The Battle Cry of the Non-Oppressed

by Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister, and now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 02.10.2014

TEL AVIV – Nobody should be surprised that Scotland’s recent referendum on independence left the United Kingdom intact. In the past, regions or communities have achieved statehood almost exclusively after a struggle against colonial subjection and oppression, galvanized by an appeal to a distinctive religious, cultural, or ethnic identity. Complaints about economic dynamics, social policies, or governance inefficiencies – the basis of Scotland’s “yes” campaign – are not the cris de coeur of a successful independence movement. That is bad news for secessionists elsewhere in the West.

Of course, Scotland’s technocratic nationalism made sense. As the movement’s leader, Alex Salmond, acknowledged in a 2012 consultation document, “Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated.” The struggle for independence, he explained, was aimed at creating the kind of efficient administrative and economic structures that would enable Scotland to reach its potential.

The “yes” campaign hoped to win supporters with a utopian vision of an independent Scotland that included European Union and NATO membership; a currency union with England, but no fiscal union; improved public services and social benefits; and lower taxes. In other words, Scotland would have everything it has now, only better, and on its own terms.

This vision was undoubtedly appealing to many Scots. But it proved significantly less compelling than the economic doomsday scenarios advanced by its unionist opponents, including former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. In other words, many people’s votes were driven by risk aversion, fear, and intimidation, rather than hope, passion, or deep emotional attachment to a common identity.

This contrasts sharply with the motivations espoused by Scotland’s nobles in the fourteenth century, when they succeeded in preserving their country’s independence from English rule. “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting,” they declared, “but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

In fact, the “no” campaign’s victory might have been even more resounding if the Westminster establishment’s desperate, last-minute offer to grant Scotland more powers on taxation, spending, and welfare had been included as an option in the ballot. National movements driven by a historical mission or an uncompromising quest to assert group identity against a dominant power normally do not succumb to economic considerations and last-minute economic bait.

It was none other than the founder of the Zionist fundamentalist right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who warned in 1924 against “the naive assumption that the aspiration of the Palestinians…will be paralyzed by such means as subsidies, economic advantages, or bribery.” Recognizing that their “natural patriotism is pure and noble,” he knew that they could not be “bought off.”

Now, Salmond is probably re-thinking his avoidance of nativist identity politics. What Edmund Burke defined as a group’s attachment to “the inns and resting places of the human spirit” – that is, ethnic, religious, and community ties – would have been a much more powerful mobilizing force for an independence movement.

The “yes” campaigners would not have had to look far for inspiration. James Joyce – himself not devoid of traces of Irish nationalism – wrote that “nationality, language, [and] religion” are “the nets” into which “a man is born.” Similarly, George Orwell distinguished between Celtic nationalism and Anglophobia, stating that the former is belief “in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples.”

True, Scotland’s great minds in the age of Enlightenment, such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and even the national poet, Robert Burns, were all fervent advocates of “Britishness,” whatever that might mean today. Yet an identity-based campaign could have resorted to the heritage of the Scottish Renaissance of the mid-twentieth century or to the Celtic Revival and Celtic Twilight movements, which awakened a spirit of cultural nationalism among Scots in the late nineteenth century.

In the run-up to the referendum, Scotland’s independence movement became an important point of reference for Catalans and Basques in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium, the Veneto and South Tyrol regions in Italy, Corsicans and Bretons in France, and the secessionists of Quebec. All hoped that Scotland would pave the way for the peaceful breakup of their own states.

With the defeat of Scotland’s independence movement – not to mention Québécois voters’ stunning rejection of the province’s largest separatist party in last April’s election – that hope may be waning. And with good reason. There is little historical precedent for the peaceful breakup of a state, with an exception like Czechoslovakia’s consensual split in 1993 occurring in unique circumstances.

A state is far more likely to go to war to defend its unity. The United States and Spain did it in their civil wars, and today’s Spain would go to the outer limits of its capacity to prevent a Catalan or Basque referendum, let alone independence.

Nationalist groups in Western democracies are not subjugated people. Theirs is the nationalism of free, liberated people, who can expect the most generous devolution deals possible to protect their singular legacies and address their grievances. And perhaps that is why federal arrangements like those in Australia and Canada – essentially what Westminster grudgingly offered Scotland – could be their best option.




Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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