Saturday, December 16, 2006

The tipping point

It has been fascinating to see reactions to the spoof announcement of the break up of Belgium broadcast by RTBF, the Belgian French language state broadcaster on Thursday evening. In the programme, which many viewers apparently thought was for real, it was announced that Flanders, the richer, Flemish speaking, part of Belgium had announced its unilateral separation from Belgium, leaving behind Wallonia, and the French speaking part of Brussels (oh and the German speaking bit) as a rump Belgian state. Now, as it happens, Belgian federalism is so fearsomely complicated, with both territorial and community elements housed within it, that the constitutional ramifications of a split in Belgium are rather complex and could not be so easily effected by the simple secession of one territory within the state. But that is not the main point of the story, which was rather about shocking Belgian people, especially the French speaking community who were necessarily the primary audience for the programme, into thinking about issues that might be rather closer to reality than they thought, given the general election due in June 2007 and the current unhappiness in Flanders about what are thought to be subsidy junkies in Wallonia.

Now, where have I heard that before? Ah yes, in the UK. Could one imagine a similar situation arising in the UK, but not - paradoxically - with a unilateral secession by Scotland, which is what has always been posited as the most likely option, but rather by England, the richer part of the Union? It's hard to imagine, but one thing that emerges from the discussion is that Belgium is certainly getting much closer to the tipping point after which the slide towards the break up of the state could be inevitable and unstoppable. However, given the depth of the federalisation of Belgium, that tipping point is a rather long way down the line from where the UK stands at the present time. Here is a quote (handily translated into English by the German euro-topics service) from a report in the French newspaper Liberation:

"The increasingly affirmed desire for independence of The Flanders region, the most populated and richest region of the kingdom, is no longer really anything new. But the French-speakers (Brussels and the Walloon regions) have for a long time refused to look the problem in the face, believing that they would manage to hold 'Daddy's Belgium' together by giving away more and more power to regions at each election. The problem is that, henceforth, after 40 years of federalism, Flemish demands, notably in social matters, bare more and more resemblance to a real dismemberment of the State. The 2007 spring elections are therefore going to be tense and no doubt decisive for the country's future."

This got me to thinking about where the 'tipping point' might be in the UK, the point of confrontation or constitutional change beyond which the slide into the break up of the state would become inevitable, and it seemed to me that the answer lies somewhere in the English responses to the West Lothian question, and especially in the idea of an English Parliament. This is not because of the relative wealth of England in comparison to Scotland, or the rest of the UK (although this should be posited more accurately as the relative wealth of the south east of England in comparison to the rest of the UK, because of the persistent failures of UK regional economic policy), but because of the difference in size between the different component elements, so that a full federal system with a UK parliament for certain matters, plus regional parliaments for each of the four nations of the UK for others would not create a viable and durable federal state. Thus the situation differs from that pertaining in Belgium, where the main components of the federal settlement are more or less equal in size.

Anyway, I look forward to BBC Scotland's response to the challenge thrown down by RTBF.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tipping point could well be soon if new labour decide to answer the west lothian question slightly by putting English MP's in charge of departments that have been devolved to Scotland. This will be seen as spiteful, ignorant and arrogant English Nationalism by scotland,they will get the huff and march away from Westminster to the swirl of the pipes in high dudgeon.Can't wait.
Let's face it,if scotland does not vote snp in May, it will be a massive loss of face for them.The whole world has heard the talk,the whole world is waiting for the walk.

Saturday, December 16, 2006  
Blogger jailhouselawyer said...

Off post. Sorry. But if you are interested, I have now updated my site to include my response to Jonathan Aitkin. I have also posted it on iaindale's diary, where he has covered the subject of prisoners votes, where it is awaiting moderation at present.

Ciao.

Saturday, December 16, 2006  

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