Published on September 1st, 2014 |
by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © In the Public Domain.
Devolution: An Outsider’s Perspective
For someone growing up outside of the United Kingdom, one’s first exposure to the English / Scottish -let’s say “problem” – is likely to be the 1995 movie Braveheart. That might be a bit inane, but it is true. It was true for me.
We have all seen it. Mel Gibson fights for love and freedom against the English invaders, who are inexplicably bent on subduing Scotland. Patrick McGoonhan, as the deliciously evil King Longshanks, ejaculates at one point that “The problem with Scotland is that it is full of Scots”. This narrative, Scotland fighting for freedom and independence, matched with English sense of cultural condescension and imperialism, is common when an outsider thinks of England and Scotland.
The whole situation bares more than a passing parallel with The Patriot, set during the American War of Independence. The motivations of the producer aside, the whole history between Scotland and England does seem to trigger a sympathy for Scotland and independence. It fits larger American narratives of independence, freedom, and rooting for the underdog. The history of the Stuart kings, and the Treaty of Union in 1707 is largely unknown.
But the entire movement of devolution seems to be based on cultural history. As wildly inaccurate and Americanised as Braveheart is, it does capture the seemingly age-old tension between the Scottish and English. I have seen and heard it first hand. Superficially, it reminds me of the tension that sometimes crops up between Americans and Canadians, seemingly caused by an excess in similarities, that make the tiny differences come to the fore. It is the traditional antagonism which fuels the devolution movement, as opposed to any real concrete reason. The heart says yes, the minds says no.
With the vote just a few weeks away, mixed feelings seem to be the name of the game. In America, speculation has ranged from a Braveheart-esque ‘let them go’ to a somewhat paranoid “The US government will never let their best ally be split up”. Most are skeptical of ‘It’s Scotland’s oil” line of reasoning; Scotland has not suffered as a part of Great Britain, and the idea that North Sea oil profits will make Scotland financially viable seems far-fetched.
Scottish independence seems hard to believe and in away, it is hard to take seriously. Never mind the big questions about oil and economics, what about the Union Jack as a pop culture icon? I personally have very mixed feelings.
The possibility of Scotland’s devolution and independence raises a number of issues beyond that of the traditional English and Scottish enmity. The first is the surprisingly high number of successionally movements that exist, ranging from the whimsical, to the extremely, violently, real. Each of these movements are watching what happens in Scotland very closely.
The big picture behind Scottish devolution is political sovereignty in an era of globalisation. I mean this in the economic sense as well in the literal, much larger sense. It has become a cliche to talk about how interconnected the world is, but it is a growing reality that throws the very idea of the nation-state, with its clunky apparatuses of armies, bureaucracies, borders and taxes into serious doubt. The nation state is of course, far from gone or ‘over,’ but it is decaying.
I think it is correct to say that contemporary economies and societies are so deeply interlinked at this point that any real separation would cause immense economic trauma. The idea of protectionism and “beggar thy neighbour” economic tactics will lead to disaster. And governments know this. As corporations and economics (and even entire societies) become more and more globalised, the need for global governance will inevitably increase.
At the same time politics based on nationality, or regions is alive and well. Scotland is a great example of nationality winning out over economic common sense, in my opinion. Even as the world moves towards globalization (in the larger sense) politics is moving towards regional unification (the European Union is the example par excellence) as well as Balkanization, the fragmentation of a larger political body into small units. The word “balkanisation” implies that these smaller units will be hostile to each other. In 2007, Gordon Brown remarked on this in regards to Scotland.
One thinks of Russian minorities within European nations, especially Latvia. Putin’s actions in Crimea will seem increasingly justified. Or the Uygur population of Xinjiang in China. The Kurds, a minority in a number of middle eastern countries, whose’ recent success in fighting ISIS will call for true independence. Obviously, these are complex events which cannot be predicted, but the example of Scotland could have large, long-term influence.
Scotland raises the possibility of peaceful devolution in nations where that has not seemed like a realistic possibility. Most directly influenced will be the Catalonian separatist movement as well as the Basque separatist movements in Spain. In Canada, the Quebecois movement will also be strengthened. The precedent of an independent Scotland will be hard to deny.
It is interesting to note less “formal” separatist movements, which indicate a rather encouraging trend. These movements seem to blend the line between neighbourhood association and co-op style businesses. These micro-states or movements hover in a grey area between joke and complex political statement. The movement which has a special place in my own heart is the Republic of Cascadia separatist movement – yes, I own a flag – incorporating the Pacific Northwest. Help us protect the endangered Tree Octopus here. And more here.
Perhaps the best example is the Republic of Uzupis, a artistic neighbourhood in Vilnius, Lithuania which has modelled itself off the bohemian legacy of the Montremart district in Paris. It declared its independence in 1997. It’s a complex statement about the futility of an actual “independence” movement, and a mocking of the very idea of borders in a complex, globalised world. It’s constitution is a thing of true beauty. Read it here.
These groups represent an interesting utopian impulse that is in many ways a response to changing global conditions. Political loyalty seems to want to move “up” as in a regional confederation and also “down” towards large cities and certain self-contained regions. In the case of Uzupis, for example, the practical effect is much like a neighbourhood association that looks out for the area and the people in it; yet I acknowledge that it still exists very much within Vilnius (the street lamps bare the Vilnius coat-of-arms, for example).
These independence movements only want to go so far. At this point they represent simply gestures of hope or frustration, but if Scotland becomes fully independent, one has to wonder if this is a trend which might gain real momentum.
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