Why is nationalism dying out in Romania but thriving in Scotland?

Why is nationalism dying out in Romania but thriving in Scotland?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 9, July, 2018

A RECENT HOLIDAY in Romania (a country which I have been visiting for 29 years), made me reflect on the respective potency of nationalism there and in Scotland where I live and was born.    

All is far from well in Romania right now. In 2018, the successors of the ruling pre-1989 communist party, the Social Democratic (PSD) are trying to impose single party rule in nominally democratic conditions. They are using crude nationalist messages as a tool of persuasion but without conspicuous success.  Instead the PSD’s power-bid rests (1) on its control of much of the media and (2) on its ability to satisfy its poorly-educated and lower-income supporters with a range of social benefits paid for from EU funds and the taxes of the middle-classes.   

During my eleven days in Romania, Scottish voters were saturated with nationalist messages. The Scottish Parliament was in danger. Powers being repatriated from Brussels were not being transferred immediately to Scotland. It didn’t matter that the Scottish National party (SNP) did not want them back in the first place; this was naked colonialism in action. So a campaign of disruption was launched in the House of Commons. The chief protagonist was the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford. He happens to have been a banker whose wealth exceeds that of many of the Tory grandees who are invariably seen as a privileged caste somehow holding Scotland in captivity.    

Contenders for power, or rulers who wish to secure uncritical backing from citizens, find that elevating themselves as defenders of the nation gives them the staying power that eludes more conventional movements. The Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena, had 24 years. Alex Salmond and more recently Nicola Sturgeon, have had eleven. I have no qualms about suggesting that there are common traits between Romanian and Scottish nationalism. Its exponents argue that they should be judged not on their economic record or probity but how they take forward the nation. This promotion of the nation is usually couched in intangible terms. It involves warding off dangers from external enemies and their internal accomplices. 

Important objectives can be identified (such as education, supposed to define Sturgeon’s time in office), but then can be abruptly dropped without explanation. Custodians of the national interest do not need to explain these bumps in the road. The nature of nationalist parties usually means no mechanism exists for leaders to give account of their performance or defend setbacks in the journey towards national fulfilment.   

The Ceausescus claimed that their regime was a socialist democracy. But freedom was defined narrowly as freedom from foreign control. Romania belonged to a communist bloc managed from Moscow but the ruling duo tried to show that Romania was able to go its own way. Grim privations were visited on the population as furious efforts were made to pay off a large foreign debt. The collapse in the world oil price had dashed Romania’s hopes of being an energy power.   

With communism in retreat as the Cold War ended, the unfortunate couple were lynched by their underlings on Christmas day 1989 after a mock trial. Second-ranking communists whose motivation was to enjoy not only power but wealth in the new capitalist times, went on to furiously defend their privileges.  In the early 1990s I had the opportunity to witness a violent changeover punctuated by pogroms and deliberately-orchestrated inter-ethnic violence. Whatever democracy would be permitted had to be limited so as to ensure that no fundamental shift in power relations occurred. A deformed democracy helps to explain why, in 2018, the old guard still dream of creating a kleptocratic state.   Released from my British cocoon I found the elemental struggle to build a new post-communist country fascinating but ultimately dispiriting.  

Yugoslavia (a much freer and better-run communist country than Romania) was collapsing into ethnic strife. It was not far-fetched to see a similar collapse in Romania. In 1995 Edinburgh University Press published a gloomy book by me on how identity politics was creating a lost generation, robbing Romania of a second chance to build a free and open society. The worst didn’t come to pass. Even with plunging living standards, people showed restraint. Cluj, a city in northern Romania had a chauvinist mayor for twelve years.  Today this main city in Transylvania is the most go-ahead place in Romania. Its IT sector, universities and civic-minded population have made it the chief rallying-point against the new despotism that is visible in Bucharest.    

Nationalism was running out of steam even before the European Union appeared on the horizon, offering Romanians the hope of better economic times, more responsible government and freedom to travel without a visa. EU statistics now show that in terms of national feeling, Romania is located in the bottom half of the 28 member states.  I had not expected national identity to lose its central place there so quickly. Nor did I expect Scotland soon to be so accommodating for a noisy and simplistic brand of nationalist politics once it acquired substantial self-government within the UK from 1999 onwards.

I had backed devolution and had even shown some critical sympathyfor Scottish nationalism up to the early 1990s.

This receded thanks to the SNP’s hostility to devolution and vanished completely when during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, Alex Salmond was strongly critical of NATOefforts to prevent Slobodan Milosevic deporting the Albanian population from the then province. The first election for the Scottish parliament was underway. Salmond’s attempt to gain advantage at home by meddling in nationalist troubles abroad backfired. But it has become a standard SNP tactic as shown most notably in its exploitation of regional troubles in Spain

In Romania by contrast the government then in office backed NATO in its high-risk confrontation with Milosevic and the path to NATO membership in 2005 and that of the EU in 2007 opened up. 

I had written off Salmond as an antediluvian figure  too undisciplined and impulsive to be a builder in the new Scotland. Expecting that he was doomed to be a noisy secondary figure, I was proven wrong. After 2007 Scotland showed that even in the absence of territorial grievances, major economic dissatisfaction, or bewildering social change, nationalism could be a tool of people who wished to use high office to cement their power and alter borders.   The way nationalism was originally used in Romania to siphon off state resources, stir up trouble with neighbours and provide a platform for doubtful people has coloured my estimation of the Scottish variant. In Romania most people resisted the nationalist temptation even though they had remained in isolation and faced censorship for many years. So far in Scotland, too many people have failed that maturity test. They have allowed their judgement to be coloured by complexes about England or angry sentiment about the Conservatives, the main pro-British party. Some clearly see identity politics as a means of acquiring wealth and local influence which otherwise would be very hard to come by.    

Today newspapers like the National, obsessed with slights to Scotland, are hard to spot. Commentators like Lesley Riddoch or the Wee Ginger Dug can expect a rough ride. Politicians like Nicola Sturgeon would be dismissed as ‘suburban’ by the bulk of informed opinion in Romania. Movements lacking basic answers for problems of modern society can decline in Romania but go on and on in Scotland. Answers for this may become more readily available if we cease looking at Scotland in isolation and make connections with other places.   

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who lives in Edinburgh. He has written three books on Romania, published by Manchester and Edinburgh University Presses and Hurst & co.  His 14th single-authored book and debut novel, ‘Flight of Evil: A North British Intrigue’, came out in March.   He can be followed on twitter at @Cultfree54

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