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Category: Nationalism

Westminster Must Unite, Not Divide

To the ears of comparative political scientists, the idea of an ‘unwritten constitution’ sounds like a bit of an oxymoron.  While it is possible to argue that vagueness and flexibility of Britain’s founding documents have served the British Isles well over the years, the resulting constitutional hodge podge of an ‘asymmetric unitary state’ is starting to look unsustainable.  Over the next few years, it is likely that the limits of the current system will be tested by the diverging ambitions of Scotland and England.

The devolution settlements of the late 1990s led to the establishment of legislative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with differing powers. No equivalent legislative body was set up in England (or in the English regions) leaving the Westminster Parliament as the main legislative body for England. This situation is becoming untenable as the Scottish Parliament (already the most powerful of the devolved assemblies) demands the delivery of promised extra powers, while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has played to the discontent of English voters by suggesting that Scottish MPs should no longer be able to vote on legislation that applies to England only.

Cameron is right to point out the unfairness of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their constituents.  However,  the paradox of the West Lothian Question has only haunted the legislative process in the United Kingdom for the last forty years because of the contradiction inherent in current legislative arrangements.  Westminster increasingly acts as a quasi-federal assembly for the people of Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland), but remains the primary legislature for the people of England.  Attempting to solve this contradiction purely by excluding Scottish MPs from much of the work of the Westminster Parliament would be the political equivalent of two cyclists attempting to ride a tandem bicycle in opposite directions.

In advocating ‘English votes for English laws’, David Cameron is essentially proposing that  Westminster move further towards being a dual English and a British legislature.  This is a terrible idea.  If Westminster is not free to focus on matters that unite England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, instead becoming a source of further division, then we cannot be surprised if the home nations drift further apart in the coming years.   Surely a more logical solution would be a devolution settlement for England that meets the ambitions articulated by David Cameron, combined with a Westminster Parliament that is designed to bring the four nations together in a common purpose.

Decapitated in Kyiv, Lenin finds safety in the bosom of capitalism

The decapitation of the Lenin Statue in Kyiv on December 8th 2013 was a visible symbol of the current tensions in Ukraine, where young pro-EU protestors continue to demonstrate against the recent decision of President Yanukovych  to abandon an Association Agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

However, it might equally be asked how this relic of the Soviet era lasted for so long.  There are few more tangible representations of the transition away from communism than the removal of Soviet-era statues. Kyiv’s protestors argue that Lenin has long been squatting, given that former President Yushchenko signed a decree ordering the removal of the statue in 2009.

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Protestors in Kyiv decapitate the Lenin Statue on Shevchenko Boulevard

Ukrainians are far from the first in the former Soviet sphere to face dilemmas over the fate of Soviet-era statues.  The Estonian have shown little appetite for keeping souvenirs of this difficult period in their history.  Monuments to Lenin, Stalin and Stakhanovite ‘comrades’ were quietly rounded up and unceremoniously dumped in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum.  There they lie, forgotten and unloved, reflecting the sentiment of a country that is so keen to forget about its long occupation that it won’t even organise a formal disposal for Lenin and his cronies.

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Soviet-era statues abandoned in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn

However, the transition away from communism also heralded the beginning of a period of vigorous capitalism.  In Lithuania, one canny entrepreneur realised that, while the local population would rather forget about the Soviet-era, there was money to be made from curious tourists.  The statues were collected and displayed in a theme park, where tourists can gawp for a charging a basic entry fee for 20 litas (€5).  A further 26 litas buys an audio guide,

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Lenin sits comfortably in the Grūto Parkas, Druskininkai, Lithuania

While protestors in Kyiv continue to hack away at a statue that has out-stayed its welcome, it is ironic that Lenin’s safest and most comfortable resting place has been within the very bosom of capitalism.

The Myth of the ‘Mighty Minnows’

Nationalist movements often argue that small countries are more economically successful than big ones.  The Scottish Nationalist Party claims that independence would allow Scotland to advance from ‘its subordinate position within the UK, and generate a new prosperity for Scotland.’  And former Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, who is currently taking a career break at Harvard University, goes further,wrapping the ‘small equals rich’ argument in a cloak of pseudo-academic jargon.

Price’s article, published in an on-line student journal, is entitled ‘Small is Cute, Sexy and Successful’.  He argues that smaller countries grow faster because they are more open to trade, more socially cohesive and more adaptable.  Rather optimistically, Price even argues that differences in population size alone account for ‘mighty minnows’ outperforming the big five (UK, Italy, Germany, France and Spain) between 1997 and 2007.  Furthermore, he argues that small countries did no worse than large countries when financial catastrophe hit in 2008, concluding that a ‘rising tide lifts small boats faster, it seems, but they are no more likely to sink in a storm.’

Although ‘Small is Cute’ is littered with academic terminology, Price’s analysis lacks any pretence of scholarly rigour. He jumps between different sets of countries and different time frames, cherry-picking examples from the six original Coal and Steel Community states, the EU15 and the EU27.  Sometimes he presents data from 1979-2007, and sometimes he presents figures from 1996-2009.  He is rarely clear about which data set is being referenced.

His arguments are also weak.  The Bosnians and the Belgians may be interested to hear that small countries are more cohesive than big ones. But Price’s most naïve contention of all is that small, export-driven countries fare no worse than larger countries in hard times.  In reality, the very reliance of small countries on trade, much vaunted by Price, leaves them particularly vulnerable to downturns in the global economy.

Latvia’s GDP plummeted by 18% in 2009.

The Lithuanian economy shrank by 15% in 2009.

Estonia’s economy contracted by 13.9% in 2009.

In the same year, Slovenia lost 7.3% of its GDP, Ireland’s economy shrank by 7%, Iceland’s by 6.8% and Hungary’s by 6.7%.

Unable to access credit on bond markets, many of these countries were forced to accept IMF bailouts in exchange for blistering austerity measures.  Far from enjoying prosperity, these countries are still straining for any glimpse of recovery on the horizon.

So, Adam Price’s article is nine parts polemic and one part academic, and talk of ‘mighty minnows’ is mere wishful thinking.