EARLIER this year, Prime Minister John Major appealed most earnestly to Scottish voters not to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. He was not in the grip of a nightmare but responding to the growth of the Scottish National Party, which aims to do just that.
Sentimental nationalism has chafed under London rule for 300 years. Now it is approaching a point of political power just as the Europe of which Scotland is a part is becoming a larger whole. Adding to the apparent paradox, the feeling that animates so many Scots is bursting out all over Europe. Ethnic groups are demanding as never before the right of cultural, linguistic, and religious autonomy. Their goal is not always political independence but certainly a distinct voice in the government (including t he economy) of the community into which history has put them.
"Coalition" has been the theme of postwar Europe with, however, a constant counterpoint of ethnic particularism. The Basque extremists of Spain have made their demands savagely, the Catalans with less violence but equal insistence. The Flemings and Walloons have in effect partitioned Belgium. France has its dissident Corsicans and Bretons. There are many more.
In 1976, a conference of intellectuals on "Europe of Regions" held in Denmark called for decentralization and reduction of nation-states by nonviolent means. One eloquent advocate, Denmark's Prime Minister Poul Schluter, reasoned that the new age of information based on knowledge and the individual was replacing the old collectivized industrial culture. Defining "region" loosely as a homogeneous cultural or economic community with common goals, the conference added to the better known cases such concerns
as the Sami people of Lapland, the Greenlanders, Frisians, and Faroe Islanders. In the past few years, led by German federalists, the conference has become a movement to counter the centralization it sees in the Brussels bureaucracy of the European Community.
In 1985 a more formal "Assembly of European Regions" was established by 112 federal states, regions, and autonomous communities below the level of national government. The founding members included Germany's state of Baden-Wurttemberg, five Swiss cantons, two Austrian states, Wales and Scotland, as well as Crete and the Aegean Islands of Greece. This year, after the opening of Eastern Europe, the Assembly numbered 179.
It has added the word "subsidiarity" to the political lexicon, meaning the devolution of legislative and administrative authority from central government to the states, regions, and communities. The object is to anchor a federal structure and to institutionalize regional autonomy in the nascent European Union. This does not preclude more direct political activity. In northern Italy, autonomist parties in Lombardy and Venetia have been strikingly successful in local elections lambasting an uncaring centra l government in Rome.
THE enterprise is not confined to Europe. Last year the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization was formed in The Hague to represent minority groups and occupied territories not officially recognized by the United Nations. Its founders said this could apply to more than 5,000 "nations." The UNPO says it is not an alliance but a nonviolent support for self-determination and human rights. It embraces spokesmen for Australian Aboriginals, the Karens of Burma, the Achehs of Java, the Mohawk nation, an d Taiwan's natives. Assyria is listed among the 26 members, as is East Turkestan (Xinjiang, China), Crimea, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
These last four typify post-Soviet problems. Abkhazia demands independence from Georgia, which refuses to grant it. Armenians and Azeris are slaughtering each other. As for Crimea, now part of the Ukraine, it is not clear whether the Tatar minority, the Russian majority, or both claim the protection of human rights.
What has unleashed this newly conspicuous force of ethnic self-assertion? One observer remarked, "Every Dutchman knows that the time when the dikes are in greatest danger of bursting is the thaw." The end of the cold war and of the Soviet Union have indeed unfrozen many restraints.
But there may be a deeper impulse. Population growth is forcing accelerating changes in social organization - spurred by such primary needs as air, earth, and water. Solutions are sought more in the mass than in detail. Small wonder that human beings resent being lumped together as categories but find comfort in their own communities and break out where they can as individuals.
History, in the sense of struggle, has not ended. It has only turned a page.