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Democratized secession in Scotland and Catalonia

Democracy does not end secessionism, it transforms it by providing a socio-political foundation, the ability to endure politically, and the modern tools to circumvent the state to engage in nation-building. Español. Português.

Catalonia´s and Scotland´s Flags. Edinburgh, 2014. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Secessionist movements are numerous and they come in all shapes and sizes. In my research I have identified 55 active secessionist movements around the world as recently as 2011. These aspiring nations exist in a variety of countries running the spectrum from repressive authoritarian regimes to advanced democracies. Many of these movements have been violent, responsible for roughly half the civil wars since 1945.

One might think that democracy should reduce secessionism by providing minority groups with greater political voice and presenting them with non-violent political options. This is partly true. The data show that violent secessionism is less likely in advanced democracies, but we do not know exactly why this is the case. Secessionists are simply less inclined to take up arms – and, indeed, to even take this option seriously – in wealthy democratic societies.

However, democracy is hardly a panacea for secessionism. There is some evidence that secessionism is most likely in transition regimes that are moving toward democracy. The introduction of democratic institutions opens up a socio-political environment where minority leaders can play the nationalist card, campaign on identity-based issues, and seek to exit the state via secession. It is thought that mature democracies can overcome this problem by co-opting elites, in effect showing them that political voice is a better option than political exit. This view comes close to conventional wisdom in academic circles, and some have concluded that secessionism should disappear as a society makes the transition to advanced democracy.

But democracy does not reduce secessionism, it transforms it. To be sure, violent conflict is less common, and that is a good thing. However, as the recent experiences in Scotland and Catalonia show, secessionism in modern democracies is remarkably durable. In fact, it is different from other forms of secessionism in important ways, and there are consequences to this form of “democratized secession.”

One of the most important aspects of democratized secession is its grassroots, bottom-up character. Secessionism is almost always an elite-driven project in less developed and less democratic societies, and political leaders can be co-opted by the state. But in regions like Catalonia the leadership can be co-opted by the civic organizations that stand for independence. It is said that Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia and leader of the independence movement, only became a true secessionist in 2012 when the Spanish government failed to meet certain demands and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a civic organization dedicated to secession, persuaded Mas to join their side.

This bottom-up aspect of democratized secession is not a bad thing. After all, nationalist sentiment flows from the people, and it seems truer than the type of top-down projects where elites are seeking to manipulate national identity. However, from the perspective of the state bottom-up secessionism is harder to manage because the roots run deeper and the strategy of co-opting elites is insufficient. Now the people must be co-opted.

This deep-rootedness lends durability to political parties and civic organizations that advance independence. Many said that when the Scottish nationalists lost the referendum last year the issue was put to rest for a generation. But no one says that now that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has surged in popularity and currently dominates Scottish politics. The SNP leadership can bide its time and wait for London to offer the casus belli that will legitimate another referendum.

In addition, secessionists in modern societies have an array of modern tools to advance their cause. There is an old saying that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. But Vicent Partal, a journalist, entrepreneur, and supporter of Catalan independence, has upended the statement by claiming that now a language is a dialect with Google coverage. Catalonia has its own top-level domain (.cat) and it was the first stateless nation to get Google coverage. This, according to Partal, has dramatically increased the spread and use of Catalan, a vital element in the development of nationalism.

These are all aspects of democratized secession, and all of them can be viewed in a positive light. Secessionism is not simply some project of the elites. It is rooted in local culture, it has the ability to shape political agendas, and the parties that come to embody these agendas use democratic methods to advance the interests of their constituencies. Modern communication assists these efforts by creating an open environment where ideas can be expressed without interference from the state. Clearly, democratized secession has its virtues.

The downside is the potential for instability. Secessionist projects create divisiveness, not just between the region and the state, but also in the region between those who want independence and those who do not. A common complaint among Scots and Catalans is the divisiveness that arises in the community and between friends and family. Secession is a very high-stakes issue, and there are no clear rules or precedents for how easily and frequently referenda on independence can be held. To a large extent the events in Scotland and Catalonia are experiments in democratized secession.

Of equal concern is the way in which democratized secession changes the bargaining relationship between the state and the region. The SNP can hold the rest of the United Kingdom hostage over certain issues – like whether the U.K. should remain in the European Union – by threatening to call another referendum on independence. Thus, the very threat of political exit can be used to acquire greater political voice.

This is why democratized secession is such a dilemma. On one hand, sovereign borders are merely the accidents of history, the product of conquest and the exchange of territory between governments. The correspondence between borders and national identity is rarely the clean fit that state leaders want us to believe. It seems intrinsically democratic and modern that minority nations should be given the right to self-determine and even choose independence under certain conditions.

On the other hand, there is a fickleness to nationalist identity and critics are right to point out that easy-to-reach referenda and unfettered self-determination can lead to instability. This sort of direct democracy is high-stakes and highly divisive. Is a simple majority enough to break a country in two, and, if so, can the minority later hold their own referendum on independence? 

Along with other scholars I have argued that the right to secession highlights a basic tension between the liberal principle of self-determination and the sovereign right of territorial integrity. This is a conflict that sits at the heart of contemporary international relations, asking which should take precedence – the right of the state to keep its territory or the right of a people to choose their political fate. At some level all secessionist movements raise this issue.

But there is another, perhaps more important, tension that arises with democratized secession. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state is not the obstacle here, at least not to the same degree, because in its purest form democratized secession recognizes the importance of self-determination. The tension here exists between two different notions of liberal democracy, between the freedom to choose and the pursuit of political stability. Who counts as a nation? How often can they call for a referendum? What is the threshold for victory? These are the thorny issues raised by democratized secession, and outside of philosophy departments we have hardly begun to address them.

Part of the problem is the newness of democratized secession. It is less acceptable for governments to suppress secessionism in a global environment that is increasingly liberal and democratic, provided the secessionists seek their ends in a peaceful and democratic manner. Combined with this newness is apprehensiveness on the part of governments to determine the appropriate procedures, create precedents, and potentially assist in the creation of domestic secessionist movements. 

The events in Scotland and Catalonia are precedent-setting. They are writing the playbook for democratized secession and will influence the future behaviour of governments and secessionists alike.

About the author

Ryan Griffiths is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the topic of secession.

Ryan Griffiths es Profesor Senior del Departamento de Gobierno y Relaciones Internacionales de la Universidad de Sídney, Australia. Su investigación se centra en el tema de la secesión.


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