Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: 'When it comes to countries, small is most definitely not beautiful'

PUBLISHED: 13:00 18 October 2017

People attend the celebration for Spain's National Day in Barcelona

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Catalonians against self-rule came out in their thousands the weekend before last.

They, the hitherto unseen and unheard, proved the region was divided. As are we on Brexit and Scotland on independence from the UK. Such fundamental disagreements, counterintuitively, are good for democracy and the world.

It’s oh so easy to get carried away by liberation struggles. I cheered on the formidable Nicola Sturgeon until the Scottish referendum results delivered sobriety and a rethink. Catalonia hopefully will not break from Spain. A new settlement would be painful, but, in the long run, judicious.

In 1975 a referendum on joining the European Common Market took place. The people voted to join. I, a recently-arrived migrant, didn’t vote, didn’t understand what was going on. But by then I had read a tremendously persuasive book called Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, by EF Schumacher, a British economist born in Germany.

He argued that limitless growth, the enlargement of political entities and markets endangered the planet and the wellbeing of humans. These ideas so fitted in with my emerging hippiness: home and hearth, crafts (I learnt to crochet and to turn candlewick bedspreads into dressing gowns), small holdings, vegetarianism, yoga, quasi village relationships, sustainability, harmony with nature. Many of these values are coming back. We should consume less, learn to live with just enough, not waste precious resources, behave better. However, “small” in our world, is no longer “beautiful”, but a reactionary force.

Modernists and liberals need to critically assess secessionists, localists, communitarians and regionalists – all romantic, compelling concepts which can and often do turn intolerant and inward, conservative and rigid.

The Catalonian uprising was appallingly handled by Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government and the partisan king. Four thousand national police officers should not have been sent in to quell the freedom movement; those officers should not have brutalised protestors and voters; force should not have been used instead of talk. This is what Franco did during his reign of terror. Those resurfaced memories will now make dialogue that much harder. Trust will have to be rebuilt on both sides to keep the nation from falling apart.

Beware of this age of breakaways. From Iraq to Scotland, France to the Czech Republic, Denmark to Canada, India to Belgium, there is a clamour for ‘independence’ either for economic, ethnic, or historical reasons. Never before has the nation state – a relatively recent development – been so vulnerable. Yes, established countries are flawed, often oppressive to minorities, unfair and overweening, at times dysfunctional.

However, separatism is not a nirvana. That clamour is an expression of tribal instincts. It doesn’t have to be, but too often is. Brexiteers wanting their “country back” displayed the same tendencies. They want not to be European and also reject those they deem “foreign”, including third-generation migrants and damned cosmopolitans, flighty people of nowhere as opposed to solidly good people somewhere, in the words of one pacifier of populism.

The weekend before last I was in north Cornwall at a delightful book festival. Cornwall, which received large subsidies from the EU, voted to leave.

One of the attendees said: “This is identity gone stupid. They say they want to get control back but can’t tell you what that means. They also want to split from Britain. There are no jobs here, except tourism. Without migrant labour that will die. The young are stuck. Their parents bring them up to stay put, live near them. The future feels unutterably bleak.”

Furthermore, localism is now a purity cult and invidious, small jingoisms. Believers won’t eat Kenyan beans and reject national elections, focusing instead on parish councils. The idea of “communities” with ties that bind are just as problematic. Just go to the east end of London and see how communities live apart in shared spaces.

Kimon Valaskakis, former ambassador of Canada to the OECD, warned about these tendencies in the Huffington Post: “[This is a] knee-jerk reaction against excessive, unregulated globalisation ... about seeking belongingness.”

He believes such agitations could lead to 200 current states splintering into a thousand or more mini-me states. How could any international cooperation or watchfulness be possible then? Imagine the chaos. Mr Valaskakis continued: “It would bring an embarrassment of riches to footloose conglomerates. It would be an el dorado for organised crime, jihadis and assorted criminals vaulting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”

Look how the EU is trying to finally hold to account American internet giants. Imagine then, a separate Catalonia or Scotland trying to do the same.

Remember too the bloody Balkanisation after the First World War and what happened in old Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Interdependence, global relationships, open minds, cultural exchange, political sophistication and modernity are now threatened by a 21st century Balkanisation.

Wars will spread everywhere and there will be nowhere peaceful on earth.

Wake up progressives. Small is not beautiful but woeful, a denial of our common humanity.

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