My Home: Scotland

My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. This mansion has been divided, split up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for, there. I am used to living in a home, not in cabins.

Joseph Roth. 1935. The Bust of the Emperor


In 2011 my Wife and I came to Scotland. After having lived in different corners of Britain and Ireland since 2004, at long last, we found our own place under the sun, our new home, courtesy of permanent jobs secured earlier that year. In May 2010, upon leaving the building of Edinburgh Airport, a rainbow welcomed us. A good omen, we thought. We got on a Jet 747 bus to Inverkeithing. I picked up a newspaper orphaned on an empty seat. The front page hit us with the information that an independence referendum was planned. We looked at each other unsure what to make of it.


Unhomely Home

We left Poland in 2004, tired by history and the incessant changes in the wake of 1989, changes going by the name of ‘systemic transition’…

We came of age, when following the brief interlude of semi-freedom during the Solidarity years at the turn of 1980s, martial law was imposed on Poland in late 1981. Alongside the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, it heralded the end of détente, and, for the average person in late communist Poland, a decade of desperation, ration cards for everything, the necessity to ‘hunt’ for bare essentials, and learning how to do without. On the sly, not to fall foul of ubiquitous informers, we watched VHS tapes smuggled from the west (usually American movies), and dreamed about emigrating. But the powers that be did not only clamp down on the freedom of speech, but also made sure that only a trusted few would be granted with the passport that was a rara avis in the communist bloc. This valuable document had to be immediately returned when you came back to Poland, and the security police politely, but in a menacing manner, enquired about the others who accompanied you abroad: how they had behaved, what they had said, and whom they had met.

New Home?

It all came to an end when the really existing socialism (aka communism) collapsed in 1989. The Soviet bloc disappeared into the thin air and the Warsaw Pact was formally dissolved two years later, in 1991, briefly before the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. The ‘transition’ from totalitarianism to democracy in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany was tense but bloodless. It progressed quickly. People in Romania, Bulgaria, or the maverick communist autarchy of Albania were not so lucky. Many died in demonstrations, while the 1990s were marked there by governments formed and staffed by second-tier communists turned ‘democrats.’ They introduced ‘managed democracy,’ and lined their pockets richly.


The proverbial common person in the streets fared even worse in the post-Soviet states, as simmering conflicts intensified or unexpectedly erupted. The largest one – completely forgotten in Europe that raged from 1992 to 1997 in Tajikistan – cost 100,000 people their lives and left over a million refugees in its wake. Closer to home, the 1988-94 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in 40,000 casualties and another one million refugees. In 1992 over one thousand people were killed in the Moldovan Civil War over breakaway Transnistria. In January 1991, when Lithuania began re-emerging as an independent state from the crumbling Soviet Union, the security forces killed 13 people in Vilnius to stop this process. But what seized Western Europe’s imagination was the slow motion breakup of the non-Soviet Yugoslavia that spawned numerous wars between 1991 and 2001. It cost 60 lives in Slovenia (1991), 20,000 in Croatia (1991-95), 100,000 in Bosnia (1992-95), 15,000 in Kosovo (1998-9) and 250 in Macedonia (2001). In addition, the conflicts sent the successive waves of half a million refugees from or within Croatia, 2.2 million from or within Bosnia, and of 0.8 million from Kosovo.

Chucked Out from Home

The supposedly velvet divorce (1993) between the Czech Republic and Slovakia soon turned sour. Prague used this event to deprive 300,000 Roma of citizenship in the Czech Republic, and it took an entire decade to remedy the situation prior to the country’s accession to the European Union in 2004. Meanwhile, Slovakia was sliding to authoritarianism under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, before his successor to the office, Mikuláš Dzurinda, changed the tide and democratized Slovakia overnight so that the country was deemed ready, by the skin of its teeth, for EU membership in 2004.

The tribulations of the Czechoslovak breakup, as seen against the backdrop of the continuing post-Yugoslav wars, accelerated the federalization of Belgium. First of all, in order to prevent similar unwelcome scenarios from unfolding, and second, to ensure the preservation of the state and its overall functionality. Perhaps, thanks to these reforms, in the face of deep political disagreements in 2010-11, Belgium functioned so smoothly with ‘no government’ (however, a caretaker cabinet remained in place) for over a year and a half. An event unprecedented in the annals of modern history.

