“Balkanisation” is a term I haven’t heard for a while now, but twenty years ago – when the Welsh Assembly referendum took place just as the bloody aftermath of Yugoslavia’s breakup was playing out – Unionists were fond of trotting it out to attack those of us in favour of devolution or outright independence for Wales.
Those who used the term displayed a profound ignorance of European history. For all their beauty and the many things they have to be proud of (perhaps most of all, Bulgaria’s honourable defence of its Jews during Nazi occupation in World War 2), the Balkans’ history has been uniquely troubled. Mainly this is because of where they are: among the fractured shards where the Austrian and Turkish empires ground against one another for centuries like two great tectonic plates. The British Isles, here on the Atlantic seaboard, have nothing in common with them.
The nordic countries, on the other hand – by which I mean the three Scandinavian countries (Norway/Denmark/Sweden) plus Finland and Iceland – offer some much closer parallels. For much of history since mediaeval times they were dominated by Sweden in just the same way that England has dominated the British Isles over a similar timespan, but one by one they have gained their independence (most recently Finland, after a period spent under Russian domination) and are nowadays associated with everything that the Balkans are not.
For the moment, I’m going to concentrate on Norway.
The westernmost Vikings had settled down to become Norwegians by about the 13th Century, but when the Black Death arrived in 1349 it killed a third of the population within a year and half the population within fifty years. Severely weakened, the kingdom lost control of its foreign trade to the Hanseatic League; in 1380 it was combined under a common king with Denmark, and 1387 this combined kingdom came under Swedish control, though with Denmark the most populous of the three.
A revolt led by Knut Alvsson in 1502 was unsuccessful, but in the 1520s Sweden pulled away from the Union fearing domination by Denmark leaving Norway very much the junior partner in what remained. Over the next few centuries Norway was largely an ignored bystander in the ebb and flow of power between Denmark and Sweden, becoming definitively part of Sweden again in 1814 as part of the fall-out from the Napoleonic wars. During the following century the country industrialised rapidly, though population growth was even more rapid leading to around 800,000 people emigrating, mainly to the US and Canada, by the early 20th Century.
Pressure for Norwegian independence from Sweden, to make Norway an independent country for the first time since the 14th Century, built up throughout the 19th Century, to the point where the country’s parliament was dominated by pro-independence politicians. Things came to a head in 1905 when the Norwegian parliament voted to adopt a foreign policy which the Swedish king refused to approve. When the government resigned in protest, the Swedish king refused to accept their resignations, and the parliament responded by claiming that in failing to appoint a replacement government he had abandoned his role as King of Norway and was therefore unfit to govern. The Swedish government called a referendum of Norwegian citizens and agreed to relinquish control of Norway if the result was in favour of “the already-completed dissolution of the Union”.
Now that’s what I call a referendum
In 1997, Wales obtained devolution after a referendum was won by 50.3% against 49.7%.
In 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1% (though in Wales the margin was wider still, 53.5% to 47.5%). That’s all I’m going to say on that particular subject.
In 1905 Norway voted to leave the union with Sweden, and become independent for the first time since the 14th Century, by 99.95% to 0.05%. Only 184 people out of an eligible electorate of nearly 400,000 voted to remain. Women did not have the vote in Norway at the time, but 244,765 of them signed a petition in favour of independence nonetheless.
In case anyone’s wondering, I should add that nobody knew about Norway’s oil reserves until 1967.
What can we learn?
The first lesson to take away from all this is that even after hundreds of years as an impoverished junior partner in a much larger kingdom, independence can be successfully achieved by a small country through peaceful and democratic means.
Secondly, the best way to achieve it is to elect pro-independence parties (note the plural) into the country’s parliament, and not to rush into a referendum until the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Norway didn’t seem to suffer from parties who claimed to be pro-independence but never actually did anything towards it, or who stood on pro-independence manifestos and then did everything possible to undermine it. But I’d promised I wouldn’t say anything else on that subject.
Norway’s story of independence has an interesting and, as far as I know, unique twist to it. Although absolutely certain that they didn’t want to be ruled by the Swedish king, the Norwegian electorate decided later in 1905, by a majority of 79% to 21%, that it didn’t want Norway to be a republic either. The result was a brand new Norwegian royal family: parliament appointed Carl, a member of the Danish royal family married to the daughter of Edward VII (who therefore bore the incongruous title ‘Maud of Wales’), and his descendants remain in place to this day.
Some of my Gwlad colleagues are in fact republicans, but I can actually see many advantages in making the Head of State a non-political role and having it pass as a hereditary title. Maybe there is a descendant of the line of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd somewhere who could take on the job. Even so, that’s a separate subject from independence, and it’s a matter for the citizens of an independent Wales to decide for themselves, just like the Norwegians did.