In a special guest post Kieran Williams reflects on the lessons for the SNP’s project of Scottish independence to be learned from the making and unmaking of Czechoslovakia.
The Scottish government’s glimpse of the future in an independent state was a trip down memory lane for those of us who remember the breakup of the Central and East European federations.
To be sure, the White Paper released on 26 November is a far more thorough and thoughtful rationale than anything that could be composed as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia unraveled. It is also relies more on inclusive civic principles – statehood desired as a means to a fairer and more competent administration – than on the discourse of national destiny heard in the former Soviet bloc twenty years ago.
But here and there amidst the 650 answers of ‘Scotland’s Future’, I caught a strong whiff from the archives of Central Europe, in particular of Slovakia, a country easily compared to Scotland owing to almost identical population size (5.3 million), exceptionally large proportion of university graduates, highland-lowland range, and so on. I was reminded in particular of documents like the ‘61 Steps to Slovak Identity’, released in October 1990 by lawyers and economists of the ‘Sovereign Slovakia’ Initiative, and the manifesto of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for the 1992 election, the last held before Czechoslovakia was dissolved.
One similarity is the resentment in both lands (let’s call them Scotvakia for short) of government by a remote capital not so much because it is in the hands of another nation (English/Czechs) as of political parties with little or no presence in Scotvakia. These parties (Conservatives/Civic Democrats) espouse a political economy at odds with the Scotvak preference for a more egalitarian ‘social nation’ (the White Paper) and ‘social-market economy’ (HZDS manifesto). The gravitational weight of London/Prague skews investment and prevents Scotvakia from achieving its potential through direct stewardship of its own resources.
Another similarity is the reluctance to grasp the whole thistle of independence – indie-max – and the disruption it would cause. ‘Scotland’s Future’ assumes great continuity where desirable, such as of the crown and pound, and membership of the EU, NATO and the passportless Common Travel Area of the UK and Ireland. Even the new Scottish Broadcasting Service would negotiate with the BBC to ensure that ‘[c]urrent programming like EastEnders, Doctor Who, and Strictly Come Dancing and channels like CBeebies, will still be available in Scotland’.
The main current of Slovak constitutional discourse from 1990 until late 1992 likewise tried to preserve the benefits of ever looser union with the Czechs, one that would allow enjoyment of ‘international subjectivity’ and zvrchovanosť, a fuzzy sovereignty that stopped short of outright independence. As I argue at the History & Policy website, HZDS angled for self-government while remaining confederated with the Czechs via common currency, rotating presidency and combined defence force; their Czech interlocutors insisted instead on a tighter federation or a clean break.
Important differences, of course, abound. The White Paper is written as a document for the ages, but because it is also a salvo in pre-referendum polemics it is full of references that future generations will puzzle over (‘Granda, what were Universal Credit, Shares for Rights and the bedroom tax, and why were they so wicked?’). The virtue of this close detail is that ‘Scotland’s Future’ vividly conveys the consequences of independence through an inventory of Westminster policies that would not be implemented or would be repealed, and Holyrood policies that cannot be pursued under the extant terms of devolution.
By contrast, the ‘61 Steps’ and even the HZDS election manifesto, while the product of the early post-communist transition, require remarkably few footnotes today. Policy promises were phrased generally (and vaguely) and embedded in broad, self-explanatory goals, such as an economy based on employee-owned enterprises and a social policy reflecting papal encyclicals. It was only dimly apparent what Slovakia (or the Czech Republic) would do differently if no longer yoked to the other republic, especially as extensive decentralization in 1990 had already granted devo-max.
In 1992, the Slovak National Party, unlike HZDS, called for straightforward independence after a referendum, but unlike ‘Scotland’s Future’ their vision assumed the fullness of what statehood would entail, cushioned only by the nation’s taking its rightful, recognized place in Europe. So morally categorical was the imperative of statehood and so complete would be the rupture that I can find no mention of the Czech nation, Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia anywhere in the Slovak National Party’s programme; it was as though Slovakia would become its own state through the evaporation of its western partner.
The Scottish National Party, while sharing its Slovak counterpart’s willingness to speak boldly of independence and express confidence in the nation’s readiness for it, cannot wish away the fact of England or the rest of the UK, for it has to ‘make the negative case for remaining’ a part of the union, as Thomas Lundberg argues at Policy Scotland. The White Paper accordingly frames its message in terms of the unsatisfactory relationship with the UK (mentioned 46 times just in chapter one, ‘The Case for Independence’) and of the minuses of Westminster rule (also mentioned 46 times in chapter one) that Scotland would escape, but also the benefits that would be preserved through the agreed terms of separation.
Finally, the White Paper differs from Slovak documents precisely because it anticipates the hard bargaining that would have to occur to agree those terms of separation, should the referendum result in a Yes vote. Linkages are already established, such as taking on a share of UK debt in return for use of sterling. It is also informed by the authority that a Yes vote would confer on the Scottish negotiating team, something Slovak leaders in 1990-92 did not get the chance to obtain, nor did they particularly need; as Karen Henderson reminds us, it is simpler to dissolve a federation than separate a part of a kingdom that plans to carry on without it.
Kieran Williams teaches at Drake University (USA).