Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nationstates

Across the Arab World, people of all ages and backgrounds risk their lives in demonstrations against corrupt governments. Meanwhile, our close European cousins risk the chill of the North Sea winds in naked protests against the lack of a government. In the topsy-turvy world of Belgium, never knowingly simple to understand, the longest period of time without a national government continues apace and nobody sees an answer in the short-term.

There is a serious economic side to the otherwise eccentric story that has developed in Belgium since elections last year. The country has severe national debt and the risk of investing with the centre of the European Union has been thrown in serious doubt. Whilst local government continues offering services at 'street level', the national scene is one of chaos and confusion. The King of the increasingly polarized Belgians has almost reached the limit to what he can provide in leadership. Away from the high-level talks along the corridors of uncertainty, ordinary Belgians want resolutions. History suggests they will be waiting for a long time.

In short, Beglum (not known as a "made up country" for nothing, in all fairness), is a compromise with a flag and borders. Political parties have split and divided to satisfy the often completely contradictory demands of Francophone and Flemish populations. The small German enclave in the east acts like an unexpected flavour in the bowl of contrasting ingredients which Belgium has become, a failed dessert overcooked and overstirred. Brussels is a Francophone exclave surrounded by the Flemish Region which has been flexing its none-too inconsiderable muscles, the capital city of the EU's beating heart, watching the fabric of the country flicked and charred by the flames of dissent, exhaustion, frustration.

It was after their most recent election that the Flemish population pushed hard enough to unsettle the columns of compromise that held the state up for decades before. The sight of people marching for the formation of a government must seem like Wonderland stuff under the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain; placards and posters uniting citizens under one flag, only for different ends from their means, the flip-side to North Africa's pleas for representative democracy and economic reform. Belgium, oddly to observers, is a divided country demanding the ties of compromise are brought together tighter.

The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is statistically poorer with double unemployment levels to the right-leaning, Dutch-speaking north. Politicians from both sides spend so long balancing political compromises to the detriment of economic solutions. Resentment of the north by the south permeates across and through all Belgian society. In an example from the fringes, Belgium has alternated French and Dutch-language entries to the Eurovision Song Contest ever year, to keep both sides "sweet". When, in 1999, the Flemish broadcaster chose an English-language song, tempers flared and questions were raised in Parliament.

Not having a Government for nigh-on 300 days must seem like bliss to demonstrators in the UK from both sides of the political debate. To those under the "UKUncut" umbrella, demonstrating against the Coalition government's spending proposals from a largely left/leftist perspective, such apparent freedom from a formal government structure must seem like a dream come true. After all, Belgium has not fallen apart, its two sides not torn asunder. If all Belgium has is local government delivering services on a tight budget without central government, without crumbling away to nothing, then why not here? They've got a monarchy, so have we, where's the harm?

From the extreme-right in the UK, demonstrators wanting an England of their own invention, pure of race and colour, march under the St George and Union flags, self-styled 'Defence Leagues'. It must be attractive to them, too, seeing how a country with two different peoples struggling to survive under one flag. Observe the contrasting sociolinguistic and geopolitical struggles, watch the tension, see how they run. Without a government the two sides are running their own affairs, and even with a government and titular Head, the populations speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. We've been force-fed multiculturalism and the diluting of culture for too long, why should this be tolerated further?

England (and I specifically use England, not Britain) has all the makings of another Belgium. My politics, my conviction, is not nationalist, is not flag-waving jingoist. I don't want or desire a break-up of England anymore than I would like the break-up of the United Kingdom itself per se. Let us look at recent coverage of the Coalition's plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50; the good burghers of Cornwall signed a petition in their thousands against any new constituency crossing the Tamar. One Mebyon Kernow supporter went on hunger strike. Ask a man from Northallerton where he lives, and he is likely to say Yorkshire before England, and long before Britain. North/South divides in England are almost Belgium reversed: an over-inflated south-east and economically compromised north, pulling in different directions for generations. Can you imagine an England split in two? Would the on-going demonstrations by both left and right result in an England we all wanted to live in?

Each Arab World demonstration has the name of the country seared on the hearts and wrapped around the souls of each protester - Egyptians wanted their country back, Tunisians want their country back, Bahrainians demand (and die for) an island for Sunni and Shia. In England, the political discourse swims around the nationalistic question, flirts with it, places more wood near the fire.

There could be a situation to all this from outside the box entirely, of course. When Belgium needed to choose a Eurovision entry in 2006 they forego Dutch, French and English, chose something in an entirely invented, made-up language and got their best result in nearly 30 years. Maybe there's a political equivilant answer for England in this...