PRAGUE — Three hundred years after the first Scottish Parliament voluntarily voted itself out of existence in 1707, the Scottish National Party has won a plurality in the devolved Scottish Parliament that is one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s great legacies. Does an SNP-led government herald the breakup of the United Kingdom? More broadly, does nationalism, that product of 19th-century politics, still have a role to play in Europe?
The answer to the first question is almost certainly no. Nationalists polled only 31.9 percent of the votes cast with parties supporting the union polling 59.6 percent. Proof positive that proportional representation can produce strange outcomes.
Back in 1957, the motive for “laying the foundations of an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” was to make war between European nations obsolete, and, in doing so, to bring internal stability to all European nations. For 50 years, the European Union was not much tested by this mission because nationalist impulses were crushed between the two great Cold War alliances. With those constraints gone, nationalism in both its Bismarckian state-making and ethnic state-breaking guises has gotten a second wind.
When people nowadays speak of nationalism, sinister images from another era come to mind. But nationalism is, of course, not inevitably violent: It flares into conflict only in places with a flammable legacy. The breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire shows that the way to address such a legacy is not to force unhappy peoples to live together in one country. It is to recognize that in some places divorce is inevitable, and to ensure that it is as amicable as possible. The world could not have prevented Yugoslavia’s spiral into civil war, but it might have made it less cruel by helping to negotiate terms of separation earlier.
Some suggest that the SNP’s accession to power in Scotland does herald the rebirth of a nation, many others regard that claim as rhetoric which ignores the tremendous advances made in the quality of life, opportunity and living standards. If the claim were true it is a rebirth that is coming about in an extraordinary way. Except for some odd and hapless individuals, there have been no underground armies, separatist terrorists, campaigns of civil disobedience aimed at unseating governments, or even any mass demonstrations.
The establishment of a Scottish Parliament vested with powers devolved from the U.K. Parliament at Westminster has been perhaps the first revolution of the modern era that was conducted by committees of lawyers, clergymen and accountants rather than cells of bearded radicals. Moreover, it was achieved without a shot being fired.
So it is not surprising that it has also been a revolution that — unlike that which divided Czechoslovakia 14 years ago — falls well short of achieving full statehood for Scotland. The Parliament at Westminster, to which Scots continue to elect members of Parliament, still controls defense and foreign affairs, macroeconomic policy, taxation and social security. The Scottish Parliament, however, is able to legislate over health services, education, local government, housing, criminal and civil justice and economic development. It can also raise or lower the basic rate of income tax — though by no more than 3 percent — and levy charges, such as road tolls.
This semi-independence partly reflects the absence of linguistic motives in Scottish nationalism, unlike the Quebecois of Canada or Flemish nationalism in Belgium. Gaelic is spoken by only about 80,000 of Scotland’s 5.1 million inhabitants. Nor does religion play a discernible role; while Roman Catholics used to fear independence as being liable to result in Protestant hegemony, today Catholics and Protestants are roughly equal in their support of Scotland’s institutions.
Moreover, unlike East European or Balkan nationalism, the Scottish variety has little to do with ethnicity or religion. Thus, in Scotland today there are none of the conditions that fomented rebellion in Ireland and led to Irish independence in 1922, the last great rupture in the political union of the British Isles. Scottish nationalists do look longingly at Ireland, but for its recent phenomenal economic growth. For most Scots, however, the Irish experience is not an appealing model — perhaps because it is associated with terrorism. They also know that the huge financial assistance that Ireland received form the European Union will never be repeated
What motivates Scottish nationalism is the strong attachment to Scotland’s civic institutions. In this respect, Scotland differs from Wales, which was forcibly incorporated into England more than 400 years before the Scots signed the voluntary Act of Union in 1707. Distinctive Welsh institutions are difficult to identify. By contrast, Scotland’s institutional landscape — schools and universities with their own curriculum and exam structures, a legal system with its own codes and rules, a church independent of the state and a distinctive system of local government — were untouched by the union.
Today’s Scottish Parliament helps to dissipate Scottish discontents because it is revitalizing those institutions. But it is also propelling British politics into a new and unfamiliar decentralized political system. Westminster’s writ no longer runs north of the border, at least as far as things like education and health are concerned. Equally, it is now far harder for Scots to blame a distant government in London for their problems, although the SNP will now try to make blaming Westminster for all ills even more of an art form.
So, far from being a harbinger of the breakup of Britain, devolution has brought fresh vitality to national life outside London. The new confidence in Edinburgh, which is experiencing an economic boom, is self-evident.
What is arising is a different Scotland, and a different Britain, and this is Scotland’s lesson for Europe. Britain’s highly centralized political culture has been irreversibly changed. It is being replaced by a more diverse sort of politics, in which different regional and national identities gain encouragement and expression. By cooperating with the rest of the U.K., rather than clashing, Scotland is giving new meaning to the phrase “ever closer union.”
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