Can Scotland learn something from Slovakia?

Everyone has those few memories from childhood that stick out. One of mines is the day, when I was about 12 years old and for the first time become witness to serious discussion on the topic of foreign politics. My distant uncle, a prominent Slovakian politician, visited Poland somewhere in 1992. The adults – my parents, uncles and their friends – gathered around the table as he was explaining pros and cons of the Czecho-Slovakian divorce to my family. They were sharing their opinions as well. It was a heated discussion. I was sitting in the corner on a little stool, overlooked by all the adults, and was listening with fascination: it was something amazing, Soviet Union collapsed just recently and now that! I was still a kid, but grown up enough to understand, that I am witnessing historic events…

I recalled that memory in 2014, when Scotland was discussing matters of getting independence from the UK. At the beginning I had a strange feeling of déjà vu – I struggled to puit the finger on where I heard all those arguments before. Until one day I saw a picture of Tatra car, just like the one my uncle used to drive, and I remembered that evening from all those years ago. All of the arguments were exactly the same: Slovakia was supposed to be unable to survive without Czech Republic pumping money into it. Czech Republic being accusing of stealing Slovakian wealth and treating Slovaks as second class citizens. Arguments that Slovakia has no industry and will be unable to survive on it’s own… Accusations that this is only about personal ambitions of some Slovakian politicians… It was all there.

With the beginning of this year we had 25th anniversary of the day, when Czech Republic and Slovakia went their own ways. One could say, that perhaps Britain could use this as a case study and see: was Czech Republic harmed in any way? Did Slovakia really tumbled into the abyss, or perhaps it is now a manufacturing hub of the automotive industry for the whole Europe? It could be worth to speak with Slovakians and see, if they ever regretted that decision. But most Britons I know are not interested in learning from others. “This is different” they say. And they don’t mean, that Scotland and the UK are relatively wealthy countries, free of the problems that post-communist Czechoslovakia was struggling with. No, when they say “Britain is different”, what they really mean is “Britain is unique”, “Britain is exceptional”, a kind of softy “The Blighty has nothing to learn from inferior countries”. And so since they are not willing to learn from the experiences of others, they need to find their own way, for better or worse.

But let’s get back to 2014. I am from Poland, so I was very positively surprised with a very decent level of discourse compared to what I am used to. My social media were flooded with discussions between YES or NO camps, and those discussions were actually based on fact and polite (at least for the most of the time). I’ve decided to remain on the side, as despite living in Scotland for nearly a decade, I still didn’t considered myself Scottish, and I was of the opinion, that it is not my call to decide the fate of this country. But I spent hours reading those exchanges, following the arguments and cross-checking the facts. And of course I had my own thoughts on the matter.

I had interest in politics since I remember, my studies at Glasgow Uni also included some of European and international politics. It is my strong belief, that as the humanity, we are in the moment, when our thinking has to jump one level up again. Globalisation is a fact, whether we like it or not. Just as in the middle ages the “international” politics meant dealing with castellan of that castle across the valley, then it jumped up from through the level of small princedoms to bigger countries, then up again to the states as we know today. Today we are at the verge of another shift. Small, national countries mean less and less on the world stage, where cards are dealt by big players such like Russia, USA, China or India. Britain might stretch its Trident muscles as much as it pleases, but it is no longer an empire it was a century ago. Today for Europe to be heard, it has to speak with one voice. And Britain, even before Brexit referendum, had no mandate to speak for the whole region, nor it matters on it’s own: it is just yet another country on the outskirts of Europe. Don’t believe that? Ask any of the thousands of European tourists who visit Scotland each year about Brexit. Contrary to Nigel Farage’s expectations, they will not be tearing off their clothes in despair of Britain ruining Europe by leaving it. General attitude towards Brexit amongst European can be summed in one word: “meh”. It seems to be general consensus of everyone, but the right wing extremists in few countries, that UK just shot itself in it’s own feet. And even those right wingers are now less keen to call for their countries to leave the EU after it has become obvious to everyone (perhaps apart from Theresa May’s govermnent) that one indeed cannot eat the cake and retain it…

Of course it is not to say, that Europe should take Brexit lightly. It will be hard for both parties involved. The difference is, that for 27 European countries of the European Union, it will be a manageable set back, because, you know, they are Better Together. Britain on the other hand will be left on its own, and, unless it finally agrees to stop behave like a spoiled child that has been denied a cookie and get real, it is heading towards a hard, head-on crash with the reality. And while united Europe will further grow its strength in the global politics and economical market, Scotland, along with the rest of the UK is set to sail on a small boat navigated by England into the unknown in search of the golden past, that might not even exist any more. Unless it breaks free, and then decide, if it want to keep paddling on its own, or actually climb aboard the still strong European cruiser that might have some technical difficulties, but it is still strong and stable enough to ensure a safe passage for the foreseeable future.

