Thursday, March 29, 2012

Disunited Kingdoms

In 2014, Scotland will decide whether it should leave the United Kingdom or not. At this point, the pro-independence opinion is still a minority, even though the unionist parties do their best to make it a majority by the time the referendum is held. Should Alex Salmond win his gambit, a new state would appear on maps of Europe, probably the first of a long series.

Of course, the maps of Europe have been anything but static in the last seventy years. The collapse of the Soviet Union has spawned a bevy of newly independent republics, not all of which survived infancy, and the banks of the Dniester is still controlled by what one may diplomatically call an unrecognized state : Transnistria A few core western states have shed territories during this time period. Denmark has had to let Iceland go in 1944 and France has left Algeria in 1962 – I know it sounds weird but at the time it was considered a part of France and a significant French population lived there.

Those were just cases of states in relative decline losing control of their periphery, however. Denmark had lost its colonies in India to Britain during the 19th century and sold its last American possessions to the United States in 1917. France had been militarily defeated in Indochina and even though it held the upper hand in Algeria, it could not politically sustain a decade long war.

The departure of Scotland, like the possible departure of Flanders or Catalonia, is of a different nature. The Scottish Highlands, like Wales or Ireland, were on the periphery of Britain – the so called "Celtic Fringe". The Lowlands, however, were not. It was to gain access to the English market that the Scottish elite agreed to the Treaty of Union in 1706 and their wishes were definitely granted. Until the American Revolution, Glasgow dominated tobacco trade and the Scottish elite eagerly joined the English aristocracy in its pursuit of imperial glory.

The losers, of course, were the highlanders, who had maintained a rugged semi-autonomy  in the north of the country. The army, which crushed the clans at Culloden included a significant Scottish contingent and the highland clearance, which depopulated the northern counties were done at the order and for the benefit of the Scottish aristocracy.

Even now, Edinburgh and Glasgow are large and prosperous cities and the real divide is with the now largely empty Highlands.

The break between Scotland and England, like the one between Catalonia and Spain or the one between Wallonia and Flanders, is a break within the core, and there shall be a lot of it while our civilization slides further down Hubbert's curve.

Civilizations work by concentrating wealth from the periphery to the core. That is how they gather enough resources to get things done which incidentally means that a little territorial inequality is not necessarily a bad thing if you want to produce some culture somewhere. A fact often overlooked, however, is that civilizations are fractal, that is their low-level structure mirrors their high-level structure. The city of Nantes, where I work may be a periphery to the Parisian region, it is definitely the core of Brittany and while Saint-Nazaire, where I live is a periphery to Nantes, it is the core of the coastal region, and Paris itself is a distant periphery of New-York or Shanghai.

The system holds because everybody, except those who are at the bottom, has an interest in its holding together, and because it is easier to jockey for position inside it than to try and overthrow it, at the risk of being crushed.

The various dominant cores dominate their periphery – and are dominated by the cores higher up – through a mix of sharing and dependency, with brute force a very rarely used ultima ratio. How the sharing works is easy to see : subordinate elites get the right to exploit their own periphery, and a small part of the resources funneled upward.

Dependency is more subtle. Basically, the core uses the resources of the periphery to build infrastructures, both material and immaterial, and organize the economy in a way which suits the core’s interests. That means that whatever funds are spent in the periphery  further the interests of the core, notably providing it with manpower, specialized services or raw material, or producing goods which will be sold by corporations whose seats are located at the core, and therefore taxed, at least in part, there.

The periphery is therefore under the (false) impression, it cannot get by without the help of the core. Of course, this argument will be used to scare the periphery away from autonomy. This has been done in Quebec, for instance, and will doubtlessly be done in Scotland as well.

The end of cheap energy and the global shortage of resources which will ensue, shall make things a little more complex, however. It is easy to share resources when they are plentiful. Sharing shortages, however, is far more difficult and we can expect every country, region or city, whatever its place in the national or global hierarchy, to squeeze its periphery, internal or external, to squeeze its periphery for the resources it needs.

What this means for Scotland (and Wales, and Northern England, and Wessex), is that its resources – namely dwindling but still sizable oil reserves and rather large investments in wind and wave power – are likely to be funneled southward to prop up an south-eastern English economy which has unwisely bet on globalization and high finance. In a way, it is already happening.

The Scottish elite – at least a part of it – is using the tools of nationalism and historical myths to get a better control over its resources (and its own periphery's, we are not in carebears' country) whether it be through full independence or what the SNP calls “devo-max”

The outcome, of course, will depend on the respective strengths and weaknesses of the two contending elites and on their ability to manipulate historical myths. Fortunately, nobody intends to use the Kings' last arguments, so the British army should remain in its barracks.

There is no shortage, in Europe, of elites, or would be elites, willing to imitate the Scots. Some of them, like the Basques, the Catalans or the Flemings, may succeed. Other won't be so lucky, either because the territories they claim are too dependent, or because they have no national myth to rely upon, or because they are just a bunch of clueless amateurs.

Having roamed a few international congresses, I can tell you that the latter category is in no danger of immediate extinction.

Of course, you don't need to have a distinctive culture or identity to be stripped of your resources. Wessex or Northern England are in the same position as Scotland. So are the Scottish Highlands or the Shetlands, relative to Scotland, by the way. It is, of course, possible for, say Cumberland to remember that a Celtic language was spoken in the area until the twelfth century, or for Northern England to discover it used to be a kingdom during the Dark Ages. Let's just say it's likely to remain restricted to a few fringe groups or even individuals.

It is, by the way, the situation of most French regions, for, while regionalism is reasonably common, the groups which defend it are too weak, electorally, ideologically, structurally, to make a difference.

The most likely outcome its that wherever it is possible, the core will squeeze its peripheries to further its existence, leaving only poverty and chaos in its wake. When the core will fail, the old periphery will probably be not only impoverished and depopulated, but also broken as a society and politically chaotic for centuries.

Ironically, it is a similar process, which enabled the old highland clans to rise after the devastation and the chaos brought by the wars of independence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

I am not sure the result will be everywhere as colorful, however.

There is no easy way out of this conundrum, and in fact, the only way for a peripheral territory to win is to opt out of the game : embrace the decline, turn to the domestic economy and to local production and consumption. This, however, amounts to embracing poverty to avoid misery further down the road, and I frankly doubt the regionalist groups I know are prepared to that, even those which claim to be ecologist.

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