From Donostia to Dersim


I don’t intend to write in any detail about Tibet – I refer readers who are interested to Andy, to Madam Miaow and for a contrary viewpoint to Liam. But here’s a little counterintuitive nugget – since 1988, Chinese law has required all government officials in the Tibetan Autonomous Region to have a working knowledge of the Tibetan language. Bearing in mind that the Chinese state is supposed to be bent on crushing Tibetan culture, in the limited sphere of linguistic recognition at least, Tibet is doing rather well compared to the north of Ireland. Or, say, Brittany. Hell, even Wales doesn’t have a legal provision like that.

This may seem unbearably flippant, but it’s only partly so. You very often find an attitude in North America and the bigger nations of Western Europe, that “the West” represents the pinnacle of human society and this entitles “Westerners” to berate other countries on how they operate – most often when it comes to anything that can be brought under the “human rights” rubric. This is especially so in terms of the European Union and how it relates to nationalism.

Let me explain. The big claim made for the EU is that it has secured the post-1945 peace and dissolved old enmities. There’s something to that, in the limited sense that France and Germany now limit their competition to the economic sphere rather than invading each other every 25 years. But there are those – Timothy Wishbone Ash immediately springs to mind – who go further. That is, that there is no national question any longer in Western Europe (Ireland can be explained away as an aberration if it’s even noticed), and the persistence of nationalism in the former people’s democracies can be seen as a manifestation of these countries being insufficiently integrated into the European whole. So EU membership is held out as the big long-term solution to the Western Balkans, for instance.

There are plenty of holes that could be picked in this. Most notably, the supposed absence of a live national question from Western Europe. One may wonder where this leaves the Alsatians, the Aragonese, the Basques, the Bretons, the Catalans, the Corsicans, the Faeroe Islanders, the Flemings, the Frisians, the Friulians, the Galicians, the Occitans, the Sámi, the Sardinians, the Sorbs and probably some more I’ve forgotten. Now, I am long since past the stage of automatically supporting any secessionist movement that comes along – Yugoslavia cured me of that – but it’s fair to say that there are plenty of long-running national tensions in the so-called “mature democracies”. Around about the time of Maastricht there was a lot of talk about the “Europe of regions”, but this seems to have progressed little beyond adding some more bells and whistles to the Euro-bureaucracy. The big nation-states still look to be in rude health.

Here’s another little counterfactual. Two of the countries that come in for the most hectoring are Slovakia and Romania, largely on behalf of these countries’ ethnic Hungarian minorities. It’s true, of course, that there are some nasty xenophobic political actors out there, although their support is not significantly higher than, let’s say, Le Pen or Fini. And yet, and yet. Both in Slovakia and Romania, the Hungarian language is taught in schools and has official status in majority-Hungarian areas, and the ethnic Hungarian parties play a major kingmaking role. This compares pretty well to, let’s pluck an example out of the air, France.

There are a couple of tentative propositions that I think flow from this. The first is that commentators in the imperial metropoles need to do a bit of mote-and-beam work before they start giving off about “Ruritania”.

The other is that it’s worth thinking again about the sort of decentralist ideas that I would historically associate with what Yann Fouéré was talking about in L’Europe aux cent drapeaux. But again, that implies a very different social model to EU corporate oligarchy. Surely it’s worth putting aside gobbledegook about “independence in Europe” in favour of thinking about new models and how they could be fought for. As it is, I don’t have a detailed programme at my fingertips. But, for advocates of socialism from below, there’s food for thought here.


  1. Phil said,

    April 1, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    even Wales doesn’t have a provision like that

    Oh, I think it does – it certainly did, perhaps informally, when I lived there 35+ years ago, and I don’t think the Welsh-language tide has been going out since then.

  2. Phil said,

    April 1, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    I am long since past the stage of automatically supporting any secessionist movement that comes along


  3. Ciarán said,

    April 1, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    The Welsh Language Act of 1993 paid lip service to the idea of the public sector providing a service to Welsh speakers, but there’s currently a movement afoot campaigning for a new, proper Language Act.

  4. Liam said,

    April 1, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Looks like Mark Steel agrees with me too.

  5. Andy Newman said,

    April 1, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I bow to your greater regional knowledge, but I thought that one of the gripes about Slovakia is that Magyars had to deal with the government in Slovak now, is that wrong?
    Would be interested in any sources you could point me to in this (in English or German, not hungarian or Slovak!!)

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 2, 2008 at 11:25 am

    The situation in Slovakia is that Slovak is the language of the central government in Bratislava and is the only language recognised nationally. But the language law gives official recognition to Hungarian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian or German in municipalities where they are spoken by 20% or more of the population. So in a Magyar town like Komarno you can get by perfectly well without any Slovak.

    There are probably improvements that could be made. Having Hungarian recognised centrally maybe, and some formal recognition of Romani certainly. But still, if you were a Breton or a Corsican you’d think that was pretty good.

  7. Andy newman said,

    April 3, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Thanks Spliny,

    Three other very interesting pointers about Tibet are:

    i) the one child policy does not apply to Tibetans, until 1990 there was no restriction, and since then the restriction has been three children, but important to note that enforcement of the policy is in the hands of the elected village committees (election at village level is mandatory in the whole PRC now), and therefore in the hands of Tibetans, and is largely not enforced. So if the claims by the Free Tibet people is true that the Hhan are engaged in cultural genoide and seeking to swamp the Tibetans, then they have chosen a funny way of doing it.

    ii) The CCP in Tibet has a mainly Tibetan membership, and crucially is as far as I can find out the ONLY region of the CCP where members associated with excesses in the cultural revolution have not been purged. And also the cultural revolution was mush less rampant in Tibet than elsewhere. Again, scant evidence of the CCP seeking to wipe out Tibetan infleunce.

    iii) The 1984 constitution of the PRC specifically gives Tibet power to control migration into Tibet from other parts of China and to set its own economic policy. The main demands of the Tibetan protesters could thereofre be met with no change in the constitution.

  8. April 9, 2008 at 9:05 am

    […] Chinese, and this includes the village officials. (It is worth reporting here that since 1988 it is compulsory for all officials to be conversant with the Tibetan language , and since 1998 elections are compulsory for village […]

  9. ejh said,

    April 9, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    the Aragonese

    I don’t really think there’s a national question here, ince as far as I’m aware neither of the two Aragonese “nationalist” parties, nor indeed anybody else, seems to advocate Aragonese independence. I think the PAR basically stand for “a bigger chunk of the action for Aragonese business” but CHA are an affable bunch. They’ve got their work cut out if they want to preserve Aragonese though. Ten thousand active speakers? I doubt it.

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