Monday, 27 January 2014

The Spanish Armada Sets Sail... For Scotland

The current debate on Scottish independence – though far from quiet – has gotten louder as we approach the final nine months before the referendum date of 18 September 2014. These contributions are divisible into several noticeable ‘schools’ of commentary. First are the ‘hedgers’, who strive to be inoffensive as possible. They generally have little of interest to say. While much of the output has been informative, it is hard to avoid noticing that diagnoses and predictions are indelibly marked with the attitude of the organ or author – namely, it is easy to tell when purportedly detached analyses is favourably disposed toward independence or not.

Another strain of commentary tries to dismiss the debate as the latest in a series of long-running historical antipathies. These reductive accounts are generally hostile to independence and couched in terms that condescendingly view separatism as residual Anglophobic atavism - although, it must be admitted, the Scottish Government’s choice of the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn for the referendum date does give that impression. Failing that, friction among the constituent peoples of the British Isles is presented as a timeless constant that may, or may not, be resolved without too much thought or action on the part of politicians, policy-makers and voters.

Ireland is usually the ghost at the feast of this smorgasbord of commentary. Allusions are made – sometimes even whole articles are devoted to the sister isle. Of course, Ireland is incredibly important in this debate. As the only state in existence that was once part of the union, it’s political and economic travails over the past century offer valuable lessons to British observers. The neglect of a ‘green’ angle to the debate has been lamentable, despite the recent, very tardy integration of Irish lessons into considerations of this issue over the past few months. But any meandering beyond these narrow, archipelagal boundaries tend to be minimal. In some respects his is a habit common to all political communities – that of thinking that their problems are unique and do not extend beyond or even exist outside their borders. The debate remains firmly, even obsessively, focused on ‘British’ contexts, replete with wild prognostications and ill-conceived pseudo-historical pontifications.

Perhaps this constitutional conundrum is better understood as the untimely coincidence of two specific contexts that combine to promote already latent fissiparous tendencies, rather than being solely a British issue. These two contexts are the European context and the economic context – the convergence of which has created the conditions for previously content historic nations to attempt the separatist plunge. Essentially, this originates in the combination of economic ideology and political reality that has prevailed in Europe since the financial crisis of 2008.

Regarding this political reality, the most obvious contributing factor is the almost Byzantine levels of continental, national, regional and local government that has become Europe’s political structure over the past half-century. From once unified nation-states, with strong local and civic government, Europe has transmogrified into a trade-bloc, an incomplete monetary union and a patch-work political entity. This state of affairs mirrors the haphazard and disjointed evolution of Europe over the past half-century. With free movements of labour, capital and limited currency controls in a unified trade-bloc under the Schengen Accord, there is little motivation for peripheral to remain within the previous ‘nation-state’ unions they joined centuries before.

The deleterious economic context refers to the current ideological quagmire in the Euro and Sterling zones that endorse obstinate and short-sighted austerity programmes. This adherence is grounded in vaguely-defined economic theory, but generally couched in terms of immediate personal morality; state budgets are directly (and erroneously) approximated to household or personal budgets. This has the understandable effect of scaring people – but also promotes separatism in peripheries with strong social democratic tendencies.

The political reality creates the conditions that make separatism viable; the economic ideology causes alienation in peripheral nations that makes separatism increasingly likely.

Nothing illustrates the connection between European and economic contexts better than Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s recent ham-fisted intervention in the Scottish independence debate.

Why Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, should intervene so publicly in the domestic affairs of another EU state might confuse an uninformed observer. It is even more surprising given the Spanish government’s posturing over Gibraltar – posturing which has seen them vigorously contest the right of British sovereignty over the peninsula. So, did Rajoy’s intend to crow over the potential dissolution of this one-time world power? On the contrary, he intervened to weigh-in on the side of the British government by warning that any future Scottish state could count on Spain being as obstructive as possible when it came to EU membership.

The fact that the Spanish government raised this as an issue shows some of the difficulties – even paradoxical behaviour – caused by the growth of peripheral nationalism in Europe. But the Spanish prime minister has indicated that he will make it as difficult as possible to let Scotland into the EU, not for any cohesive geo-political reason – Rajoy is doing so mainly for domestic political reasons.

The current Spanish government is having a difficult time. Due to their difficulty managing dissent in their pursuit of Spanish austerity, they have (rather cynically) started raising hackles about Gibraltar, willing to conscience the possibility of isolating one part of the EU from another – against the strict letter of European law and diplomatic convention.

They are also refusing to hold a debate on Catalonia. Why the sudden urge for independence in Catalonia? Well, Catalonia is a wealthy periphery, like Scotland, determined to maintain their welfare state and standard of living during a period of austerity from the centre of an established – and quite old – multi-national state. In the case of both, such impulses are coming from Madrid and London under the aegis of political parties that have majorities in the ‘heartland’ of each multi-national state; Castile on one hand and England on the other. Both Catalonia and Scotland are, according to one commentator, ''middle class enclaves in a more backward country - capitalist societies struggling to be free, as it were.''

Thus, the current Spanish government has threatened to veto Scottish aspirations to EU membership in order to scuttle Catalonian ambition. And, while goading Britain with smothered war over Gibraltar, hopes to comprise a broad anti-separatist front with the UK in return for stifling these same aspirations.

Obviously, their stance (as well as austerity measures) have been the best endorsement possible for Catalan nationalists. But by refusing to hold a referendum on independence they are sowing trouble for the future -  and they may well reap a whirlwind. The same cocktail of peripheral nationalism, class division, economic upheaval and conservative reaction led to the Spanish Civil War. Officers of the Spanish armed forces have already said they will intervene if the constitution is violated – a threat which, incidentally, went unreported in most media outlets.

Analysis has, thus far, been somewhat narrow, focusing in separatist impulses that supposedly inhere in sentiment, sense of self and ethno-linguistic distinction. These, however, have always been present. What, then, has compelled electorates in areas like Scotland and Catalonia (and Val d’Aosta, Flanders, Lapland, Savoy, etc.) to contemplate separate sovereign journeys? This is twofold – due to the deleterious economic practices that lower standards of living alongside the reality of multi-layered European sovereignty. It is therefore, ideological and structural; or, in layman’s terms, it is the EU and austerity.

The astute among you will have notice that the structural reality produces the economic pressure – but that is for another post. As it stands, if one of these conditions alter, nationalist votes might very well melt away like snow. It might be too late; differing political conditions have created different (and largely irreconcilable) political cultures.

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