But of course this is global politics, you might say. For the average man, the most important things happen at the local level. And you will be right. But the local matter, such as fixing potholes in the roads, running schools and providing medical care are already managed at the local level – from Holyrood. So the fact is that in 2014, Scotland had a chance to get rid of the middle man: as when local matters are dealt with locally, and the global politics is now happening in Brussels, who needs London?

Back in 2014 I was overwhelmed with the optimism of the pro-independence people. I got a chance to observe YES activist due to the job I had back there – I was delivering printed leaflets to YES hubs across the country (you can read my reportage here). But it were not YES activist who changed my mind and convinced me to cast my vote. It was actually the inclusiveness of the Scottish population as a whole. No matter whom I spoke with, everyone, YES or NO, was telling me that I should consider Scotland to be my home and to vote. Sometimes before, sometimes after asking me what is my opinion on the matter. And even if they did not agreed with me, they were still encouraging me to vote, saying that Scotland is my home and I have right to decide its future. So I decided to go, and on the referendum day I voted Yes.

I honestly believed that Scotland is able to do it, but on the other hand I knew that it was a close call, so I was not surprised to see that the YES side failed. It was a shame, but assumed that everything will just be back as before. And this is where I was wrong. Brexit referendum has changed everything. Today Scots face an important decision of choosing the path for the future – being led by England, joining group of European countries travelling together, or perhaps looking for it’s own path? One could think, that discussion will have to start over again. But somehow this time the gears are grinding…

Three and half years after 2014 referendum I barely recognize this country. Of course, the lochs are still beautiful and I love to camp in the Scottish wilderness just as much, as I loved it before. But the moods of the people changed. The political discussion is nothing like what I remember from 2014. This time there seems to be no dialogue and people just abuse each other across the fence with aggression I can compare only to deeply divided political scene of Poland. I trawled my Facebook relentlessly in hope to find any substantial discussion but to no avail. It was all about both sides accusing the other of being nationalists, or mindless servants of, respectively London and Brussels (as if the Scottish independence enthusiasts who were anti European Union were non-existent). Even the facts do not matter any more, as each side seems to have it’s own facts and try to undermine the data provided by the other. Sometimes it is kind of funny, as where this inclusive Scottish approach is slagged as raging nationalism by the people waving Union Jack and shouting slogans like “Britain first” and “British this for British that”. But it is no longer amusing when it is also the first time in my 12 years on those islands when someone tried to abuse me due to my nationality. And of all the places, in remote Scottish Highlands…

Of course with the victory of a Brexiteers in the referendum, the matter of Scottish independence got on the table again. But this time discussion was different. This time, the British nationalist side managed to convince people that this is not about the future of their country, but solely about fulfilling private ambitions of one Nicola Sturgeon and a bunch of some loonies who cannot accept their defeat in 2014. And then there is constantly growing group of people who simply are fed up with all that. Tired of such aggressive politics, tired of the fake news and rigged data published by both sides of the dispute, they simply don’t want to be bothered by all that any more and certainly don’t want to hear about any further referendums. They have enough to worry as it is, as it starts to seem that promised soft Brexit transition is not going to happen, and instead of that Britain is going to take a head-on plunge into the dark, cold water of unknown. One should be busy preparing for that.

What stroke me, as a foreigner, is that while in 2014 everyone was keen to find what my opinion on the matter is, and I had my tongue pulled on every occasion, now the only people who want to know my take on Brexit are other EU citizens. The most I got from Britons, after the initial Brexit shock, were attempts to comfort me and ensure, that it won’t be that bad for me. As if it was me, who should worry – if it gets bad, I still have 27 other EU countries to choose from, they just voted to give their rights to settle elsewhere away.

I love Scotland and it is my home, at least for now. But I am worried about it’s future. See, when I recall that discussion that took place 25 years ago in my uncle’s kitchen in Kraków, I look at where Czech Republic and Slovakia are today, and I see that they both succeeded as good as they could. They are now independent countries, but working together as members of a bigger European project. While Slovakia celebrated the anniversary, there was little mention of that day in Czech Republic, as they don’t like to be reminded the times when they believed that Slovakia “won’t manage without them” – especially when recently it has overtaken them in the economic growth. But even despite that, I am still to meet either Czech or Slovak, who would tell me that they regret splitting, and would like to see Czechoslovakia becoming one country again. Will today’s Scottish children, who listen to adults discussing political matters look back at this time and remember it as the days, when Scotland wasted a greatest change in a generation?


Photo of Slovakian flag: public domain. 



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