This was inspired by the recent London Review of Books article, After The Vote. The article ends by suggesting that a touch of dictatorship has haunted Spain’s recent history, going back to Franco. I felt, like many others no doubt, that the fuss over Catalonia’s independence referendum had arrived out of a clear blue sky. When I was growing up, it was all about ETA and the Basques. Now, as if from nowhere, a totally new calamity.
It got me thinking. Now, in Britain, our own self-imposed calamity is Brexit. It removes any remaining moral high ground we might once have been able to pretend to. We are ones to talk. But it reminded me of a book about France, a very good and accessible book, The Discovery of France, which opened my eyes to a country that was, until very recently, a collection of peasant villages knitted together by some aspirational types in Paris. It’s a situation we see even more formally in federal Germany. Again, not a proper country. So what is a proper country anyway?
What Spain, France and Germany have in common is that they are geographically large. Very large. Not as large as the USA, which is also not a proper country, but large in European terms. Why is that, from a British standpoint, these are not somehow true countries? For the same reason that the EU is not a country. A federation of independent states does not a country make.
Once you introduce federalism, you loosen the bonds between the states. This is not the same thing as devolution, but that is a step in the same direction. It is beyond what we now call Devo-Max, I think. It is beyond the idea of a city state, such as in Singapore, and to an extent in London and New York. Federalism is what you get when you try to merge things, peoples, together that have no business being together. Federalism is nothing more than a shotgun marriage of convenience. And that is why it is flawed.
Surely California will never be allowed its independence from the US, even if a lot of people wanted it. It sounds inconceivable. Yet it is on the radar now. If Catalonia, as seems likely, ends up with an even looser connection to the Spanish centre, then why not its once-Spanish cousin in California? Why not Scotland? Why do I think that Scotland is not comparable? Because it is not a state within a federal system. It is, historically, recognisable as a proper country, with its own royal family. Which all suggests that the UK is not truly a proper country either. And it is not.
When many overseas talk about Britain or the UK, they are equally likely to talk about England as if it were the same thing. England is a better, more varied and rich place with Wales and Scotland alongside it. But it is a proper country, at least.
Proper countries need all of the following: a common language (which rules out the EU, rightly), a common history stretching back at least five hundred years, a common legal system, a common cultural heritage, common values and ethics, and a shared understanding of what the future holds. Perhaps the five hundred years sounds a bit arbitrary, but in country terms, a hundred years is not long enough to guarantee that it will last.
You cannot make a country by political will. Such attempts, sooner or later, always go the way of Catalonia: they fracture. East Germany, a political creation, lasted only forty years. Yugoslavia: doomed. Czechoslovakia: doomed. These were all marriages of convenience. Part of the explanation for France rolling over so readily in the 1940s must be that very many of them just didn’t feel all that French. It could never have happened here, and not only because of the English Channel.
Federal systems look good on paper: certain powers will be devolved, and others will be shared. But always, in making that distinction, the system has conflict built into it. Should the state have tax-raising powers, and if so, how much? Why not change it next year? Why not add schools or hospitals into the list of devolved powers? If the police, why not an army? Where is the line? The answer, of course, is that everyone places the line at a different point. True countries are not artificially hacked around like this. True countries evolve over centuries. As Spain foreshadowed war in the 1940s, it could foreshadow deep conflict once again. Because when a federal system shatters, it doesn’t confine itself to one country.