William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Scotland: A Petri dish for the virus of nationalism

More than 40 observers from a Canadian separatist movement arrived in Edinburgh this week for the final days of Scotland’s independence referendum. It was a small marker that whatever the outcome – potentially a name change from United Kingdom to Untied Kingdom – this was an event that is going to reverberate for a long while. 

A television interviewer wanted to know of their leader what advice Parti Québécois (PQ) would be offering the Scot Yes vote campaigners. A nieve question from the BBC, since the defining characteristic of the almost 50-year campaign to hive off Francophone Quebec from Anglophone Canada has been its abject failure. 

So the answer was evasively diplomatic. The PQ was there to learn.

And that is what the Scotland referendum is – a Petri dish for modern nationalism. The Scots latest bid for freedom is evidence of a robustly resurgent strain of nationalism and whether or not the parasite manages to overcome its host, so to speak, separatists from all around the world are watching and learning.

Their host nation states, too, will be watching but with morbid interest. Germany’s Die Welt warns that separatism is a “virus” that has the potential to spread chaos in the European Union (EU). 

The Spanish, beset by restless Basques and Catalans, are openly hostile. They have indicated that if they have anything to do with it, there will be no “seamless transition” – as promised by Scotland’s First Minister Alexander Salmond – for an independent Scotland to EU membership.

So, too, the Chinese. Its attitude is shaped by the Mongolians, the Tibetans, and the Uyghur all jostling for their own land, not to forget the ambivalent status of Hong Kong and Taiwan within the Chinese fold.

China’s state-owned Global Times warns that ‘an incredibly large number of nations will suffer’ from secessionist movements if Scotland’s example is followed. It notes unhappily that the British government had allowed the referendum thinking that ‘democracy can resolve everything’. 

That’s not quite how it came about. Westminster agreed to a referendum when Scottish voter support for the 307-year union with Britain seemed assured. Had the politicians known how close-run it would turn out to be, they would have been less sanguine about dispensing the democratic largesse of a plebiscite.

There were only 19 countries in all of Europe before World War One. There are now 28 in the EU alone, the Global Times frets. 

That is a European trend that should also have African leaders fretting. Africa, that most fissiparous of continents, rent with tribal, ethnic, religious and racial divides, has a mere 54 recognised sovereign nations, the result of the colonial powers forcibly and arbitrarily melding together as many as 10 000 geographically separate semi-states.

It’s a weld that’s held. There are only a handful more countries today than there were when Africa’s decolonisation started after World War Two. That is indicative of the determination of the continent’s leaders to keep the lid firmly shut on Pandora’s dynamite box of nationalism and ethnicity.

If most African leaders have a white-knuckled awareness of the ever-present dangers of secession, not so their South African counterparts. SA’s rulers perhaps imagine that this country has been inoculated forever against home grown nationalistic schisms by the failed apartheid experiment, with its economically hopeless, geographically fragmented, tribal fiefdoms. 

In any case, the African National Congress has always had a deeply embedded sensitivity to the threat posed by ethnic mobilisation. There has been a history of conscientious racial and tribal balancing in its party leadership and, since 1994, in allotting the spoils of office.

Or at least, that was the case. Two decades of unchallengeable power has bred complacency and arrogance. President Jacob Zuma’s position has increasingly been secured by the mobilisation of Zulu identity.

Former president Thabo Mbeki last year warned against SA’s “dangerous … retreat to tribalism”. Referring to the pressures that culminated in the creation of Africa’s most recent state, South Sudan, he said: “We should not sacrifice that sense of national cohesion that’s built up over many, many decades because of some selfish reason for assuming tribal identity.”

Although dwarfed by the Zulu, the Xhosa and the Sotho, one of the biggest tribes in SA is the Afrikaner – an unusually homogenous confluence of class, colour and culture. While the radicals among them favouring their own land are a tiny minority – it is unlikely that the Oranje homelanders sent an observer mission to Edinburgh – there is among the Afrikaner a growing sense of exclusion and pique. While there is no appetite for secession, black or white, on SA’s horizon, Scottish events remind one that when ethnic alienations are allowed to fester, the outcome can be drastic.

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