these countries promised the people living there, that if only they could achieve independence they would soon be living in a wealthy, honest and economically competitive society. But again this all turned out to be an illusion. So how is independence in Europe working out for these former Soviet states? They gained war, partition, lack of political rights and freedom, corruption, poverty and uncompetitiveness. They also gained independence.
Perhaps, this is all the fault of the Soviet Union. Perhaps, there are other examples of European independence movements, which have been more successful.
Take the example of Yugoslavia. The growth of Serbian Nationalism was answered by nationalisms in each of the republics which made up that country. The result was war, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, partition and where once there had been one small country now there are eight tiny ones. Not one of these countries is a full democracy, each is highly corrupt and each by western standards is poor and uncompetitive. So how did independence in Europe work out for Serbs and Croats?
One last example of a recent European independence movement remains. It could be described as poster child of secession movements. Scottish nationalists frequently cite the breakup of Czechoslovakia as a favourable example for Scotland. Soon after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, known as the Velvet Revolution, nationalists in Slovakia began to seek independence and soon there followed the Velvet Divorce. One reason why Scottish Nationalists see this as such an ideal example an independence movement is that Czechs and Slovaks get on very well and the two states have excellent relations. Why couldn’t the same sort of Velvet Divorce occur in the UK?

But let’s look at how independence in Europe has worked out for Slovaks. While the Czech Republic is a full democracy, Slovakia is a flawed democracy. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are corrupt, but Slovakia is somewhat more corrupt. Both countries are poor by Western European standards, but Slovakia is poorer the Czech Republic, probably for the reason that it is much less competitive. Worst of all however, while the Czech Republic retained its own currency, Slovakia had the misfortune to join the Euro. This  means that it is liable for a share of  the debts of countries richer than it, such as Greece. No doubt, the separatists in Slovakia promised their people that if only they would vote for independence they would soon be rich and free. Nationalists tend to promise that independence will turn a country into something resembling the promised land. People who are foolish enough to believe these promises however, quickly find they did not get what was promised. A nationalist’s promise is at best a pipe dream, at worst a lie.
Scotland is very different from all these European countries, which recently gained independence. The point to take however, from these examples of independence movements, is that nationalism frequently promises much, but delivers little. As an ideology, which appeals to the selfish side of human nature, emphasising the differences between peoples, it frequently leads to unintended and unplanned consequences and conflicts. What really matters to most people is their standard of living and the fact that they live in a free, fair and honest society. Scotland already is a full democracy, because we are part of one one of the oldest and most democratic countries in the world. Neither Scotland nor England were especially democratic countries when we joined together to create the Union. Rather, through a gradual political process, we became the democracy that we are today. It is the UK which created our democratic traditions and which granted us the rights, which we now enjoy. Scotland is lucky enough  to be part of a very wealthy country. We are free and we don’t have to fear corruption in our daily lives. The UK is the 8th most competitive country in the world, which means that we have a much better chance than many countries to retain our living standards in the face of the present economic depression. We should rejoice that we live in such a country. The majority of the world’s population lack what we have. Nationalists everywhere promise the earth, but it is obvious from a glance at recent history, that such promises amount to very little. They don’t amount to what we in Scotland already have. If Scotland were part of an undemocratic, corrupt, poor and uncompetitive Great Britain, it might just be possible to argue that independence would bring vast improvements. Such promises, would probably turn out to be false, for these fundamentals change slowly if at all. But when a country is already close to the peak of democracy, freedom, wealth, lack of corruption and competitiveness, the idea that nationalists can suddenly massively change everything for the better by waving a magic wand called independence is scarcely credible. The UK has given us peace, freedom, wealth, honesty and competitiveness. Why would we exchange that for an uncertain future leading in who knows what direction?

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