The Disuniting Kingdom?

Three hundred years after the first Scottish Parliament voluntarily voted itself out of existence in 1707, the Scottish National Party has won a plurality in the devolved Scottish parliament that is one of Tony Blair’s great legacies. Does an SNP-led government herald the break-up of the United Kingdom? More broadly, does nationalism, that product of nineteenth-century politics, still have a role to play in Europe?

The answer to the first question is almost certainly no. Nationalist polled only 31.9% of the votes cast with parties supporting the union polling 59.6%. Proof positive that proportional representation can produce strange outcomes.

Back in 1957, the motive for “laying the foundations of an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” was to make war between European nations obsolete, and, in doing so, to bring internal stability to all European nations. For 50 years, the European Union was not much tested by this mission because nationalist impulses were crushed between the two great Cold War alliances. With those constraints gone, nationalism in both its Bismarckian state-making and ethnic state-breaking guises has gotten a second wind.

When people nowadays speak of nationalism, sinister images from another era come to mind. But nationalism is, of course, not inevitably violent: it flares into conflict only in places with a flammable legacy. The break-up of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire shows that the way to address such a legacy is not to force unhappy peoples to live together in one country. It is to recognize that in some places divorce is inevitable, and to ensure that it is as amicable as possible. The world could not have prevented Yugoslavia’s spiral into civil war, but it might have made it less cruel by helping to negotiate terms of separation earlier.