Latvia and Estonia constitute another corner of the European Union to which not much attention has been paid until the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, over a million Russian-speakers of various nationalities living in the two countries found out that they would not be eligible for Latvian or Estonian citizenship unless they took and passed a required language test. Some did, others left for Russia or acquired Russian citizenship. But to this day, over 100,000 such officially dubbed ‘non-citizens’ live in Estonia, and almost 400,000 in Latvia. Faced with both states’ unwillingness to grant them citizenship, Brussels agreed in 2007 that Estonian and Latvian ‘alien’s passports’ issued to the afore-mentioned non-citizens would emulate most provisions of EU citizenship, especially the right to travel and work across the Union. A stopgap solution, but a working one, though the danger is that under the current circumstances, the Kremlin may use the non-citizens as a pretext to consider ‘coming to the rescue of the oppressed Russians’ by attempting to seize bits and pieces of territory from Latvia and Estonia. Significantly, in the eastern Latvian region of Latgale, such ‘Russians’ constitute over half of the inhabitants and an even higher proportion in cities such as Daugavpils.


Why am I mentioning all the troubling moments and events? My family and I have lived through some of them and observed others, hoping that they would not spill across the Polish borders adding to our share of postcommunist grief and graft. The period of the systemic transition, though largely successful in Poland, still meant back-breaking work. People toiled combining two or more jobs just to earn a living and to pay off the mortgage. This unprecedented effort lasted for an entire generation, but when Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it turned out that there would not be enough jobs for as many as half the graduates then leaving universities. Among the middle-aged, a realization also dawned that irrespective of how hard they might work they would never have a chance to achieve the same level of living as people enjoy in Western Europe.

These were the basic causes of their migration to Britain and Ireland during the last ten years. They came in search of living wage, just reward for hard work, security, stability, and boredom. Yes, boredom, understood as freedom from the interesting times and places in which they had earlier happened to live. I am one of them, so let me use the pronoun ‘we.’


In Scotland many of us have found what we previously were fruitlessly looking for in our own countries. And we did find it here: our new, dreamed about, true home. As my Wife once succinctly said, ‘To us Scotland is a foster mother, but much better than our biological mum.’ Apart from earning enough to be able to afford a decent life just on a single job, we were astounded to see that pharmacies give us prescription medicines ‘for free,’ that paying taxes is sufficient to enjoy genuine full health care coverage. In our countries, this was the ideal during and after the communist times, often voiced, but never really achieved. In this respect, with its variegated and ubiquitous social services not yet dismantled by the increasingly deeper budget cuts, Scotland is a truly and deeply socialist country. Critics would be offended and would correct me: ‘communist,’ I would reply: ‘social-democratic.’ For whatever a label one may settle, I appreciate and enjoy this kind of ‘communism,’ never reached in any communist state ever.

We are for Scotland, this Scotland as we have got to know it during the last decade. Perhaps, life rarely, if ever, gets better than that for an entire country and all its inhabitants, so boring and uneventful in its sheer goodness. But lust for interesting times may soon take the upper hand in its never-ending contest with boredom. It is premised on the hope that a change under the name of independence may make life in Scotland even better. My late parents used to warn me with the Polish saying that ‘the better is the enemy of the good,’ in other words: ‘think better what you may wish for.’

I do not know – no one does – what the future may have in store for us, for Scotland. Independence may turn out good for the Scots-and-us and their-and-our country. But my experience of the interesting communist times and of what followed in the wake of its collapse during the last quarter of a century make me wary. Things can take a strange or unexpected turn. Each change of such a political magnitude as independence for a country of over five million people is marked by a high degree of uncertainty and invariably breeds a period of instability, when many things can go utterly wrong.

Whose Home?

I am a newcomer, so it is not my role to say what to do. I live in Scotland, observe and learn my new homeland and its people, day-by-day becoming more Scottish myself. But let me share some of my misgivings. It is widely proposed that Scottish independence will be defined by civic patriotism, which should ensure smooth transition, stability, and peace. This kind of nationalism as the founding ideology of independent Scotland is inevitably connected to the question of citizenship. The White Paper published in November 2013 as Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland says that upon independence all holders of British citizenship domiciled in Scotland will automatically receive Scottish citizenship, if they so choose. However, other permanent residents will have to apply for naturalization.

But in its classical meaning, as practised in revolutionary France for the first time in Europe, all the permanent (and male – it was an epoch of unmitigated patriarchalism) inhabitants of the Kingdom of France were made into French citizens when the country was transformed into a republic. In turn, the citizenry was proclaimed to be the French nation, whose popular will has made and maintained France as the nation’s nation-state.

Following the golden standard of civic nationalism, I wonder why all Scotland’s permanent residents could not be made into Scottish citizens. Perhaps, such a move would pit the Scottish government against UKIP, but the SNP has never sympathized with Nigel Farage’s isolationist and anti-immigration party, so why to follow his line in this regard?

