The Scottish referendum, Wales and the ‘Montenegro scenario’

Simon Gwyn Roberts explores the parallels between Wales and Montenegro as the Scottish referendum approaches.

Debate about the implications of the forthcoming independence referendum is reaching a frenzied climax. But amidst all the discussion, not least about what it all means for Wales, one notable point of comparison has been missed by the mainstream media.

If you’ll excuse what appears to be a giant contextual leap, the Montenegro referendum in 2006 offers some intriguing parallels with our current situation in Wales as the Scottish referendum approaches. Clearly, that comparison is slightly abstract as it must be strictly limited to the overarching political dynamic that emerged. Mercifully, the violence and ethnic hatred that characterized the break-up of Yugoslavia has no place in our discussion. The comparison is concerned simply with the dynamics of change, and crucially, how events take on a momentum of their own once the wider paradigm shifts irreversibly.

So, if the contextual leap can be temporarily indulged, for the purposes of the comparison we begin with two artificial multinational entities: Yugoslavia and the United Kingdom. Both reached a kind of historical impasse, and both were arguably no longer tenable in their existing form. In the case of Yugoslavia, the entity was held together by loyalty to an ideology: Communism. In the case of the United Kingdom, the entity was held together by many factors, one of them religious affiliation: Protestantism. Once those ties decline or are broken, the imperative for staying together diminishes.

Yugoslavia breaks up into its constituent parts, after much bloodshed and the re-opening of violent historical enmities masked by the years of union under the Communist system.

Montenegro then finds itself as the odd one out. Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia have all declared independence. But Montenegro remains saddled to its much larger Serbian neighbour as part of a Yugoslav ‘rump state’. Serbia is culturally dominant and has been allied with Montenegro for centuries: there are strong historical and religious ties between the two, they fought alongside each other in the wars of the 1990s, and Serbs see no real distinction.

So, to extend the comparison, for Serbia read England, for Montenegro read Wales, and for Rump Yugoslavia read a hypothetical ‘rUK’. At seven million, Serbia’s population was ten times larger than Montenegro’s (700,000). At 53 million, England is around 17 times larger than Wales (three million).

By the early 2000s, this strange, grossly lopsided union between Serbia and Montenegro was all that was left of Yugoslavia and it started to look untenable to many Montenegrin politicians. But the crucial point is this: although it had enjoyed versions of independence in the past, Montenegro showed little desire for independence in the years immediately following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the links with Serbia remained very strong. Wider circumstances and factors beyond their control were beginning to make it look inevitable, indeed the only real option beyond remaining tethered to an unpopular giant for eternity.

There was a feeling that Montenegro was being held back by its links with Serbia, whose leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was increasingly isolated and condemned by the international community. If the comparison may now be stretched to its absolute limits, we might imagine the effect on Wales of ‘rUK’ pushed to exit the European Union by UKIP and the right of the Tory party.

Montenegro itself was, and is, a fragmented country with mixed loyalties. Almost a third of the population identify themselves as ‘Serbs’. Just over 40% identify themselves as Montenegrin, with smaller numbers of Muslims and Albanians.

Some would argue there is little real distinction: but officially the Montenegrins are concentrated in the centre and south of the country, with the Serbs concentrated around the border with independent Serbia. When the referendum was finally held, on 21 May 2006, almost 70% of voters in regions bordering Serbia (and Bosnia) rejected independence, with support for independence centred on the traditional heartlands of Montenegro in the south of the country, typified by Cetinje (where 86% of the population voted in favour of independence).

Clearly, fragmentation is also a feature of Welsh political life and has been for decades. In 1985 Denis Balsom came up with his famous attempt to encapsulate Welsh cultural loyalties and voting patterns with his ‘Three Wales Model’. So, for ‘British Wales’ (English speaking, often Tory voting) the comparison is with the Serbian dominated regions of Northern Montenegro, loyal to the larger partner and unwilling to break those historical ties. For ‘Y Fro Cymraeg’ (Welsh speaking, large numbers of Plaid votes), the comparison is with the traditional Montenegrin heartlands. Indeed, if you compare a voting map of Montenegro in 2006 with the Welsh devolution referendum in 1997 a similar pattern emerges: strong support in the ‘heartlands’, ambivalence or opposition everywhere else.

But even those identifying themselves as Montenegrin were often loyal to the idea of the historical alliance with the Serbs and unwilling to break the Union. So as a result the 2006 referendum was a very close affair, approved by 55.5% of voters – a result that barely squeezed past the 55% threshold controversially agreed as the minimum required.

Serbia by this time was an isolated state, a virtual pariah, given sustenance only by its historic alliance with Russia. Even his harshest critics would hesitate to compare David Cameron to Slobodan Milosevic, but if you believe George Monbiot, England is dysfunctional, corrupt and vastly unequal. Whether you accept this or not, it is not hard to envisage a future ‘rUK’ electing to leave the EU, but still in thrall to US foreign policy via its own ‘historic alliance’.

The political class in Montenegro saw their opportunity for independence despite the relative lack of popular will. They wanted to join the EU and wanted to cement their own power base. The hopeless imbalance in population with their Serbian neighbours added to the pressure to call a referendum. Even then, support was limited with the ‘yes’ vote backed largely by that political class.

