What does it Take to Secede?

I generally like to begin all of my pieces with a reference to a current political event, however this time that event will come later on. Instead, I want to begin by going back to 1996. The Quebec Referendum of 1995 was still recent news, made pressing by the fact that the separatists had only lost by the slimmest of margins. Both Canada and Quebec were still reeling from the events of the previous year and any resolution to the issue of Quebec separatism was still years away — the issue of whether the actions of the Quebec government, in calling the referendum, were even legal would not be settled by the Supreme Court until 1998. It was at this time, surveying the aftermath of this great political battle, that Stephan Dion aimed to answer a simple question: why is secession difficult in well-established democracies? This question was especially pressing when we consider that no secessionist has ever succeeded in splitting a well-established democratic state (the case of Jura separatism could be an exception to this rule, but given that the goal of that particular movement was to create a new canton within Switzerland rather than actual independence, this observation can still be said to stand). To this end Dion came up with a golden rule of sorts, an equation which can be used to determine how likely a separatist movement is to succeed that also explains why no such movement has succeeded within an established democracy: successful secession requires both a high amount of fear inspired by remaining within the union and a high amount of confidence that the sub-state unit in question can be successful as an independent entity (Why Secession is Difficult in Well-Established Democracies, p. 271). Without both of these ingredients secession is likely to fail and it is unlikely that both will exist within the confines of an established democracy, given that the freedoms granted to its citizens should go a long way in alleviating any fear of remaining in the union. Quebec separatists had come close because there had been fear associated with remaining a part of Canada: fear that the French language and Quebecois culture was at risk. Dion’s work in this area still stands as one of the best pieces examining the origins of secessionism, one which this author has certainly drawn upon many times.

However, Dion, in focusing his research and his line of questioning upon Quebec, perhaps took for granted that fear of union and confidence of secession alone are not the only ingredients that are required for secession to succeed. A third ingredient is also required: a cohesive and shared identity among the seceding group. Without this, secession cannot possibly succeed or even get off the ground. Generally taking the form of nationalism, though this is not necessarily the only form of shared identity that may be used as the basis for a separatist movement, this shared identity is necessary as it allows separatist supporters to appeal to a sense of community shared by inhabitants of the region. It allows them to speak of shared values and culture and to juxtapose these with the state’s alien culture as a way of constructing the discourse of otherness requires to even conceive of secession. In the case of Quebec, for example, the shared history, culture, and language of the inhabitants of the province were appealed to early on by nationalist minded politicians as a way of highlighting Quebec’s distinctness, and by extension the distinctness of Quebec from Canada in particular. We see this same process at the heart of all secessionist movements, whether we are discussing Catalonia, Scotland, Norther Ireland, Kurdistan, Tibet, etc.; we would expect to see this correlation as well, as without a shared identity there is nothing that binds together the region’s population or that differentiates the future separatist region from the state as a whole. However, separatist leadership almost always hit a snag: the people of the region they hope to gain independence for do not have a single shared identity. To continue with my use of Quebec to illustrate my point, there were more than simply Quebecois in Quebec and many Quebeckers saw themselves as Canadian first — whether because they were Anglophones who could trace their ancestry back to English Canada or because they were Allophones who were more recent immigrants to Canada who felt a special connection to the country that they immigrated to (i.e. Canada) rather than to any province in particular. Much like Dion’s two requirements, if the shared identity is non-existent or not strong enough to adequately bind people together, than secession is difficult or perhaps even impossible.

With this in mind, we can now return to the present. Yesterday (February 10, 2019) witnessed large scale protests orchestrated by a host of right wing Spanish political parties against Catalan separatism. With chants and signs espousing outrage at the notion of Catalan secessionism in general and at Spain’s current socialist government’s willingness to work with these separatists in particular, the protests acted as a stark reminder of just how divisive the issue of secession can be. More than this, these protests, though these occurred in Madrid, remind us of not simply how divided Spain is but also, perhaps more importantly in this case, of how divided Catalonia itself is over the issue of its own separatism. A quick look at the Catalan parliament acts to underscore this point: separatist parties hold only the slimmest majorities with unionist parties making up a large and well-represented minority. Moreover, these two sides are not unified, but rather are grand coalitions made up of a host of political parties representing a vast array of ideologies. Without some compromise between these factions, without some common ground, it seems unlikely that secessionism will succeed in the short term in Catalonia — and even if it does it may look like the UK post-Brexit, with its politics in chaos thanks to a vocal and powerful remain minority working against an increasingly beleaguered Prime Minister May in an effort to either stop or soften Brexit. Though the ongoing Catalan secession crisis certainly has many causes specific to this case, a single and more general cause is also apparent: there is a lack of a shared identity among residents in Catalonia. With both Spanish nationalists and Catalan separatists in such large numbers and with viewpoints that are so at odds with each other, how can we expect a cohesive and singular identity to exist?

