Comment: Unions have always been made then broken

The flag-drapped coffin of former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. Picture: Reuters
The flag-drapped coffin of former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. Picture: Reuters
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A man whose achievement was remarkable died on Sunday. Adolfo Suarez, as prime minister of Spain from 1976-81, was the architect of his country’s transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy.

Few expected this when King Juan Carlos appointed him, for the young Suarez was reared in Franco’s Movimiento Nacional, and many regarded him as a Francoist apparatchik. Yet within a very few years he dismantled the structure of the regime, even bringing the long-banned Spanish Communist Party into the mainstream of politics.

Picture: Getty

Picture: Getty

Perhaps only a man from his background, a Falangist insider, could have persuaded both Right and Left that it was necessary to draw a line under the past, to set ancient enmities aside, and for each to make concessions. Reconciliation was his aim and to a great extent he was successful. He resigned of his own free will, when his parliamentary support slipped away, saying his achievement had been at the expense of his political effectiveness, and that any attempt to cling to power would damage the nascent democracy.

Yet in creating the new democratic Spain, he may also have prepared the way for the state’s disintegration. One of his first measures was to grant limited self-government to Catalonia and the Basque Country. In doing so he fed these regions’ appetite without satisfying it, just as Labour’s conversion to Scottish devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament have stimulated the nationalists’ demand for independence rather than killing it off. Now, with Scotland poised to vote in a referendum in September, Catalan politicians are demanding their own independence vote – a demand which so far the Spanish government refuses to countenance.

The indications still are that there is a majority against independence here, this time round anyway. But nobody should suppose that a defeat for the Yes camp in September would settle the issue once for all. It would remain live, and if a No vote was followed – as the three main Unionist parties all promise – by a further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, the bonds of Union might be more frayed, and ten or 15 years down the line might be severed completely. Politics is about power, and unless there is general agreement about the state’s constitution – as is the case, at present anyway, in federal nations like the US and Germany – politicians in devolved or subsidiary governments will tend to seek more power, extending their competence.

States come and go. What seems permanent proves to be temporary. Anyone who has read Vanished Kingdoms, the historian Norman Davies’s fascinating survey of the historically changing shape of Europe, knows this. The state which brought about the long-sought unification of Germany itself no longer exists: Prussia is only a memory. The great 19th century liberal cause was the unification of Italy, finally achieved in 1870. Will United Italy celebrate its 150th birthday? Only last week an unofficial referendum in the Veneto produced a majority in favour of breaking away and re-establishing the historic Republic of Venice; and there are separatist movements in other Italian regions also. The Kingdom of the South Slavs, Yugoslavia, was created after the 1914-18 war. It has disappeared from the map, to be replaced by five independent states, not all of which may hold together.

What we think of as a nation state may be a fairly recent creation. France has existed for more than 1,000 years, but much that is now French became so much later than that founding. Alsace and Lorraine, acquired in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, were lost to Germany in 1870-1, regained by France in 1918, lost, briefly, in 1940, and returned in 1945. Nice and (French) Savoy were part of the Kingdom of Sardinia until the 1860s. The future Emperor Napoleon was born only one year after his native Corsica became French. Secessionist movements in France are currently weak, even the Breton one, but they may not remain so.

The United Kingdom has had a long run, whether you date it from 1603 or, more correctly, from 1707. It has survived the break-up of the later Union of 1801 by which Ireland was at last fully incorporated. For many Scots – and some Welsh people – it is now subject to the law of diminishing returns. What used to work to general satisfaction is no longer felt, or thought, by many to do so.

One wonders how many of those intending to vote Yes in September are motivated less by enthusiasm for independence than by disaffection with Westminster and what they regard as the excessive influence of the City of London. In yesterday’s Scotsman, my old friend Michael Fry, English by birth but Scottish by choice, wrote that he would vote for independence to “get rid of a decrepit UK with its hopelessly outdated policies, especially its ridiculous pretensions to be a great power, and its subjection of internal freedoms to these external delusions”.

He may exaggerate the decrepitude of the UK, but many will echo his sentiments and this is a challenge Unionists have to meet. Preserving the Union may require something of the imagination, generosity and courage which Adolfo Suarez showed in managing his country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. This will be the case even if a majority reject independence in September, for it would be foolish to suppose a No vote would be the end of the matter. It won’t, or can’t, simply be “business as before” once this little local difficulty is out of the way. Any politician who thinks it could be is deluded.

To survive, the United Kingdom will have to change. That change would be in part constitutional – that is, structural – but it would also require a shift in attitudes and a new style of politics. Without such changes, it is probable that Scottish independence would be merely postponed.

The first question is whether politicians in Westminster realise this and are alert to the need for change; the second whether they can persuade the English electorate of this necessity. Happily there are regions of England every bit as dissatisfied with the status quo, with the style of Westminster politics and the dominance of the City of London, as so many Scots evidently are.