View from the mountains

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By Alex Robertson
 
In a conversation with an old friend in Munich, I remarked on the similarities between Bavaria and Scotland. He snorted and said there were none. Although he is an old and good friend, I begged to differ.

Both have a thriving financial services sector, both are populated by an inventive people with a distinct culture and self-identity, and both have a sense of their own apartness from the country of which they are a part.

Besides, parts of each are very hilly. Bavaria is really divided into two parts – the lowland area around Nuremberg, and the mountainous region south of Munich. But oddly, it is the more mountainous region which has the technology based industries which are world renowned, like Siemens and BMW, as well as the financial centres, like Munich Re, and many other household name companies, like Adidas.

The people of northern Bavaria are mostly Frank in origin and feel their Bavarian-ness less loudly. But although Bavarians do feel themselves somehow apart from the rest of Germany (last time I did the journey by road from Stuttgart to Munich there was a sign at the Bavarian border –Freistaat Bayern – meaning Free State of Bavaria), the independence movement is tiny. One party, the Bayernpartei, (BP) advocates Bavarian independence, and it has no members of the Federal Parliament, nor even any in the Bavarian Land parliament, although it is making some gains at local government level.

It was not always so: in 1949 it had 17 Federal parliament seats and in 1954 formed a coalition government in Bavaria with the Social Democrats. The party is centre right, and has some 39 local government seats in Upper Bavaria. The reasons for the reversal in fortune are not clear, although the economic recovery of Germany in the 50s and 60s is bound to have played a part, since Bavaria certainly shared in the increasing prosperity.

It also needs to be said that the German psyche is averse to calls to nationalism, for obvious reasons, given the history of the earlier twentieth century. However talking to any Bavarian and scratching at the surface almost immediately reveals a sense of Bavaria being special and somehow apart from the rest of Germany.

At the party’s recent general assembly in Augsburg, the Party chairman, Florian Weber, said: “We have made significant progress since the last election.  We now have significantly more members, especially active members in many areas of Bavaria.” Still, they have a long way back to being a real force in Bavarian politics. But just think back to not so long ago and the SNP were regarded as the “silly party”, and look at them now!

The economic crises currently raging through the European Union, and which affect Germany very significantly as quasi banker to several European governments, is shaking the foundations of the European Union itself. The Bavarian Party is committed to the European Union, and with good reason seeing the Bavarian history. But it sees massive opportunities for reform on the Union, particularly in the area of democratic accountability.

Interestingly, on this learning trip, I have discovered that the mainland pro-independence European political parties are on the right of the political spectrum, whereas in Scotland the SNP is left of centre on the spectrum. I suspect that says more about Scotland’s political heritage than anything else.

And I have discovered that in Canada, as well as the Quebec movement for independence from Canada, the four western Provinces all have strong pro-independence movements, including a significant movement to federate these four Provinces into a confederation. And the parties behind that movement are all right of centre as well. Which all ought to be a wake-up call to the Tories in Scotland. But there is no question that Scotland is the farthest advanced along the road to gaining sovereignty over its own affairs.

But what is also clear is that on mainland Europe the idea of the smaller nation state is strong and in good health. The old idea of cobbling together various people with differing cultures, histories and traditions, exemplified by von Bismarck and Bonaparte, and all the host of statesmen of the 19th and even 20th century is on the defensive.

And if the words of Herr Weber of the BP mean anything, these small nation-states have a major role to play in the imminent reform of the European Union, to make it more democratic and to pass more power down to the member state level, an extension of the subsidiarity doctrine which has been tried and is failing. All that means is that we Scots are not alone in our quest on the mainland. If you doubt that, take a look at the European Free Alliance on the “interweb”.

It is entirely possible that it is the combined strength of the small nation states that will be at the forefront of shaping the reformed European Union. Can’t come soon enough! But the holidays are almost over and I am left with a profound belief in reform of the EU, and filled with some ideas how that might look. But more of that later after I escape the charms of beautiful Munich.