Scotland can Learn From Breakup of Yugoslavia

One of my main fears about Scottish independence is based on my experience of nationalism in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It was nationalism that started the war that killed almost a quarter of a million people and broke up a once-great country into seven small states (most of which are bankrupt).

There are many lessons that we can learn from this process – and many things that are not relevant – but whenever I mention former Yugoslavia (or the former Soviet Union) to Scottish nationalists they dismiss my points out of hand.

“How can you compare us to countries like Bosnia and Kosovo?” they say with a sneer. The sub-text is that Scots are ingenious and superior – we invented the light bulb, telephone and TV after all – and it’s an outrage to compare us to those backward people down in the Balkans.

But this reaction itself is an expression of pure nationalism that I have heard countless times in the remnants of former Yugoslavia: we are a unique people with a proud history and we can’t be compared with anyone else; we have been exploited for centuries and are currently being exploited by [insert name of culprit]. The main point is that nationalism allows you to blame other countries for all your problems and holds out a compelling political formula: get rid of the oppressor and all will be fine. This sense of blame carries on long after independence and becomes a part of the culture.

I gave up trying to reason with people in former Yugoslavia about the cause of the war as Serbs, Bosnians and Croats all seem to have strongly held views about the source of their problems, their national history and who was to blame. Each viewpoint is backed up by recent news and personal experience. It was impossible to get them to accept anything I said. All I could do was listen and learn about their viewpoint.

Sounds familiar? All the Scottish No voters I have spoken to agree that we can’t get the Yes people to listen to anything we say. They are so convinced that independence will mean freedom from the Westminster cabal, from international finance, that Scotland is a wealthy country that they are unable to listen to any criticisms – or answer any simple questions (like: why do SNP plan to use the pound when all new EU Member States must adopt the Euro?)

We can also learn from Kosovo, a former region of Yugoslavia and now one of the newest countries in Europe. There are five EU Member States which still refuse to recognize it as they don’t want to have a precedent to encourage their own separatists (think Spain/Catalonia and Belgium/Walloon). Getting every EU Member State to recognize Scotland’s membership is going to be equally tricky and it’s madness to assume it can be arranged within 18 months.

What really worries me is that nationalism – an intoxicating and fatal drug – is being released and once the genie is out of the bottle it will take black magic to get it back in again. What will Scotland’s Yes voters do after losing the referendum?

One of the reasons behind the creation of Yugoslavia – just after WW1 – was to calm down the destructive nationalism that existed between the Serbs, Albanians, Croats and Slovenes. It worked pretty well and Yugoslavia was admired as the richest and most free country in the Communist bloc. The same idea lies behind the creation of the EU: connecting France and Germany so tightly that they wouldn’t go to war again.

The United Kingdom was set up for different reasons but it had the same effect in diminishing the kind of passionate nationalism that can rip apart nations and destroy hundreds of thousands of people. In Eastern Europe I constantly met people who were angry about the loss of their empire – often several hundred years ago – and many people are taught that imperial forces and dastardly neighbours have stolen their lands over the centuries. It was never like that in the UK. We lost the British Empire and nobody seemed to mind. The English seem to hate most foreigners but, in my experience, they actually like the Scots.

Alex Salmond has deliberately released nationalism into the body politic and it could poison our long relationship of cooperation with England. Already the English are saying that they over-subsidise the Scots and why should we give them all these extra powers? England has been remarkably restrained in the referendum debate, almost docile, but I dread to think what will happen if English nationalism is aroused.

It reminds me of the quote attributed to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

By Rupert Wolfe Murray

4 Responses to Scotland can Learn From Breakup of Yugoslavia

  1. Santa Stefania says:

    good article, and scary,

  2. And I thought it was all settled… done and dusted… Thanks for your eastern Europe insights, a lot to ponder.

  3. Julian Ross says:

    A thought-provoking article, Rupert. All too often nationalism becomes an exercise in articulating what a group believes to be “wrong” about whoever it defines itself in opposition too. Psychology operates at group and individual level. Groups, like people, can and do project their own faults onto others. It’s comfortable for the one doing the projecting, avoiding the need to fix kens issues. No, let “them” sort out their “problems”. As the root cause isn’t dealt with, the situation can of course worsen – the economy, social justice, whatever – leading to a vicious circle of blame and enmity. And, as Sigmund Freud said, at some level each of us needs an enemy. But it doesn’t have to be our neighbour.

    Fear of globalisation combined with the technical and political capacity for charismatic nation building have given us totalitarian states before. Nazi Germany is a prime example, and a warning. We need to step back and review the monster that some would create in Scotland.

  4. Julian Ross says:

    Scotland has opened a Pandora’s Box. Most people in England would happily rescind the Barnett formula, saving them money at Scotland’s expense. I think that would win Cameron votes in the short term in England – he would get scarcely any in Scotland anyway. If that happened, Scots might blame the SNP, in which case Labour might gain. So the Scottish Parliament might lose subsidy and be given tax-raising power which would require tax hikes to balance the books – a cutting English revenge that may turn Scot upon Scot. And that is in Cameron’s hands, so we’ll see what the man is made of. If he’s cunning, he will use the situation to exclude Scottish Labour from English affairs, strengthening Tory majorities. Thank you Scotland!

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