If in the age of ‘war on terror’ civic nationalism cannot be so inclusive as two centuries ago in the Republic of France, maybe Scottish citizenship should be extended, as a matter of course, to at least all those eligible for participating in the independence referendum, that is, to all the permanent residents with EU citizenship. In its vast majority this group is composed of British citizens, but not solely. It also includes around 300,000 or more EU citizens from EU countries other than Britain, around a third of them from Poland. They face a paradoxical dilemma. Should they feel a strong sympathy for the Scots and empathize with their fate – and most do – they ought to vote for independence, too. But if independence is achieved, it will mean their automatic disenfranchisement and exclusion form the new Scottish body politic. These non-British EU citizens would not be able to participate in any further all-Scottish elections.

In the European Union, a permanent resident with EU citizenship can vote in all types of elections, with the exception of those at the state level, in countries of which she is not a citizen. At present Scotland is a region within Britain, hence, all non-British EU citizens can vote in the referendum. But under the current provisions on the future Scottish citizenship, in their case the yes vote equates voting for disenfranchisement. It is a curious proposition, at variance with the very ideal of civic nationalism.

However, so late in the day, less than five months before the referendum, I have not heard a single Scottish politician or commentator addressing this concern, though the acutely painful dilemma may be faced by as many as five per cent of the electorate eligible for the vote.

It is a small part of the voters, but far from negligible. In the close democratic race between the proponents and opponents of independence, this five per cent may easily sway the referendum this way or that. I believe that unless the situation with citizenship for non-British EU citizens is clarified, most of the non-British EU citizens will consider abstaining. However, the danger is that irrespective of which side wins the referendum, the losers would blame this five per cent for their loss. In this way, the non-British EU citizens would be made into a useful scapegoat on whom to take out one’s own political anger: Why did Scotland become / fail to become independent? The populist answer is easy: Because of the ‘bloody foreigners.’

I hope it will never come to that. But once upon time, in Sarajevo people married whom they fancied, without checking whether the beloved one’s grandparents had frequented a Catholic church, a mosque, a synagogue, or maybe an Orthodox church. It was the past. But in the 1990s, unexpectedly, the past caught up with the present, and a vague memory of old religious affiliations became the hard certainties of the post-Yugoslav national identities that sundered numerous families, tearing spouses and siblings apart. (Over half a million Yugoslavs remained what they used to be – Yugoslavs – but far away from erstwhile home, in America, their ‘New Yugoslavia.’)

I do not wish such a scenario for Scotland, for my own family, for my new home, or for non-British EU citizens, either. I speak of it in order to show that such a possibility also exists in the nature of this referendum, and is best prevented beforehand. But insightful forward planning is needed to prevent an ugly development of this kind, which is not at all unthinkable. Should one need a reminder from closer home, it is enough to look across the North Channel, where on the opposite bank Northern Ireland extends, still simmering with the unease of the dark memories of the recent civil war, poorly sanitized by the seemingly dispassionate label of ‘The Troubles.’

Some friends and acquaintances of mine reject my vision of such a bleak future right out of hand. They maintain that Scots are reasonable people and they would never behave like that. I hope they know what they are saying. They are wont to add that a bigger danger is the possible 2017 vote on Britain’s membership in the EU. The Scottish government proposes that voting for independence would keep Scotland in the EU, while staying in Britain might mean taking leave of the European Union. It would be no Scottish choice, but a majoritarian one, forced on Scotland by the demographic imbalance between this country and England-Wales-Northern Ireland.

(Un)Safe Home

Apparently, such a forward-looking strategy seems appealing and reasonable. But it rests on the assumption that independent Scotland would somehow remain in the EU, or be automatically welcomed back into Brussels’ fold after gaining independence. But the rump UK offended by Scotland’s departure may as well veto Scottish membership in the EU. Perhaps not, maybe I am wrong about this. But would other members of the European Union be so eager to accept independent Scotland as a new member? I am afraid that Madrid might differ in this regard. Last December (2013), the Generalitat (Government) of Catalonia decided that it would hold an independence referendum in November 2014. In March this year (2014), the Spanish Constitutional Court declared this motion as ‘unconstitutional and void.’ And the following month (April 2014), the Spanish Parliament rejected Catalonia’s request to allow it to organize an independence referendum.

Madrid does not wish to create a precedence that would let other Spanish autonomous communities stage their own independence referenda. Hence, allowing the post-referendum independence Scotland back into the EU would be at variance with Spain’s position on this matter. Would Brussels rather acquiesce to Spain with its 47 million inhabitants or to five-million-strong Scotland? I am afraid of the former, given the recent heavy investment of the European Central Bank into keeping Spain’s economy afloat.

