For countries like the United Kingdom, and even more so Belgium and Spain, the high level of prestige and the obvious bias in terms of power and societal influence that some regions have create difficulties in the larger goals of the rulers of those nations. This is especially true in areas like Belgium and Spain, where regional efforts at autonomy and outright independence (in Flanders, Catalonia, and the Basque Country) have been the natural result of the cultural domination by another group. In many ways, ruling elites face a catch-22, in that the enjoyment of the fruits of elite status tends to inflame those who are not elites, and weaken the unity of a state that seeks to rule over restive minority populations. Yet in many cases a granting of devolution makes a state less valuable to rule over, if most of its functions and resources are handled on the local level. As an American, long used to the contest between different levels of government seeking to divide functions so as to reduce tensions and build consensus and reduce the spoil value of any particular branch or level of government, so as to reduce corruption at the cost of efficiency, these are familiar concerns, but they are worth exploring anyway.
The United States, like the post-1848 Republic of Switzerland, is a nation that has a division of tasks between the federal and the local level. So, since the 1970’s, is Spain and Switzerland. Yet there is a drastic difference at present between those nations where the process of nation-building took place over a long time from a bottom-up fashion, as initial confederations strengthened over the course of time as a result of conflict and as the nation itself was built from a compact made by the constituent parts of the nation itself, voluntarily joining together as a greater whole and yet jealous of maintaining some sort of local power so as to avoid becoming a unitary state, and those who sought devolution from a centralized top-down state. For the United States, there were different regional cultures that were jealous of their own territory and their own local histories and traditions, and for Switzerland there were linguistic and confessional divisions (as well as in some areas, like Basel, a town & country divide) that required deft handling to resolve. A nation that was divided into Protestant and Catholic halves, or divided between German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansh areas would not have endured, because the focus of organization would have been on the factors that divide rather than on the units of local loyalty by which their identity and their culture was built. Similarly, it has been when the general diversity of interests within the United States has been replaced by regional political blocs with widely differing philosophies of government when our own American republican experiment has been most in danger of collapse.
In Spain and Belgium the situation is more divisive. Rather than a consensual bottom-up process of covenant-making, Spain was formed in a top-down fashion and Belgium had their own independence efforts crowned with a ruling house who behaved autocratically until the end of World War II. In both of these countries there was clear favoritism for one element of the country (in Spain, that of the Castellanos, and in Belgium, that of the French-speaking Walloons). Likewise, both populations contain large and restive populations that desire increased autonomy, with the possibility of eventual independence. In Spain, Catalonia and the Basque region have active separatist movements that seek a legal separation through plebiscite. Other regions, like Valencia and Galicia, seek to protect their native languages from being overwhelmed by Spanish. In both countries, a series of crises have increased the power of local regions at the expense of the power of the central government, as the central government has been viewed with mistrust over its previous use to oppress minority cultures (or, in the case of Flanders, the majority region).
A great deal of that mistrust comes with languages. In Belgium, French was the status language as opposed to Flemish/Dutch, and so despite the fact that a majority of the population of Belgium is Flemish, a great many more Flemings speak French than Walloons speak Flemish or Dutch, which has given the French-speaking southern part of the country far more prestige, and led to Flemish demands for increased autonomy that threaten the integrity of the Belgian state. A less imperialistic linguistic policy and cultural behavior may not have led to the pressures at devolution that Belgium faces. The case of Spain is similar, as the centralizing tendencies of the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties and of Franco’s regime led to the erosion of a great deal of linguistic diversity within Spain, as well as the demands on the part of minority populations for increased autonomy so that their own regional cultures may be preserved, and so they may seek a path to outright independence if they so choose. The mistrust on a cultural level was so great that even the province of Castille refused to let Madrid be a part of it for fear that it would disrupt the equality within the province, and so Madrid was made its own province.
When it comes to expanding central tendencies, dominant elite cultures face a catch-22. By nature, dominant elites wish to dominate as large an area as possible, and to spread their culture and make it normative over a larger region, to obliterate the distinctions that threaten a larger identity of a state. However, those same elites also equally wish to preserve elite status to as small a group as possible, so as to make elite status something worth having in the first place. These two goals are at odds, for the greater the extent of a culture, the greater the egalitarian pressures of that culture, and the less elite status is something to be treasured or something to be fought over. In contrast, the greater the distinction that elite status gives to someone or to a group, the less likely that culture is to spread beyond a narrow elite, and the more likely that elite status is likely to cause resentment within the larger society, especially if there are religious or cultural or linguistic differences that are added to the divide.
What, then, can be done? Without putting it too baldly, the essential choice is between reducing the divide between a prestige elite culture and less prestigious cultures, or between being a prestigious culture that is going to have to fight for its rule against restive peripheral regions, or give up that rule entirely. The world is full of examples of elite cultures that became separatists as soon as their culture lost its dominant position (the American South in the late antebellum period being the most obvious one to students of American history). The option to reduce the divide between central elites and peripheral regions comes with immense consequences, including a loss of resources controlled by the central government and a loss of status of the central government, making the central government a less worthwhile prize when it comes to seeking power and patronage. At worst, a state can end up like the Polish sejm of the 17th and 18th centuries, where it was impossible for the central government to conduct business at all and where such political impotence led to its eventual partition among its rapacious neighbors. Yet if a dominant elite chooses to fight for its elite status, it can lose any chance at a friendly and peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with those whose memory of oppressions and domination last long. And little lasts longer than the resentment over exploitation and domination, except perhaps for the nostalgia of past glory.