Friday, September 19, 2014


Nothing is certain in life: we all generally subscribe to this bromide. But certain things can be predicted with some confidence, based on past experience. Now that the votes in the Scottish independence referendum have been counted, and Scotland has voted quite clearly to remain in the United Kingdom, some things are bound to happen.

Britain can learn from the Canadian experience. In recent times, the Province of Quebec has gone down the same path as Scotland: the most recent referendum, in 1995, saw the sovereignty movement lose by the narrowest of margins, approximately 51% to 49%. Quebec is still in Canada, but there are some truths that Britain must learn from.

First, it would be wrong for Britain to assume that the independence movement in Scotland is finished. Far from it. The tally from last night reveals that 1.6 million Scots voted for independence. That's 45% of the total. Further, the concentration of Yes votes around the Glasgow area indicates that there is a base for the independence movement to work from. Those who voted in favour of independence were willing to take a chance on a risky venture of which nobody knows the outcome. The 55% who voted to remain in the UK may have done so out of loyalty to the crown, the flag, and the union: or they may have done so out of uncertainty how the future independence would unfold. As Scots get used to the idea of a possible independent Scotland, they may well put these fears aside. Quebec soundly rejected sovereignty in the first referendum in 1980 by approximately 60% to 40%, but the 1995 referendum, as described above, was much closer.

Second, and related to the first point, the genie is very much out of the bottle. Britain can never go back to the comfortable, somewhat complacent nation-state is was prior to this referendum. Independence has been discussed for years. I remember the time that Lou and I travelled around Scotland in 1992. We ended up in a pub ( imagine that!) in Edinborough on a Friday night. The pub was crowded with the after work business folks. We got talking to a couple of well dressed business men and they were fascinated with the Canada/Quebec situation. When I broached the topic of possible Scottish independence, they both smiled and one of them said "It's a beautiful dream." These men were not wide-eyed radicals. Even back then, the thought of independence was an ideal worth striving for, but not thought to be really possible. Look at Scotland now. The past is gone forever.

Third, in the last few days leading up to the vote, a nervous No side brought out everything they had to try to keep Scotland in the union. Famously, the three main party leaders made a "Vow" to the Scots promising changes. That reminded me of the years after the first Quebec referendum when Brian Mulroney, to his credit, tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitution with the Meech Lake Accord. Mulroney, a Quebecker, knew that the first referendum meant that significant changes were necessary to keep separatism silent permanently, and he tried to do the right thing. Whether the accord was a good deal or not, historians will have to judge. The fact is, he tried to bring the changes Quebec wanted, and the rest of Canada said "no" to those changes. The result is that separatism has never really died in Quebec, and a second referendum followed that almost won. To this day, Quebec remains outside the Canadian constitution.

I bring this up to warn Britons that, if the government in Westminster does not live up to its famous "Vow", Scotland will try again. It has nothing to lose by doing so. The idea is tantalizing to many Scots. There are and have been grievances between Scotland and Westminster for decades. If Westminster comes through, then Scotland may not go ahead with a second referendum. But the changes for Britain will be staggering. Not only will Scotland get more powers from Westminster, the national government will have to do the same for Wales and Northern Ireland. And what of England? Will there be an English parliament with devolved powers? Why would England be content to continue to have important issues affecting it decided by politicians from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while those lands can make their own decisions? Britain may have to seriously examine the possibility of becoming a federal state, similar to Canada or Australia, and de-centralize power from London. And, if that happens, an actual written constitution will be necessary, the first in British history.

Britain would be well-advised to pay attention to the Canadian experience. In this sense, the mother will have to learn from her daughters.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Note: this entry was composed at approx. 4:30 pm on Sept. 18, 2014, roughly 40 minutes before the polls closed in Scotland. The results of the referendum were unknown at this time.

The modern nation state took its form in the eighteenth century. Depending on who you read, France is given as the earliest example of a modern nation-state. Since the French Revolution, France has undergone several changes, some very violent, before settling on the entity we have today. Since the eighteenth century, the world has created untold versions of the nation-state, but the consistent thing in all of this is that the nation-state is regarded as the most advanced and most modern political expression of humanity's will to live and work together as a cohesive unit.

Simply put, a nation-state is a political organization that derives its authority from a sovereign people. The nation-state may comprise several ethnic or cultural groups of people: several religions, several languages, several philosophies may exist within a nation-state. For example, before the French Revolution, there was no real idea of what "France" was. "France", in the middle ages, was the area surrounding the city of Paris: other people who lived in what we now call France identified themselves as Gascons, Bretons, Normans, Acquitanians, etc. Only through centuries of effort by strong monarchs and equally strong ministers such as Richilieu, Mazarin and others, did the far-flung regions begin to feel that they were part of something larger, something stronger, something more secure ... something that they began to call "French".  Other nations in Europe, notably Germany, Italy and Spain went through similar experiences.

