A sword and shield against globalisation’s dark riders

By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 02/05/07):

And the star of the show is … nationalism. Tomorrow all eyes will be upon it. Nationalism is the one genie that escaped the bottle of Tony Blair’s conservatism. In 10 years it has reshaped the political map of Scotland and Wales and plunged the English into an identity crisis. We are all nationalists now. Far from stemming the tide, devolution has impelled it forward. Nationalist parties may or may not be “in government” in Scotland and Wales after tomorrow, but they have altered the terms of trade of politics.

For half a century after the second world war nationalism was forbidden fruit. It was associated at worst with fascism and at best with archaic provincialism. The war-weary cosmopolitan, Einstein, called it “the measles of the human race”. Within the UK any questioning of the union of “four nations in one” was seen as anti-imperialist, anti-socialist, anti-monarchist and an offence against the newly “nationalised” central state. Even the concept of UK nationalism was considered reactionary since it would eventually give way to such benign institutions as the European Union, Nato, the World Bank and Unesco. Until Isaiah Berlin’s 1978 essay warning that politics that ignored nationalism ignored reality, it was regarded in political and intellectual circles as a defunct ideology.

This week Scottish and Welsh nationalisms have gatecrashed Westminster. They have consumed acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time. They have shattered the triangular mindset that dominates political debate and transfixes everything from pollsters’ trend lines to the casting of Any Questions? Pundits have suddenly had to count beyond three. Nationalism customarily taps an allegiance that defies left and right. Welsh Tories and Scottish Liberal Democrats can ponder allying themselves with nationalists. Policy takes second place to subsidiarity. Politics must look down rather than up.

The brief history of devolution is still generally regarded in London as one of failure. There is no doubt it would not have happened had it not been entrenched in Labour’s 1997 manifesto and swiftly enacted thereafter (a message to all radicals). Blair never understood it. He tried to impose his placemen on Edinburgh and Cardiff, and later admitted to Paddy Ashdown that it was all a mistake: “You can’t have Scotland doing something different from the rest of Britain.” All news of incompetence or unpopularity from the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly was seized on as grist to the mill. The cost of the Edinburgh building was ridiculed while wilder extravagances, such as the Olympics, have been welcomed as “good for Britain” in Whitehall.

The truth is that devolution has settled into the bedrock of British politics. Each year there is pressure for more, not fewer, devolved powers. A return to rule from London is inconceivable, despite the poor experience of Scotland and Wales under devolved governments run by old Labour parties and unions, with their tradition of lavish public expenditure and employment. This has swamped the private sector and curbed the growth associated with devolved economies such as Catalonia’s.

The health services of Scotland and Wales are among Europe’s worst, and in Wales the election is virtually a plebiscite on its decrepit NHS. Expensive decisions on free university tuition, elderly care and prescription charges were permissible only because of the scale of cross-subsidy. Like over-representation in the Commons, this “subvention” should have been ended on the day of devolution, but Blair lacked the guts.

None of this has any bearing on the case for devolution. Indeed misgovernment is an argument for more, not less, local accountability and fiscal autonomy. When Labour and Tory spokesmen protest that nationalism “is not in the interest of the Scottish and Welsh people”, their reply is “that is our decision not yours”. The arrogant presumption of a central government towards a local one has been the cause of half the world’s civil wars. Indeed it is the engine of neo-nationalism.

Gordon Brown, soon to be Britain’s prime minister by acclamation, said this week that he would find it “impossible” to work with a Scottish leader who wanted to allow the Scots the “dangerous and disastrous” choice on how they should be governed. Is this the same Brown as supported military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq in favour of just such self-determination? If he can go to war to install the terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army in a statelet of its own, why will he not tolerate so much as a referendum on Scottish self-government? If Brown can chat with Gerry Adams, why cannot he share a dram with the SNP leader, Alex Salmond? Somehow Brown must put some intellectual spine to his bullying image, and a slightly bigger heart.

What Berlin called mild as opposed to pathological nationalism is the natural reaction of people eager to assert local identity and allegiance when oppressed by distant rulers. When the bonds that link citizens with their governors are stretched over ever greater distances and are ever more rule-bound and intolerant, they decay and snap. In extremis, people will demand freedom to govern their own affairs. That is why the end of both the second world war and the cold war brought not fewer nations in Europe, but more. Central governments seem invariably to default to unpopular mode, and eventually get a bloody nose.

Scottish nationalism may be unnecessary and, eventually, unwanted. It would prove costly to the Scottish people, and, if the experience of Ireland, the Baltic states and Slovakia is a guide, the transition to “small is beautiful” nationhood may be painful. But money is seldom a motive for separatism, nor is it absurd or “dangerous” for a country such as Scotland, the size of Denmark, to review relations with its neighbours from time to time. Even Wales, the Montenegro of the British Isles, has acquired a political personality that is likely to diverge ever more from that of England.

Nationalism is the limiting case of localism. It is where people go who have lost faith in tiered democracy. It offers a familiar sword and shield against the dark riders of globalisation, a group cohesion that is growing stronger rather than weaker as the 21st century progresses. As the local/central dichotomy replaces the old left/right one, this desire for territorial empowerment is moving to centre stage. Tomorrow its hour may be at hand.