The Glasgow by-election provides a pretext for Tristram Hunt to raise the spectre of Balkanisation on Comment is Free. He indicts successive British governments, but the present Labour administration in particular, for indulging localism and neglecting coherent promotion of the values and history of Union. On the same site, and in the Guardian itself, Simon Jenkins takes a similarly coruscating view on the international community’s role in the Balkans themselves, and foresees the phenomenon which has taken its name from that region being rolled out in other trouble-spots throughout the world, with baleful consequences.
Hunt’s argument is incorrigibly gloomy, but it contains several pertinent points as regards the failure of the present government and its predecessors to engage in constructive promotion of the Union. Few unionists would seriously contest his contention that ‘rather than stopping nationalism dead in its tracks, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly have only intensified cross-party calls for the Balkanisation of Britain’, a situation for which the Labour government must take direct responsibility. Hunt is quick to identify the irony that the same party which has provided succour to separatists has most to lose from the chords which bind the United Kingdom together being loosened. After all, a strong Labour Party by necessity would expect to draw much of that strength from robust support in both Scotland and Wales.
The conundrum which Hunt outlines may make Gordon Brown’s belated attempts to highlight the dangers which the Union faces genuine, but it does not absolve him from the responsibility for that weakness, which he now regards as a threat. Nor is the situation quite as ominous as Hunt’s doomsday scenario might suggest. Whilst the SNP may conceivably strengthen its position at Holyrood, it remains a minority administration.
Whether Salmond’s party seeks an early referendum on Scottish independence or not, an honest enquiry of the electorate will not elicit the response they are seeking in the foreseeable future. Neither is it plausible that a Conservative government will be returned in 2010 without Scottish representation. A resurgent Tory party will not lose Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and there are several other Scottish seats which they will realistically target in the next General Election. And whilst I have argued that the Conservative position on the Union can be worryingly contradictory and ambiguous, Hunt is surely vastly overstating the case to suggest that the party’s mainstream is moving rapidly toward an English nationalist position.
Where the article is strong is in highlighting the lamentable trend toward “ethnically codified national entities at the expense of broader civic federations” which gathered pace in Europe post 1991. Hunt identifies specific instances whereby the Labour government has encouraged localism at the expense of promoting unionist values, even within the last few years. He is right to question the coherence of the government’s message in this light. He is also correct to allude to the ideological lacuna which allows the United Kingdom, in its international role, to sustain Balkanisation and separatism, whilst opposing the same trends at home.
And it is in this respect that Simon Jenkins’ article chimes melodiously with Hunt’s message. Jenkins unequivocally celebrates the apprehension of Radovan Karadzic, but he identifies a failure of international law to exact swift, fair and consistent justice in many previous cases. He points to the prolonged ‘bureaucratic farce’ which Slobodan Milosevic’s trial became as well as The Hague’s failure to convict Croats or Bosnian Muslims for their war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing.
The failure of international law, Jenkins sees as contributing to Balkanisation, with the west as ‘a willing and bumbling partner’. This trend Jenkins predicts will soon be extended to Afghanistan. He views the promotion of these ethnic states as a short-term solution which will ultimately have a poisonous influence. That influence might be extended closer to home than Jenkins makes explicit.