In the Middle Ages, it was relatively easy to determine a "nation". If you shared an ethnicity within a defined geographical space, if you spoke the same language, if you worshipped the same gods, then you were a citizen of a nation. In England, all people eventually spoke English and worshipped in the same church. In Japan or Korea, all people living in those lands were of the same ethnic background. In the aboriginal history of North and South America, you knew you were Mohawk, Lakota, Maya, Quechua, Aymara or Inuit because the other people in your general land area were the same as you. But as the centuries unfolded, people began to overlap. Mohawks joined with Seneca and others to form the Six Nations Confederacy. Incas evolved out of a Quechua tribe conquering other tribes to forge an empire. Saxons, Bavarians, Westphalians and others fell into the Prussian influence to become Germans. And, as a result, nation-states were born. Over time, people took on the larger identities as explained above.

The key ingredient in forming the nation-state, besides the emotional and visceral feeling of being a "Frenchman", or a "German", or an "Italian", or any other nationality, is having a strong central authority to keep the nation-state together. In older times, this was usually in the form of a strong monarchy. Later, the authority was in a strong central or federal government. As long as the authority of the central government went unchallenged, the nation-state worked smoothly, and loyalty to the nation-state was unquestioned. But, occasionally, people or regions would begin to question the authority of the central government. That's when the nation-state began to totter. The best example of this is the Civil War in the United States. Other nation-states have endured brutal civil wars: Greece, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, many modern Arab and Middle Eastern nation-states come to mind. And when people decide to explore the dissolution of nation-states peacefully, separatist movements and referenda occur: Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and currently the United Kingdom come to mind.

Which brings us to the present day. Events around the world seem to be heralding the demise of the nation-state. Not just politically, but economically and culturally, do we see people more willing to shed the narrow definitions of who they are. Politically, we may be on the verge of witnessing the historic dissolution of the United Kingdom if Scotland votes in favour of independence. In 1989, an equally unbelievable event occurred with the dissolution of the USSR into its several components. In the 1990's, Czechoslovakia went through the "velvet revolution", breaking themselves peacefully and willingly in half, forming the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even stable and thriving nation-states such as the United States and Canada are fraught with division and disagreement that sometimes results in political paralysis. The nation-state of Belgium, one of the most stable states in Europe, famously went without a federal government for several years because the two major ethnic components, Flemings and Walloons, couldn't find a way to form a workable political coalition.

Perhaps the most insidious threat to the nation-state is economic in nature. The rise of multi-national corporations has been such that it is difficult to determine where a corporation's "country" or "home office" is located. Questions arise: to whom does a multi-national corporation answer or obey? Under what laws does a business operate? If a multi-national runs afoul of a nation-state's laws, does it simply shut down operations in that nation-state and relocate elsewhere? If workers try to organize or earn higher wages, benefits and pensions in one nation-state, does the multi-national have any obligation to allow this when workers in a different nation-state do not organize or earn higher wages etc? Do multi-national corporations make decisions based on the corporation's best interest, or in the best interest of a nation or a people?

So, as Scots today go to the polls to determine their place in the larger nation-state of the United Kingdom, we watch fascinated and a little apprehensive. But does the apparent demise of the nation-state mean disaster? Or is it a good thing? Nation-states, particularly strong ones, have caused wars and injustice throughout our history. Could smaller nations, possessing no large forces, or large egos, or external ambitions be the way to go? It has been suggested that the possibility of large-scale wars, like the world wars of the last century, could be a thing of the past since such wars are bad for business, and multi-national corporations are so inter-connected , so global in their outlook, that war would be unacceptable to the corporations. And people may evolve into feeling a greater loyalty for the world itself, given the ease with which we travel, the amount of global culture we consume, and the financial wealth we accumulate from the far corners of the world.

The end of the nation-state could be one of the most enlightened choices we, as a species, could ever make.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Every year, Barack and his friends looked forward to their favourite hobby: pheasant hunting. They couldn't wait for the months to pass until, finally, pheasant hunting season was only a few days away. Barack called his good friends David, Francois, Angela and even little Stephen, the smallest of the group, and invited them to join him on the first day of the pheasant hunt. Barack told them he'd get his pick-up truck, the most expensive and fancy of all of the friends' vehicles, and load it up with enough ammunition and supplies to ensure a great day of hunting. The friends agreed and the date was set.

Early on the morning of the start of pheasant hunting season, Barack gathered all the supplies and put them into the truck. There was plenty of food and water, because it promised to be a very long day of fun. He made sure there was a good GPS system, because the woods were vast and deep and they didn't want to get lost. He made sure that there was a safety kit for the truck and a first aid kit for the friends, in case of accidents. And he made sure there was plenty of ammunition for the hunt.

Barack picked up his friends David, Francois, Angela and Stephen one by one. It was still very early, the sun hadn't even appeared on the horizon yet. All the friends were excited and chattered endlessly about all the fun they were going to have. They drove many miles out of the city and into the countryside. As the sun was just coming up over the eastern horizon, they arrived at their destination, at the edge of a large forest.

Barack and his friends got out of the truck and began to unload their supplies for their day of fun in the woods. They put on their camouflage suits and hats, painted their faces to blend into the bush, and loaded their backpacks with food, water, first aid and lots and lots of ammunition. Then, they took out their shotguns and made sure they were safe and secure: gun safety was of the utmost importance for them. At last they were ready.

