Of laughter and forgetting. Democratic politics depends on a pre-political loyalty, a sense of "us" that is defined by contrast to "them". Roger Scruton on the dilemmas of national identity

Czechoslovakia: the short goodbye

Abby Innes <em>Yale University Press, 352pp, £25</em>

ISBN 030

In the last weeks of 1989, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia fell from power after 40 years of misrule. Less than three years later, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, and the historic border between the old Austria and the old Hungary now divides the Czech from the Slovak republics. What explains this rapid transition from a "velvet revolution" to a "velvet divorce"?

Abby Innes offers to answer that question. She begins her book by summarising the history of the first Czechoslovak republic from its birth after the First World War to its break-up when, betrayed by France and Britain at Munich, the German-speaking Sudetenland was ceded to Hitler, who offered the Slovaks their own vassal state within his sphere of control. The Czechs, astonished that everyone had betrayed them, then promptly betrayed themselves, yielding without a shot to Hitler's army. The habit of self-betrayal reached epic proportions after the war, when the re-united Czechs and Slovaks bowed passively to the Moscow-managed coup d'etat. It is hardly surprising that the Czechs and the Slovaks should be disinclined to protest when the whole sorry experiment called Czechoslovakia was finally brought to an end in 1992.

However, that is not how Innes sees the matter. In her view, the people didn't want the divorce and were never consulted, as they should have been, in a referendum. She is keen to assign blame - principally to Vaclav Klaus and the right-wing coalition that made him prime minister, and also to Vladimir Meaiar, the populist leader who was to become the controversial prime minister of Slovakia. Innes is an intelligent writer who has thoroughly researched the political process and is able to report on what was said and done at countless forgettable meetings between countless forgettable politicians. She believes that Klaus represents the victory of unpleasant right-wing forces over a more liberal, ex- dissident politics that lived and died with the "civic movement", born of the velvet revolution.

Innes seizes on the "lustration law" as evidence of this unpleasant rightwards shift, and argues that the liberal dissidents were opposed to it as a violation of human rights. The lustration law excluded from high office those who had held influential positions in the communist hierarchy - though only for a period of a few years. Despite what Innes writes to the contrary, few ex- dissidents have opposed this law; it was Klaus's way of keeping the ex-dissidents onside.

During the early days of the new Czechoslovakia, I visited a friend with whom I had closely collaborated during the previous decade. He had been put in charge of reforming the police force in Moravia - the very police force that had once been responsible for his lengthy imprisonment, as well as my arrest and expulsion. He was sitting behind a desk in luxurious headquarters in Prague; but still he spoke in whispers, took notes on tiny scraps of paper that could be swallowed in one gulp, and looked nervously around whenever a "secretary" entered the room. The levers on this desk had once operated the entire criminal conspiracy that governed Moravia. Now they had been disconnected. But what was happening in the system that they had once controlled? He did not know.

Another friend, Rudolf, denounced by a university colleague who coveted his position, spent 20 years cleaning the streets, suffered several heart attacks, saw his children excluded from higher education - only to discover, in 1989, that the dunces who had used the Communist Party to claim the university as their exclusive fiefdom were still able and determined to keep him out of it, and to go on enjoying their ill-gotten privileges. Rudolf's case was one of many thousands. If Innes had lived through this kind of thing, I doubt that she would see the lustration law as a violation of human rights. In my view, the political instability that we have witnessed in the countries of the former Soviet empire has one overriding cause, which is that the Communist Party and its leading members were never put on trial and punished as the Nazis and their party were punished at Nuremberg. The clean break with the past that put Germany on a democratic and constitutional footing has not occurred in post-communist Europe.

Rudolf was actually more dangerous as a non-person than he had been as a professor. His samizdat journal became a major cultural force and helped to create the climate of opinion that condemned Alexander Dubaek's "socialism with a human face" to oblivion. Innes seems to think the Czech right wing is Klaus's creation. It is in fact a product of the dissident culture, which formed the minds and souls of future leaders, Havel included, in the catacombs.

Innes's account of the political process is exemplary in its range and detail, and I believe that she is right to see the velvet divorce as engineered by Klaus and Meaiar in order to achieve short-term political gains. On the other hand, she leaves out of her account most of the non-political factors that contributed to the split. Slovakia is a deeply Catholic country with a rural economy, lost for centuries in the Hungarian ethnic muddle. It has a large Hungarian minority and a smaller, but very noticeable, population of gypsies. No institution has had any authority in Slovakia to rival those of the family and the Church, and the Communist Party was used largely as a machine for the advancement of the clan - as the post-communist constitution has been used by Meaiar.

The Czechs, by contrast, are sceptical, cosmopolitan inheritors of the cultural capital (in both senses) of central Europe. The modern Czech soul is a fully conscious actor on the stage of world history. The Czechs achieved male suffrage under Austrian rule at a time when the Slovaks were Hungarian vassals. Unlike the Slovaks, they have no serious "minority question", and no desire to reacquire one (after all, it was the German minority that caused Hitler to invade their land). It is hardly surprising that Klaus should have taken the first possible opportunity to jettison a portion of the country that could mean only trouble in the long run. Had Innes paid more attention to people and their souls, and less attention to politics, she would, I think, have seen the divorce not only as inevitable, but also as the best thing for both parties in the long run - because democratic politics depends on a pre-political loyalty, a sense of "us" that is necessarily defined by contrast to "them". This is what the Czechs and the Slovaks have finally regained.

Let's face it: we in Britain have also suffered a divorce engineered for short-term political gains and without any real public discussion. And although there was a referendum, it was for one of the parties only. Unlike the Czechs and the Slovaks, who make their own laws, we English are now ruled by a government whose leading members are Scots, backed by Scottish MPs who can legislate for the English even in those matters on which the English cannot legislate for the Scots. I, for one, see this as a constitutional catastrophe, and if, for example, parliament were to pass a bill to ban hunting in England and Wales, in which the votes of the Scottish MPs were decisive, what recourse would we rural English people have besides civil disobedience? While the Czechs and the Slovaks have stumbled into the 21st century, we English find ourselves back where we were in the 17th century.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who helped to found and run the underground in communist Czechoslovakia

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win