At first this problem seems simple enough to solve: hold a referendum. Use the democratic institutions that form the foundation of every well-established democratic state itself to officially understand how much support exists for separatism and then base future political decisions on the that support. If support for separatism is high, then separatism is required. If the reverse is true, then the region is bound for continued existence within the state. This is, after all, the simple exercise of the right to self-determination, right? It all seems easy enough. However, we have to consider the two overlapping issues: (1) that separatist regions tend to have been joined to the state against their will due to military conquest or forced annexation and (2) their power is asymmetric to that of the state’s, with the state always forming the dominant member in the partnership. The combination of these two factors results in the separatist region historically having little control over some or all aspects of its politics, most important to this argument however is its lack of control over its own population. The result of long years spent in union with the state can result in some major demographic shifts, notably an influx of people from the majority group that makes up the state settling in the separatist region and thereby ‘watering-down’ the cohesion and identity of that region. Buchanan noted precisely this issue, observing how colonial activities can generate a substantial number of colonists who will oppose secession, a ‘fifth column’. His solution is at once shocking and simple: because this is the result of unjust colonization it would be unfair to give colonists a voice in whether secession occurs or not. To quote him directly: “if the question is whether the group that was wronged ought to be allowed to reclaim its sovereignty, then neither the colonists nor their descendants have any legitimate voice in the decision…they should therefore be disqualified from voting in a referendum” (Buchanan, Secession, p.143). Buchanan had specifically Latvia in mind when he made these comments, a country which had long existed under Soviet control and as a result acquired a roughly 48% non-Latvian population made up mostly of Russian colonists placed there by the USSR itself in a bid to drown out the political voice of the native population (Buchanan, Secession, p. 142). Under such illiberal and colonial circumstances, perhaps denying people who are not historic members of the region the right to vote is justified as a way to balance out historic injustices (though this is itself a debatable point), but can this argument be extended to cases of secession in well-established democracies? After all, such a proposition raises many basic questions regarding liberal and democratic values (Buchanan tackles this point in detail in his book Secession: The Morality Of Political Divorce From Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in this subject to take a look at that text), but also questions related to precisely how one is to determine if a person is a state-sponsored entity or a legitimate immigrant to the region.

To this end, we had a glimpse of what the answer to this latter question would look like in the context of a developed democracy when the Jura separatist party Rassemblement Jurassiens (RJ) advocated just such a policy (as a quick note, the RJ sought autonomy for the greater Jura region, which is the name I use here to refer to the north-west territory that once was part of the Swiss canton of Berne, though today that territory has become split with the north of greater Jura becoming the canton of Jura and the south remaining a part of the canton of Berne). At the height of its power in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the RJ supported the idea that ‘foreign elements’ should not be allowed to vote in any referendum on secessionism, instead saying that the vote ought to be limited to three main groups of people: (1) ‘traditional’ citizens of greater Jura (2) members of families with Swiss origin who had lived in greater Jura for at least 90 years, and (3) individuals who lived outside of greater Jura but whose families had left the region less than 90 years ago (Jenkins, Jura Separatism in Switzerland, p. 102). Though these requirements were not part of either of the referendums on Jurassian separatism held in 1974 and 1975 (the Swiss government, perhaps wisely, refused to accept such rules as part of any referendum), they nonetheless give us an idea of how such restrictions would be articulated in the context of secessionism in an established democracy. Like many things, these rules seem at first reasonable as they require voters to be not simply residents but to be truly attached to the region that they are deciding the fate of. However the reasonable nature of such requirements is only in appearance, as the reality of having such requirements would, in my humble opinion, only stoke the fires of nativism. Requiring individuals to prove themselves as ‘real’ members of the community is likely to encourage sectarianism, with Manichaean divisions between pro-secession and pro-state factions, and perhaps even violence. Nonetheless, the motivations of the RJ in pursuing such a goal were as clear then as they remain today: they believed that the people who meet these requirements were most likely to vote in favour of separatism as they were the most likely to hold a strong shared identity as Jurassians. However, subsequent separatist referendums in established democracies, from Quebec to Catalonia, have spurned such thinking — though this has certainly not stopped separatist sympathizers from complaining that the failure of their particular referendum on independence was due to pro-state elements.

So what is to be done? Must separatist Catalans, Scots, and others simply accept that their region will never be able gain independence because it has spent too long in a union with a larger state that has flooded their communities with pro-state citizenry? Said tackled similar questions when writing on Israel-Palestine and his answers may be the key to solving this issue. Said recognized that what blocked, and indeed what continues to block, the way forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the opposed narratives that form the core of these two opposed camps. To this end, he recognized the solution lay in dismantling “both the notions of Greater Israel as the land of the Jewish people given to them by God and of Palestine as an Arab land that cannot be alienated from the Arab homeland” and “once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation”. Using this line of thinking, we can come up with a new approach to the issue of how to deal with what we might call state-sponsored residents in separatist regions: inclusion. It is not enough for secessionists to appeal to a nativist shared identity, but instead they must call upon or build a more flexible and inclusive national identity. Northern Ireland may, and I really want to stress the ‘may’ in this case, provide an example of this as it is a territory with two historically opposed communities, one of which was sponsored by the state to immigrate to the region as part of a colonial process, which look to finally be on the road to reconciling their past and constructing a new shared identity. Scotland’s separatist SNP seem similarly focused on developing the Scottish national identity in a similarly inclusive direction, one which is open to all people who reside within Scotland and not simply those who are ethnically Scottish (I base this observation on the fact that the SNP opened voting in the 2014 referendum up to all those people who were at the time residents of Scotland, regardless of nationality or citizenship, while barring Scottish people residing outside of Scotland from voting — too bad for Sean Connery I guess). The formation of such a shared identity is no simple feat, but it is none the less a necessary one.

Therefore we can now bring this piece to a close by returning to the beginning. Dion theorized that for secession to succeed, two things are required: fear inspired by remaining within the union and confidence inspired by secession. I hope I have successfully argued why my proposed third criteria ought to be formally added to these two: the need for a cohesive, shared, and inclusive identity among the people who reside with the secessionist region. Without this, secession is likely impossible regardless of how much fear or confidence may be present for without this identity there can be no community to be fearful or confident at all. Perhaps the leadership of Catalonia will realize this point as well and be able to answer yesterday’s protest with a vision of a Catalonia (independent or otherwise) that has space for a variety of different types of Catalan identities, thereby disarming the hardliners on the right who organized the rally in Madrid out of fear and frustration. Time will ultimately tell whether this comes to pass.

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!