What would then become of Scotland at the margins of Europe, unmoored from both Britain and the European Union? Would NATO let Scotland in as a new member if Edinburgh continues to insist on scaling down the presence of Trident nuclear warheads on the Scottish shores? In late April 2014, RAF jets intercepted two Russian military planes passing by British airspace. Independent Scotland will have to face up to Russia as a close but often overlooked neighbour. From the Shetlands to the Russian frontier at the northern top of Scandinavia it is only 1800 kilometers as the crow flies.

In March 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea breaching the principles (III and IV) of the inviolability of borders and territories of states in Europe, as enshrined in the Helsinki Accords (1975). With this act, the Kremlin also nullified the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which post-Soviet Ukraine agreed to give up its stockpile of nuclear warheads in exchange for the assurance of its own security and borders, in accordance with the two aforementioned Helsinki principles. Russia, the United States, and Britain signed this document as the guarantors of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. But after this annexation, neither Washington nor London did anything to enforce the memorandum’s provisions. The world entered a new, as yet uncharted, post-Helsinki period in which the old rules of the political game have ceased to apply.

Scotland unmoored from NATO and the EU, would be a lonely country in a new dark world, even less able to stand up on its own to any Russian or other challenge than 45-million-strong Ukraine. The sixty years of peace and stability enjoyed in Europe after the Second World War II and the old certainties worked out at Helsinki four decades ago have just come to an end. Europe, the world will never be the same. But the events in Ukraine were largely unnoticed in Scotland, the hope being that nothing has changed or will change. Sadly, today, the ownership of nuclear missiles appears to be the sole guarantee of a polity’s independence and territorial integrity.

Home Improvements

I promised not to lecture, and I will not. What I am saying below is my personal opinion, which I would like to share. It is not a proposal to be followed, just a reflection.

In the early 1990s, I chanced across a view that in the not too distant future Britain might splinter. I attended the famous anthropologist and philosopher, Ernest Gellner’s, lectures on nationalism in Prague at the Central European University. Going through the required and suggested readings, I happened to peruse the Scottish political scientist from Fife, Tom Nairn’s, seminal work The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism (1977).

My reflex was to brush away the monograph’s thesis as ludicrous. Such an old and well-established democracy as Britain appeared to me to be set in stone. It was Czechoslovakias, Yugoslavias, and Soviet Unions that broke up, not Britain. My peers and I from the world that had just disappeared – the Soviet bloc – clung desperately to the myth of the inherent stability of the West and its prosperous states.

But with time I learned more and grew older. Before the 1989-2008 period of sudden splits of states, there had been an earlier one, in the wake of the Great War. One of its victims, lamented to this day in Central Europe, was Austria-Hungary. In its time it was derided as a ‘prison of nations,’ though Gellner rightly objected by observing that it was rather a benevolent ‘kindergarten of nations.’ The breakup of the Dual Monarchy left a handful of smaller, less prosperous, unstable, increasingly authoritarian, xenophobic, and inward-looking nation-states. The often careless magnanimity of composite Austria-Hungary – or Kakania (this slangy name derived from the ubiquitous Austro-Hungarian acronym k. u. k. for kaiserlich und königlich that stands for ‘imperial and royal) – was replaced by the pettiness of monolingual nationalisms given to the narcissism of small differences.

Even more dramatically, the erasing of this multiethnic and polyglot polity from Europe’s political map left Jews and Roma without a home, a patria. This directly contributed to the Nazi genocide of both nations during World War II, when all looked the other way. In the interlude of the interwar years, one of the remaining few true – kaisertreue – Kakanians, the Jewish writer and journalist Joseph Roth, created a body of haunting and unforgettable novels and stories in which he never stopped mourning for the old monarchy, his lost home. Roth’s writings were rediscovered for the Anglophone world at the turn of the 1990s, and stoked up so much interest that almost his entire oeuvre is now available in excellent English translations.

The writer’s warning that we are ‘used to living in a home, not in cabins’ is oft repeated, but rarely understood, especially nowadays, when the European Union is blamed for all the continent’s ills, and many see a false promise of salvation in braving the globalized world alone in a small and prosperous state, such as, for instance, Scotland. But when our Ukania or EU-landia is finally gone, we may next day wake up – cold and hungover from celebrations – in a cabin and then, with many regrets, would long for the luxury of the lost mansion.

Roth was as much a writer as he was a critic of the divisive European politics of his times. Unfortunately, his warning against revolution, and any dramatic and interesting breakups, is read and heard in a big way, but not heeded. All his stories are fiction, aren’t they?

April 29-30, 2014
Cill Rìmhinn / Saunt Aundraes / St Andrews