They walked alongside each other in a straight line, about 10 feet apart from each other. They had their orange safety vests on and agreed that they would stay within sight of each other at all times. Barack had a whistle and it was agreed that, when he blew it, they would safe their guns and gather towards him for a meeting. All was in readiness.

When they were 10 feet away from the edge of the bush, they began to load their shotguns. With a final nod to each other, they entered the bush. When they had taken three steps inside the forest, they raised their guns to their shoulders and fired off a blast ahead of them. They took another three steps and blasted again. They reloaded, continued to walk three steps and blasted into the forest. The noise and power of their shooting shook the forest to its core. This went on for four or five hours. Finally, Barack blew his whistle and the friends ceased fire and gathered to where Barack stood.

They agreed to stop and have some lunch and drink some water. A couple of the friends had some minor cuts and scrapes from walking through the dense bush and so the first aid kits came out. After the cuts were bandaged, and the lunch eaten, the friends checked their supply of ammunition and found they had quite a bit left. So they agreed that they would continue the hunt for another couple of hours. They reloaded, got back into their line and continued walking into the bush, firing off blasts from their shotguns every three steps. After another couple of hours, Barack blew his whistle and they gathered to discuss their fun day. There was very little ammunition left, so they decided to use their GPS and go back to where the truck was parked.

As they walked back, they searched the ground that they had covered. Several dead squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines, even a couple of possums, and dozens of songbirds were found, almost blown apart by the shotgun blasts. But, alas, no pheasant was found among the dead animals. Many trees had blast holes in their trunks, and branches and boughs littered the forest floor.

When the friends arrived back at Barack's truck, they agreed that, while it had been a fun day, they were disappointed that they had not killed a pheasant. No problem, they reasoned. Tomorrow was another day, and the forest was vast. They would do it all again the next day at a different location. And so they did. They were picked up early the next morning in Barack's truck, re-supplied with food, water, first aid and ammunition, and walked into the new section of forest, blasting with their shotguns every three steps in, and did this for most of the daylight hours. When they walked out, retracing their steps, they found more dead small animals and more blast marks on the trees ... but no pheasant.

No matter, they decided. Pheasant season stretched for many weeks yet. They would do this every day until they killed a pheasant. And, sure enough, early in the morning, every day, they drove in Barack's truck to a different part of the vast forest, re-stocked with supplies, and repeated their hunting method. They killed many small animals, but did not kill a single pheasant.

Finally, on the last day of the season, the friends met at the last part of the forest they hadn't yet hunted. They were a little discouraged, but nevertheless went into the bush with high hopes. They blasted into the bush every three steps for the usual ten or twelve hours, then retraced their steps to go back to Barack's truck, parked on the edge of the forest. At last, just before they emerged from the forest darkness, they found a dead pheasant. They hoisted the body of the bird above their heads, cheered loudly and declared the hunting season a roaring success.

Later that evening, Barack was relaxing at home with his lovely wife, Michelle. He was very tired from a long day, indeed a long season of exerting himself in the hunt. But he was immensely proud and satisfied of his success, along with his friends. Michelle was sitting beside him and asked him if the last day of the hunt had been fun and successful.

"Yes, it was. We killed a pheasant today. All our hunting skill paid off!" Barack said excitedly.

"So that's it, then, is it?" Michelle asked. "You killed the only pheasant in the forest?"

"Oh no," said Barack. "There must be several more pheasants in the forest. But we'll have to wait until next year to get them."

"Hmm," said Michelle thoughtfully. "I'm glad you finally got your pheasant, but it took a long time. And how much do you think it cost to get it? You know, you used a lot of gas in the truck, ate a lot of food and drank a lot of water. And the ammunition ... how much ammunition did you use?"

Barack thought about it a minute and added it all up. He had to admit to his wife that it cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to get the pheasant.

"Well, that's OK, I guess," Michelle said. "But I wonder if there is a better way?"

Barack had to admit that she had a point. He immediately picked up the phone and called David, Francois, Angela and even little Stephen on conference call and summarized his talk with Michelle. They agreed that there had to be a better way to kill next year's pheasant.

"I know," said Barack. "We should get a hunting dog. He can pick up the pheasant's scent, flush it out and we could shoot the bird as it sprang up out of the bush."

The friends liked the sound of it, but wondered where they could get such a dog. Barack thought about it for a long time and finally spoke.

"I don't know right now. But we will take our time and search high and low to find the right dog. When we find one, we will spend whatever we need to train the dog, lean how to hunt with him, and get ready for next year. That way, we will save money, kill more pheasants, and not shoot up the whole forest. That is what we will do. It will take much time, but we'll do it."

The friends agreed. And that is what they did. The hunt went very well the following year. Many, many pheasants were killed, but very few of the other animals were hit. The trees were not blasted apart as much either. And the hunt only took about half the season until every last pheasant had been killed. Barack and his friends were satisfied with the hunt, but knew, deep down inside, that, even though there were no more pheasants left in this forest to hunt, there were many more forests in the country that were full of pheasants that needed to be killed. They looked at one another with knowing glances and smiled broadly.