The longer any online discussion goes on, the greater the probability
that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis.
This maxim – known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is so widely accepted that it
has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. So today I would
like to propose an #indyref equivalent (but please don’t call it
‘Geoghegan’s Law’!): the longer any discussion about Scottish
independence goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone adducing
‘Balkanisation’. It is a word that, rightly, strikes fear into anyone
with a decent memory or a cursory knowledge of late 20th century
European history. A phrase borne of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and
redolent of the crackle of gunfire and the heavy thud of mortar
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many snipers on Sauchiehall
Street, or armed militias on training exercises at the Rest and Be
Thankful. But that hasn’t stopped some senior figures evoking the ‘B’
‘Balkanisation’. That is what George Robertson warned will happen if
Scots vote Yes on September 18. “The fragmentation of Europe starting
on the centenary of the first world war would be both an irony and a
tragedy with incalculable consequences,’ the former NATO secretary
general and Labour Defence minister said in a speech at the Brookings
Institution in Washington in April.
Lord Robertson has previous when it comes to making wayward
predications. It was he, after all, who in 1995 prophesied that
‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead’.
But Robertson is also a Labour politician so his hyperbolic
intervention is at least understandable in those terms. Unlike Carl
Bildt’s. Earlier this month Sweden’s foreign minister, and former UN
special envoy to the Balkans, warned in an interview with the
Financial Times that Scottish independence would lead to the
“Balkanisation of the British Isles” and would set off “unforeseen
chain reactions” in both Europe and the UK.
‘Balkanisation’, in the referendum debate, is a dog whistle. A shrill
sounding off to a particular audience, largely international, that
believes that behind every nationalist movement lies chauvinism.
Scottish nationalists have hidden their true nature thus far, even
perhaps from themselves, but a descent into the ethnic abyss is an
What we talk about when we talk about the Balkans is the likelihood of
violence and terror ripping previously placid polities apart.
But what if we actually looked at whether the Balkan experience might
be able to better inform the independence debate? Might we be able to
learn something the practices and procedures of forming new
nation-states on the edge of Europe, all roughly the same size as
One such area is the vexed question of who would be the legal
successor state if Scotland votes yes. Nationalists say both Scotland
and the rest of the UK; unionists maintain that only the UK could
rightfully claim to be the successor. Here a glance in the direction
of the Balkans is instructive. In their brief union in the 1990s, both
Serbia and Montenegro claimed they were the successor state to
Yugoslavia. Neither won the argument. All six ex-Yugoslav republics
were deemed successor states.
The recent political and economic experiences of the Balkan states are
worth considering, too. The Yugoslav system was already crumbling by
the early 1980s, well before Slobodan Milosevic had whipped Serbs into
a nationalist frenzy. But for much of the previous two decades,
Yugoslavia enjoyed a high standard of living, broadly on a par with
much of Mediterranean Europe.
This is no longer the case. Serbia ranks 64 in the 2013 Human
Development Index; Macedonia is 78; Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 81st.
(The UK by comparison is 26th). The Balkan states are among the most
unequal in Europe.
The reason Balkan states fare so poorly is not because they are
separate rather than united in a Federation. It is not even, directly,
because of the war. It is because they have been ruled for two decades
by varying combinations of disinterested international representatives
and nakedly self-interested politicians that took advantage of the
power vacuum since the late 1980s. Kleptocracy, not clichéd nonsense
about ‘ancient hatreds’, has been the biggest blight on the Balkans.
There are lessons for Scotland in all this: like the Balkans before
the 1990s, Scotland has never been independent in the modern sense of
the world. The travails of the Balkan states are a stark warning about
how poor governance and corruption can become hardwired into nascent
institutions, the importance of democratic checks and balances and the
problems of nepotism in small countries.
But this, of course, is not what George Robertson and Carl Bildt mean
when they unwittingly evoke ‘Geoghegan’s law’ (Ok, maybe we can call
it that). They mean that Scotland, and Europe, will collapse in an
orgy of violence. That only the strong-arm of the status quo – like
that of Marshall Tito – can save us from the worst of ourselves.
The Balkans has plenty to teach Scotland in the run-up to September
and afterwards. ‘Balkanisation’, however, does not.