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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- Ethnic Autonomy And Majority Nationalism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) - Any significant grant of autonomy to ethnic minorities in a country may generate a powerful backlash among that country's ethnic majority regardless of how much nationalist sentiment had existed among the majority in the first place.

That is one of the reasons that the international community has approached so cautiously the question of autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia, places where nationalist passions are already high and likely to be exacerbated further by any shift even one intended to protect the minority group.

But such a possibility does not mean that grants of autonomy in Serbia or elsewhere are inappropriate, only that they must be carefully crafted lest they unintentionally trigger a response that neither the minority nor the majority wants.

This cautionary conclusion is suggested by the way in which a grant of autonomy has affected the ethnic majority in Great Britain, a country with a long tradition of tolerance.

Last year, the British parliament decided to allow the country's three major ethnic regions -- Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland -- to form regional parliaments to deal with a variety of local problems.

Such a devolution of authority from London to the three regional capitals seemed both useful and appropriate. On the one hand, British politics had been extraordinarily centralized, a pattern that had drawn fire from both the three minorities and the English majority as well and one that had made it more difficult to solve the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

And on the other, polls suggested at the time that the English majority felt that devolution of power in this way was entirely appropriate. Had it been otherwise, of course, it is unlikely that the British parliament where the English regions control more than 80 percent of the seats would have acted as it did.

But now things have begun to change. Last week, William Hague, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party in parliament, called for the creation of a special parliament for England as well.

The reasons behind Hague's proposal appear to be both tactical and strategic. Tactically, the creation of such a body would give the Conservatives a chance to reclaim some of the power that they lost to the Labour Party in the last general elections.

And strategically, his proposal to create an English parliament appears to be intended to tap into a rising tide of English nationalism. Until recently, most Englishmen have identified themselves as British, an identity that many of them believed was based on tolerance and one that clearly helped limit the appeal of extreme nationalists.

But now that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have acquired national parliaments, ever more people in England are asking why they are being discriminated against in what they see as their own country.

In the words of one English writer, Jeremy Paxman, "the English have become exiles from their own country." And according to another author, A.S. Byatt, they are now underrepresented in books about their country and treated in a slighting manner when they are discussed at all.

As a result of such attitudes, the Conservative Party leader's proposal for the establishment of an English parliament is likely to attract considerable support. Even more, it is likely to energize those Englishmen who feel as Paxman and Byatt do.

But if the English get a parliament of their own, they are likely to become ever more nationalistic as a result. And such a development could have the unintended effect of undermining some of the protections that autonomous parliaments for Scotland, Wales, and Ireland appeared to give those three peoples.

And if the English fail to achieve a national parliament for themselves, once such an idea has been proposed by the leader of the second largest party in Britain, the consequences could be even worse. For such a failure would undoubtedly be used by some to nurture a broader nationalist agenda against the minorities, something few in England have been associated with up to now.

Such developments could have the effect of splitting British society rather than uniting it -- just as they have had in other multi-ethnic states where ethnic majorities have concluded that ethnic minorities have been given greater consideration than has the dominant group.

In the British case, such an outcome is unlikely anytime soon. The British have the time to make some mid-course corrections in order to prevent the worst from happening. But even more, the British case serves as a useful as an object lesson about the potential dangers of a backlash by the majority group when minorities are given autonomy.