Scotland and Separatism

The Scottish people have decisively rejected independence, but the voices from other peoples in Europe, like the Basques of Spain, remain hot issues.  What does that mean to the great cause of freedom in the world?

The United Kingdom recognized that the Scottish people could elect independence.  That salient fact says it all: the Scots were not forced to stay in an unhappy marriage.  But they were forced to state that this marriage was, on balance, a good one for the Scottish people.

The best analogy to what happened in Scotland is what has been happening for decades in Canada.  Quebec has demanded and received special rights from the nine English-speaking provinces.  As a consequence, Quebec, whose voters could choose to become an independent nation, has chosen to remain part of Canada. 

In both these instances, the goodies the greater union provides to the disgruntled national minorities proved much more important than any lust for nationhood.  The Scots and Quebecois are not oppressed at all and, in fact, have more solicitude from the national government than their fellow countrymen.

Indeed, the very dissolution of the British Empire – the practical and then literal independence that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand acquired – is evidence of the residual effects of our own successful revolution.  The actual effects of this dissolution have been benign.  Australia and Canada, especially, remain very close in many areas to Britain, but this is by choice and favor and not by coercion.

Outside the very tolerant English-speaking world, we ought to view separatism quite differently.  Which conservatives today – indeed, which Americans today – do not support the separatist desires of the Kurdish people?  A nation carved out of the rotten states of Iraq, Syria, and Iran (and our “ally” Turkey) seems but wise and just.

While public attention on Russian separatists in Ukraine may seem to cast cold water on separatism, it has been in fact the national separatism of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and others that transformed the old Soviet Empire into a cluster of nonaggressive and peaceful nations seeking good relations with America.  When we defend Ukraine, we are defending the principle of separatism when supported by genuine national will.

Europe, as recent stories about the possible impact of Scottish independence show, still has separatist movements.  The history of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Empire shows how important separatism can be to preserving peace and freedom.  The Velvet Divorce, the splitting of the forced hybrid invention “Czechoslovakia” into two real nations, has worked.  More importantly, the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the former hegemonic nationality of that invention, Serbia, has produced peace and ended ethnic cleansing.

Another hybrid creation of great powers for purposes of their own, Belgium, may someday soon splinter into the two separate nations who live there, the Flemish and Walloon, but for the inverse reason why Scots and Quebecois reject independence:  Flemish politicians feel that the Walloon part of the nation takes more in social welfare benefits than it contributes to the government.  Not too long ago, holdout Flemish parties caused Belgium to break the all-time record for a parliamentary system not forming a government after a general election.

Europe, indeed most of the world, is made up of states that include nationalities who never chose and do not like the national government or the majority of their countrymen.  Iran, India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, and other large nations have simmering separatist movements who are never allowed what Scots or Quebecois (or Slovaks or Walloons) have had: peaceful self-determination through free elections.

The bottom line is this: separatism itself is neither good nor bad.  But the means used to decide whether nationalities stay within a greater state or not matters a great deal.  The Scottish referendum, like the often contentious machinations of Bloc Québec in Canadian elections, is a system of constitutional decision-making that has “worked,” whatever the ultimate choice of those nationalities who posit secession.  The consent of the governed still remains a vital principle of ordered liberty.