The clash between chauvinism of local government and the arrogance of central government is dominating the debate in many countries around the world, as they struggle to redefine the balance of power between a nation state and its regions.
The deep racism of most regional movements is something that advocates of more local power in government have to deal with. Many regions are fighting for more say over their affairs with very little argument about policy or the economy and far too much emotional appeal based on how different they are from their fellow nationals. Those supporting Catalan independence argue simply that they are not Spanish. The appeal of the Scottish National Party is that Scotland is not England.
Their arguments would be much stronger if they presented strong manifestos based on political values that spoke of the welfare of their people, and their social and economic plans. These issues are what parties plan to do if they achieve power and that is how they should be judged. A simple rush to power based on an emotional appeal to local history and regionalism can be very destructive.
Far too often the argument for giving a region more autonomy or independence is that the local people want to control their own affairs, and they know how to do it better than a politician sitting in some remote capital. The counter argument is that the local politician sitting in the regional centre has far too many friends, family and political allies to be able to deliver good governance. Some of the worst cases of corruption are in local government: Chicago under mayors’ Daley, Glasgow under decades of Labour administration.
The dangers of local prejudices of regional government were illustrated forcefully by the shocking case in India’s state of Tamil Nadu when J. Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, tried to free the assassins of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi when she found that her regional government had some control over their legal process. Her intervention was denied by the Indian Supreme Court which exposed her chauvinism for what it was: she was playing to win popular approval from those Tamils who still have some emotional appeal for the cause of Tamil Eelam, an independent Tamil nation. Jayalalitha’s actions showed how her political focus is still very local, to the extent that she was willing to ignore the rules of justice and the broader view.
A very different process is underway in Catalonia where the economic powerhouse of the region based on Barcelona is seeking independence. The Spanish parliament has rejected Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum on independence in November, rejecting such a plan “categorically and clearly” by an overwhelming margin.
This makes any effort by the Catalan government to hold a referendum illegal although it may yet try to challenge this decision. It is also going ahead with other plans like establishing a Catalan tax-collection agency that the regional government called the “embryo’ for future fiscal autonomy.
This is a powerful tool in the debate over independence because a lot of the argument in Catalonia is about the central government in Madrid siphoning off Catalan tax revenue while also refusing to respect the Catalan language and culture. In the over-centralised Spanish system, about 95 per cent of all tax goes to the central government, which redistributes them to regions. Catalonia’s government says that about 43 cents of every euro Catalonia pays in taxes doesn’t come home.
These cases are all in nation states that work. There is a very different case to be made for regional government when the nation state collapses: like in Iraq and Yemen. The gruelling years of the Iraqi civil war offered the Kurds to grab the opportunity of effectively building their own state even if they remain within the umbrella of the Iraqi state. And the relatively organised and prosperous conditions of Kurdistan compared to central and southern Iraq make it hard to disagree that the Kurds are better off.
This is what the leaders of south Yemen may well feel if the central government in Sanaa continues to fail to deliver much governance at all. The gradual implosion of the Yemeni state means that any regional leader will be forced to take action to preserve what governance he can manage.
But this is all a long way from the flooded people of Britain’s Somerset, who first experienced their latest round of torrential rains in December and saw very little national concern about their issues till the end of the first week of February when the Thames (which flows through London and directly affects the Conservative heartland of the home counties) started to flood and Prime Minister David Cameron chaired the first meeting of Cobra (Britain’s crisis committee) to figure out what to so about the flooding.
The obvious link between the Thames threatening Conservative voters and the development of a national response has infuriated the people of Somerset who were ignored all through late December and January. Such London-centric thinking from the coalition government is a gift to the Scottish separatists under Alex Salmond who can point to yet another example of central arrogance.
But two bads do not make a right: regional chauvinism and central arrogance are not the only options. What the politicians should be focusing on is how to deliver good governance rather than playing around with their peoples’ constitutions.