Actualizado Jueves, 3 octubre 2019 – 06:56
“I know that I once said that nationalism is the cocaine of the middle class. It was paralleling the ‘opium of the people’ that Marx saw in religion. What it certainly is is a stimulant drug. When you look how it has been used politically in Europe, in the US, even in Asia, you think that nobody remembers what happened in the 20th century. I think we need to teach people history much better. If we do, we can make them see that, as of Cocaine, nationalism is also something that can be taken too much, something that can be abused. “
Niall Ferguson, who although Scottish has never supported the independence of Scotland, is stimulated on his part with a cocacola while a pop star atmosphere floats around him at EnlightED, the global conference of experts in education and technology that drives the Telefónica Foundation in Madrid.
Born in Glasgow in 1964, newly nationalized American and one of the most celebrated and read Anglo-Saxon historians on the planet, Ferguson somewhat narrows his green eyes as he strives to face the inferiority complex he observes, repeatedly, in each of his visits to Spain: “Its problems are those of the whole of Europe, and of the rest of the world,” he repeats several times. “If you think that in Spain the party system is wrong, look at Brexit to console yourself,” he says. “Catalonia has to look towards the Swiss cantons, not what happened in Yugoslavia,” he ends. And he prophesies, a bit of a hooligan: “In Spain it is likely that you will also have elections next year. It will become an annual event!”
If nationalism is the drug of the middle class, in Catalonia …
I will speak like Scots: the world does not need more small countries. There are 11 Chinese cities with more than six million inhabitants. The European problem is rather that there is not enough integration to compete with the US or China. My attitude towards Catalonia is similar to the Scottish problem: what are the real benefits? And then: do they outweigh the costs? No, I’m sure they don’t outweigh the costs.
Well, you will tell me what we do …
Can the United Kingdom and Spain function with decentralization better than fragmentation? Definitely. We need more decentralization. Many European countries have been decentralized in the last 100 years, and Spain is no exception: much has been done in Madrid and much has been done in London. The solution is to be more Swiss. Put more decentralization in European states and you will not have all this disruption in the form of secession.
How can you be so sure that the secession bill is greater than its supposed benefits?
As a historian, looking back, there is a reason why the breakup of Yugoslava was a disaster. It’s like Brexit: it’s much harder than it looks. It is clear that passion flies very high in Barcelona, even higher than in Edinburgh, I think that feels stronger in Catalonia than in Scotland. But the Catalans do not understand the costs of independence. As a historian, I want to suggest that you can fit your demands with an evolution of decentralization. Question in Quebec.
In any case: decentralize even more?
As an American I can tell you now[smiles rogue, just achieved nationality]
that federalism works. In the US, in Australia, in Canada … The centralized and unitary state tends to reduce regional competencies, it does not work well … Spain has to think whether it is worthwhile to yield constitutionally decentralization to maintain the unity of the country. The same can be said of the United Kingdom.
What role does the European Union play in this puzzle?
One of the consequences of the EU has been to make some regions believe that they may be independent. In the Scottish case it was fascinating that the Scottish National Party changed its motto to ‘Scotland In Europe’, as saying: “We can leave the United Kingdom, but don’t worry, we’ll be in Europe.” The European project has been a kind of solvent of the states, the EU saved the nation-states from the mess they were at the end of World War II. But the federal project has failed and now everything has turned around.
Break that down, please.
The European federal project to create ‘bundesrepubliks’ has failed, and has created a generation of Eurosceptics and another of nationalists: it is one of the unexpected consequences of trying to create a federal Europe. If the EU had stayed in a confederation and a single market, there would be much less instability in its member states. Now there is a very strong north / south division, for example. So the case of Spain is not as unusual as people in Spain think. Europe is full of problems like that of Spain. Paralyzed Belgium, for example. I honestly don’t think Europe is better with an independent Catalonia or Scotland. Who will be next?
In Spain we have four general elections in four years. Could you get us out of the loop, please?
Haha [laughs phlegmatic] … Europe’s central political problem after the financial crisis is the decline of the two-party system that has existed since the Cold War. That system has declined everywhere: France, Italy, of course Germany, where the Great Coalition is dying. Spain is part of a global trend: the political center is not large enough to form governments. The obvious solution is the coalition of right-wing parties or left-wing parties, but this is not easy, especially if some of these parties are very extreme, and we see this in Scandinavia as well.
We leave then in the eternal election.
It is like that. Once you have a system of multiple parties, the elections have a perverse effect, because the little ones end up receiving a power that … Let’s look at Israel, which has been doing this … For so long that I don’t even remember it! And it is worth looking at Israel because you see where the answer is: under those circumstances, a very strong and Machiavellian leader is required, capable of building majorities. In Spain no one has yet appeared as Benjamin Netanyahu, capable of setting up a government of the right, or of the left, or of the center, it doesn’t matter. But anyway, if it comforts you, I will tell you that the collapse of the British political system is much worse than what you have here. If you are worried about Spain, think about the consequences of Brexit.
What do you think is going to happen there?
Honestly, I don’t think a ‘no deal’ [leaving the UK without an agreement with the EU] will happen on October 31. I think there is less chance than 10% … I don’t really believe that Boris Johnson has the serious intention of doing so, because it would be very disruptive. I know him well, I went to Oxford with him …
Were you classmates?
Well, he was going a course behind mine, although we are the same age [makes a frown] … Anyway, I think he would fall before asking for an extension [of the term to negotiate]. It would be very masochistic that I did it but from Boris I can expect anything, it has already surprised me before … I have known him for over 35 years and I think he has been surprising me all that time, hehe …
We talked, and I think Boris Johnson represents him, about the crisis of representative democracy …
Yes, in short, the lesson is that perhaps the binary system of two choices is boring but stable. People look at the United States and say, “What a system disaster.” But the only disaster is the president. The system works, at least as it was conceived. The problem with the multi-party system is that there is no voting result. Look what will happen in Spain. It is likely that next year they will have other elections.
You, like so many others, underestimated Trump at the time.
Many people underestimated him. It is true that I underestimated him in 2015 [during the Republican primary], at the beginning of his campaign. If you write a weekly column, you can understand that sometimes [shrugs] … But my vision of Trump changed after Brexit, I began to realize that something similar could happen in the US. In 2016 I started watching the internet, and I realized that I was way ahead of Clinton on Facebook and Google Search … My last column before the election was already saying that he could win. That means he had learned something.
You now live in California and has lectured in Silicon Valley. How is History taught to those who believe that History begins with them?
What do you need History for when you own a unicorn company, right? I moved there in 2016, just before the elections, and I was very impressed at how familiar arrogance and indifference to History in Silicon Valley were. It was the same as in New York before the financial crash, in Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. I told people in Silicon Valley: “You remind me a lot of Wall Street before the crash.” They have not had a financial crash, but reputational, with their role in the elections. The story never ends.