Sunday Herald 25/3/05
So, is it worth the hassle? What can we learn from the experiences of the hundred or so small nations that have gained independence in the last Century or so?
Well the first lesson is that every independence struggle is unique. From the amicable separation between Norway and Sweden in 1905, to the troubled birth of Europe’s newest nation, Montenegro – formerly a part of war-torn Yugoslavia – which secured independence only last year, the process of independence is always shaped by the particular circumstances of the times.
However, we can make a couple of generalisations about becoming independence. First, it is never an easy option and, second, that the liberated nations generally flourish in the longer term.
Look at all those small Baltic countries, Latvia Estonia Lithuania, which emerged from the former Soviet Union in 1991, and which are now among the most dynamic economies of Europe. They are intoxicated by autonomy and scarily self-confident. But that’s perhaps hardly surprising after half a century of Soviet oppression.
Ireland’s economy doubled in the 1990s as it took full advantage of its independent status in Europe to reverse two centuries of economic decline and population loss. The Celtic Tiger is the country the SNP always look to when making the case for secession. However, no one ever said it was easy..
It took a bloody civil war in the 1920s before Ireland was able to leave the United Kingdom, and historians argue to this day whether or not the people of the Republic really wanted independence. Many were content with a devolved status within the UK and the Irish people were appalled by the Easter Rising in 1916.
Under the nationalist President, Eamonn de Valera, in the ’30s Ireland lapsed into theocratic isolation and economic decline which was to last for forty years. Ireland’s economic transformation is a very recent phenomenon, and largely down to membership of the EU. However, there is no doubt that having become their own nation, the Irish would never turn the clock back.
Nor would tiny Iceland, which won independence, peacefully, in 1944 and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. It is making huge strides in developing its vast reserves of renewable energy and plans to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free economy based on hydrogen.
Now it may be that Iceland would have developed similarly had it remained under Danish jurisdiction, but most Icelanders believe that if they hadn’t gone their own way they would still be living on puffins.
There is no doubt that national self-confidence plays a big part in successful nation-building. Rustic, frozen,Norway was regarded with amused contempt by the sophisticated Swedes, until Norway went its own way and discovered oil. It is now one of the most advanced civilisations on the planet, and poised to progress beyond petroleum and into renewable energy.
Norway’s oil fund has provided unprecedented security to this small cold nation on the remote fringes of Europe and allowed it to plan its economic future. By comparison, what happened to Scotland’s oil is a stark lesson in how not to benefit from a natural resource.
The most peaceful example example of separation in modern time was probably the “Velvet Divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The Czechs, the dominant partner in the the old Czechoslovakia, resented handing financial subsidies to the poorer Slovaks. Shades of the Barnett Formula and Scotland’s alleged dependency culture. Relations between the two provinces became increasingly fractious.
In the end, separation happened almost by accident, and without a clear majority of either population being in favour of divorce, according to opinion polls at the time. There was no referendum, and independence arose out of a failed attempt to create a looser federal Czechoslovakia.
Both sides decided that independence was the only coherent solution. The new countries have lived happily apart ever since. And since the break-up, “backward” Slovakia has consistently returned higher economic growth rates than the “advanced” Czech Republic.
Of course, divorce is rarely velvet, in marriage or nation-building. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia into Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and ultimately Montenegro involved ethnic cleansing and civil war. Nationalism showed its dark side in the Balkans with communal violence and poisonous racial and religious divisions. The fate of would be Chechnya is also a grim lesson in the cost of secession – though we can hardly blame the Chechen nationalists for the violence inflicted upon them by Russia.
And where there isn’t civil war, there is often regional tension. The instability in the Canadian province of Quebec in the 1970’s and 80’s as it sought independence is often held up as a warning to Scotland. English-speaking companies left Montreal in droves when the nationalists won political influence. A series of inconclusive referendums, or “neverendums” followed which has, to this day, failed to resolve the national status of Quebec within the Canadian federation. Ironically, the Quebec nationalists are now more influential in the Federal government in Ottawa than they are in Quebec.
Which only goes to show that there is no royal road to national self-determination. However, what is clear is that more and more countries are taking it. Fifty years ago, when the European Union had its origins, no one predicted that it would lead to the growth of smaller nations. But from Ireland to the Baltic, it is small nations that seem to be taking best advantage of European integration.
The very existence of Europe allows small countries to feel more secure, more free to do their own thing, without the fear of aggressive larger countries trying to take them over or bully them.
And Scotland? Well, my own view is that Scotland will, rather like the Spanish province of Catalonia, achieve greater autonomy over the years, but will stop short of a formal declaration of national independence. Scotland already is a nation in its own right, and now that it has its own parliament, it is simply a matter of acquiring the powers necessary to secure Scotland’s economic and social objectives.
It will, if you like, be Scotland’s unique contribution to the science of self-determinatio