Of course, this is merely a hypothetical exercise in a very different context with very different underlying factors. But the example of Montenegro does demonstrate that independence is not necessarily just a matter of civic identity, nationalism or self-determination, but can become a kind of ‘default option’.

Simon Gwyn Roberts is the Deputy Head of the School of Media at the University of Chester.

16 thoughts on “The Scottish referendum, Wales and the ‘Montenegro scenario’

  1. Interesting parallels Simon but as I understand it Montenegro referendum was hugely biased to get the right result for the NATO and some strange exclusions were applied as to who was eligible to vote and who was not.

    In the Welsh context we are already experiencing divisions within our society where substantial privileges especially in the public sector are given to Welsh speakers and it appears that somehow democracy and equality of opportunity have lost their meaning in the post devolution Wales.

    Then we have problems with defining who is Welsh and who is not as increasingly it appears one is only Welsh if one is capable of speaking the Welsh language.

    From my perceptions most of Welsh people have no interest in more devolution as indicated by various polls but Welsh Government and other political parties in Wales seem to be clambering for more devo on the back of the Scottish situation.

    Only last night Carwyn Jones was highly ingenious by demanding implementation of Silk II which includes granting of Policing and Perhaps Justice functions to Wales – Not many people are aware that Silk commission used highly suspect polls to substantiate its findings, conclusions and recommendations.

    I think its long overdue especially for the Welsh media to bring back a proper, transparent and a robust debate and consider if the further devo creep is good for Wales or not – Wales should not be torn apart through agenda of our political masters and the will of the people should be paramount, we are not North Korea as yet!?

  2. The parallel is worthy of further consideration but is a bit forced. There is a huge difference between a union that has existed for almost 500 years de jure and over 700 years de facto, and one that only dates from the childhood years of people still living. It should also be noted that the Yugoslav union endured not because of loyalty to Communism but because of the Socialists’ brute bloody force. Any comparison between Socialist Yugoslavia and the UK today has a whiff of leftist rhetoric.

    All that said, the last two paragraphs ring true. It is all too easy in Wales to imagine a situation in which a political class seeks ever-increasing power for itself and gets its way in spite – or perhaps because – of popular ambivalence.

    Me’s comments are also worth further consideration.

  3. Me. Thanks for excellent summary of current position in Wales,however the majority who wish no truck with the ‘welshification’ process have no champions as all political parties/media/think tanks are signed up to the process. The idea of a one party state,seemingly in perpetuity getting control over a)Police,b)Justice chills me to the bone,and with media in tow then dissent wouldn’t last long. I have checked the last 4 general elections and Plaid Cymru has had average of 12% of vote over the 40 seats,whilst Conservative Party has 22%,however the leader of PC seems to be permanently on BBC Wales spewing out the usual line about a)Scotland,b)greater powers for Assembly.The interviews are very kind,without any real probing of PC’s position and the sheer impracticability of separation from UK,which is the long term aim of the party. The splits in Scotland between the Nationalist and the rest are very profound,and will affect its politics for years to come,and similar tensions exist here,however well covered by political/media masters. ps. Expect to be called ‘wesh hater’ very shortly!!.

  4. A few months ago at an IWA dinner with Carwyn Jones I asked him if Scotland votes to leave the Union and the EU referendum in what’s left of the UK decides to leave where does that leave Wales?

    He said ‘”they are two very big Ifs” But are they? We’ll see thursday.

  5. I enjoyed this as an information and history piece. It just does not hold as a tenable comparator to UK and Wales. The UK v Yugoslavia correlation is unworkable, historically, culturally and economically. No wars will be fought in the political struggles of GB, as far as anyone can see. We are addicted to democracy, the rule of law and extraordinary levels of tolerance. Montenegro speaks no separate language to ‘Greater Yugoslavia’, unlike Wales, with its ever burning linguistic torch.

    As for George Monbiot….I am sure some people believe him, but he is hardly George Orwell. To slip into parallels between ‘English corruption’ and the shocking recent history of Serbia at war is very dangerous writing indeed. The ‘default option’ is not going to be picked in my lifetime in Wales (I’m not that old btw) because Wales is a very mixed country, with lots of people who hold no grudge against England and many who enjoy the modern luxury of dual nationality (belonging to one place is so passé). Lastly, Welsh Labour is without equal in exploiting a dumb civil society and electoral inertia and Plaid cannot go forward as it has never rid itself of the ballast of being just a party of language, identity and historical protest.

    Finally, let me state clearly that I am in favour of much greater UK/GB federalism, want Wales to develop far greater economic and fiscal autonomy at a much faster speed and were I living in the land of my Scots father I would say Yes.

  6. Quote: “For the purposes of the comparison we begin with two artificial multinational entities: Yugoslavia and the United Kingdom”

    Simon, ALL states and nations are human constructs, ergo ‘artificial’. What was ‘natural’, for example, about the emergence of Scotland? This was a historical accident resulting from the fusion of Pictland with Gaelic Dal Riata, plus the later addition of Brythonic Strathclyde, Anglo-Saxon Bernicia, and Norse Orkney and Shetland. It was a multiethnic hodgepodge that only achieved its ultimate boundaries in the 15th century, while a cultural fault line between Highlands and Lowlands survived into the 19th century.

