by Theo Poward
Stories help us to understand our place in the world. By relating to characters we get to look at ourselves and define our identity in terms that are favourable to us. This is true of Theology on a grand scale of understanding ourselves as humanity in relation to our God, Nature and our fellow humans. It is also true of Politics and the simpler question of how we should organise ourselves. Disagreeing on both these points is natural and common, the problems come when we come into conflict based upon these disagreements.
I want to use a story that I was told as a child to highlight the best way of approaching disagreements when you want the other person to agree with you. Seeing the recent violence in Spain over Catalonia, and in Iraq and Syria over Kurdistan, not to mention ongoing issues with Somaliland in Somalia, Biafran in Nigeria and Cameroon and many other places, underpins the importance of this message.
The story I want to share is the parable of the Wind and the Sun it is on of Aesop’s fables, and it goes like this:
THE WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
If people are demanding greater self-determination it is because they do not feel that they can relate to any character in the greater national narrative. As a result they want to write or rediscover their own narrative, one they can relate to. Often these people are holding onto an identity that is more local. However, this is not a smaller identity, they demonstrate this by their whole-hearted embrace of larger, transnational identities as well. What we see is an attempt to balance the local and global. A desire to decentralise power, and take more control of their affairs, all the while maintaining an open and friendly stance to the rest of the world. These movements of secession are calls for decentralisation, often fed by real or imagined failures of the larger identity to recognize and accommodate the needs of the smaller.
The evolving nature of identities means that they constantly need to be reassessed, and as they are, so relationships with any overlapping identities needs to be reassessed as well. Scotland is another example of this, closer to home for me. The UK is not a perfect union, and things still need to change. But at least Scots know that there is no gun held to their head. It is their choice and that is a key factor in why they are content to stay in the union, at least for now.
The principle of subsidiarity applies in all these situations. People know best how to manage their own affairs. Self-determination is more important than protecting the unity of any political state. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, respecting self-determination is the best way of preserving the unity of any political state. This is a lesson that many of us learnt as children from the above parable.
If people don’t feel at home in the larger identity, which they don’t if they are demanding secession, then the worst thing you can do is attempt to force them. You cannot force people to feel comfortable. I am not taking a side in any of these conflicts of identity that I have mentioned. Every case is different and I do not know enough to comment fully. However, I do know that the moral of the story of the Wind and the Sun applies to all these situations. “Kindness has a greater effect than Severity.” It seems many political leaders ignored this lesson. Many of their identities are doomed to fracture and be redefined as a result.