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’.
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