    Nowadays no-one questions the legitimacy and territorial integrity of the Scottish nation, but longevity (often accompanied by a bit of conscious nation-building by politicians and intellectuals) = legitimacy. Making the claim that some states are ‘artificial’ implies that others are ‘natural’, which is highly subjective and partisan.

  7. Once again we get the Welsh-speaking conspiracy line, this time from “Me”. This belief resists all evidence to the contrary. Almost no-one important in the running of Wales speaks Welsh! Yes, Carwyn does but none of his Cabinet or other government Ministers do (Leighton is learning). None of the top civil servants do – most are not Welsh anyway. Look at the chief officers of local authorities, the heads of our police forces, the vice-chancellors of our universities. Very few speak Welsh, sometimes not even when their responsibilities are in the Welsh-speaking parts of the country. Welsh speakers are an embattled minority in Wales, losing not gaining ground. So why all the paranoia? You don’t need to speak Welsh to get a public sector job in Wales. In Ireland you have to pass an exam in Gaelic. Perhaps “Me” is thinking of the wrong country?

  8. Typical “Little Englander” views from ME. Don’t like the message so shoot the messenger, in this case all of the polls that clearly show the desire for further powers to be devolved. No matter what the result of the Scottish referendum further powers will be forthcoming. I hope and believe that the vote will be yes in which case the thought of a coalition of right wing Tories and UKIP in England will I am sure concentrate the minds of the people of Wales. At that point the largely left of centre majority will realise their only defence is ever greater transfer of powers to protect against neo-liberal excesses of England’s right wing. We already live in the most unequal state in Northern Europe in terms of Income and wealth distribution. Add to that the fact that the UK is the most economically immobile as well as over centralised state in the western world and the need for further devolution for Wales Cornwall and the English regions becomes inescapable.

  9. @Howell Morgan

    Yes the amount of media coverage Plaid Cymru get on BBC CYMRU/wales, ITV wales and Walesonline is totally out of line with their support at the polling booth. If I were a Welsh conservative I’d be jumping up and down about it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Plaid Cymru were the official opposition in the Welsh Assembly!

    Talk about BBC bias in Scotland for the No Campaign….. it’ll be the other way round if we ever have an indy ref in Wales!

  10. @SeaMor Bytts. If you wish see what BBC wales/CYMRU is up to I suggest you google WALES EYE asap.What really concerns me is the the very ‘light touch’ that PC get from the supposedly unbiased journalists working for BBC Wales/CYMRU.

  11. I see that Vaughan Roderick has broken cover on twitter and made his pitch for any likely seats as a Plaid MP/AM. Likening the Union to an “abusive relationship”. Mind you, just looking at the latest Yougov poll, Plaid is the 4th party in GE polling and 4th in Assembly regional voting intentions. Plaid voters seem to be the most willing to switch to UKIP judging from the cross breaks. Llanelli stands between Plaid and UKIP both being on 9 AMs.

  12. Well at least paranoia about the BBC has got a tiny bit more credibility than paranoia about our non-existent Welsh-speaking elite.

  13. Thanks Howell,

    I had not seen Wales Eye before but the Vaughan Roderick article is not surprising. He’s always come across as a raging Welsh nationalist to me when I’ve seen him on tv. A quick look at his twitter account also indicates he’s a Welsh language activist as well. Nothing wrong with any of that of course…. but I wouldnt have though they were qualities the Welsh public would be looking for in the chief political editor of THEIR BBC Wales.

  14. SeaMor Bytts. Glad you enjoyed Wales Eye. The conference referred to was held at the MC and organized by the IWA and many welsh ‘experts’,including Mr.Vaughn Roderick of BBC Wales were speaking about impact on Wales of what is ‘appertaining’ in Scotland. I thought I might attend and get a look at these ‘experts’ and hear their views,however as a poor pensioner I thought at £90 plus VAT it seemed at bit steep. Its nice to see the TAFFIA moving amongst ordinary people and explaining things at affordable prices. One of the speakers was David Marquand a veteran Labour Party MP who has recently written a good book about the current state of UK,and how major changes need to constitution/wealth distribution etc. In the book he refers to the setting up of Assembly/WAG in 1999 and how this has galvanized the welsh people and a land of milk and honey is here to stay. I wonder where he gets that from as people I know and respect have very jaundiced view of current settlement. I listened to radio programme presented by the said Mr. Roderick about the same issue and Ms.L.Wood AM was on,together with Nia Griffiths MP. I was so appalled that I sent email to my MP,and also requesting that inquiry be held in BBC Wales/S4C as they seem out of control and obsessed by constitutional issues.Meanwhile back at the ranch the road/roundabouts around Bridgend look like the ‘third world’s and a terrible advert for our region of UK.I suppose that BBC wales will be delighted if our UK economy goes into reverse due to the uncertainty of political events.

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