Next September, Scotland will be voting on the issue of independence. Growing numbers of Scots suspect the benefits of a “united kingdom” no longer outweigh the costs and look to separate from Great Britain. The sentiment extends far beyond an old-fashioned nationalism: a political chasm has opened between the English and the Scottish electorates—the Scots believe policies implemented by the relatively conservative English majority over the objections of Scottish representatives hold the Scottish economy back from its full potential. The Scots are not alone in their separatist inclinations. The Basque Country and Catalonia in north-eastern Spain both possess long-standing separatist communities with considerable local support. Like the Scots, Catalonians may head to the polls in 2014 to vote for or against independence from a central government they increasingly perceive as restraining. How should we consider such proposals?
I must confess that no small part of my initial reaction is a product of the computer games that first sparked my interest in world history and current affairs. Playing a game such as Europa Universalis 4, a separatist movement is only ever a good thing when it happens to someone else; otherwise, it is an annoyance worthy only of suppression. It is no wonder that a game focused on the expansion of state-power in the modern era—both domestically and around the globe—should ignore the merits of the separatists themselves. A strong state with long-term viability is united and nationalistically homogeneous. Looking at the real world through that lens, one would see Scottish separatism as both a symptom of and potential catalyst for the decline of Great Britain as a global actor. Allowing such a division would leave two relatively weaker countries in the place of a single, stronger state.
America’s own history with separatism also lends itself to my bias against the idea. The Confederate States of America seceded from the Union for truly reprehensible reasons and all talk of separatism since comes from those equally awful, if not outright loony. The rhetoric of secession in America comes almost entirely from (right-wing) politics and lacks the more justifiable foundations of separatism exhibited in Europe. Those employing the rhetoric typically ignore that their states—typically Southern—receive more money back from the federal government than the revenues they generate. Fewer still approach the levels of national identity possessed by the Scots. Former Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry has made the valid point that the state’s history and the unique nature of its admittance into the Union lend it a degree more credibility in its brandying of independence from Washington, but it is hard to believe that any American state is prepared to step outside the benefits inherent in the current arrangement, though no few Northerners would be ready to wish them good riddance.
That all said, I find myself supporting peoples in Scotland, Catalonia, and Northern Italy. To work out why, let’s take a look at the factors that influence separatist attitudes.
Money makes the world go ‘round and there’s nothing like feeling deprived of potential earnings to stir the pot of separatism. Some would say that the other factors I've listed below are mere justifications, reasons tacked on to the central motive: profit. This can entail an entire population in a resource-rich and industrious area rejecting adherence to a more lackluster whole, or merely a small cabal of elites working toward their own personal enrichment. I argue that it is important to take the other factors into serious consideration, but it is obvious that economic frustrations add enormous potency to any separatist movement.
Examples: Scotland is economically well-off, not least for the extensive undersea drilling in the North Sea. Contributing more to the U.K. per capita than anywhere else, some Scots believe their economic futures would best be served by severing with the woefully austerian policies of conservative-dominated England. Catalonia bears many parallels: with a strong economy drained by an ineffective and austerian government in Madrid, no few Catalans are raising their voices for independence. Northern Italy is not far different. The far more industrialized northern regions look down on the sclerotic south, whose culture is maligned as slothful and corrupt. (Of course, foreigners look on in disgruntled confusion as Italians, Northerner and Southerner alike, have repeatedly handed the country’s reins back to the blatantly-criminal Silvio Berlusconi…)
It should hardly be surprising that a minority long subjected to the policy preferences of a markedly different majority will look to gain a degree of autonomy. Scotland, being on England’s political left, has chafed under the rule of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government. Even the principal opposition party, Labour, has seen its reputation plunge following the uninspired performance of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and the “New Labor” movement as a whole. Thanks to the bungling and distant government in London, growing numbers of Scots believe that local rule would carry greater effectiveness and legitimacy. A few examples of successful separations include Bangladesh—formerly a non-contiguous province of Pakistan, the local population took advantage of the high tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad to throw off the yoke of the latter’s distant and repressive government—Syria—a country whose entry into a political union with an arrogant and demanding Egyptian state was quickly reversed as Syrian elites realized they were better off on their own—and much any anti-colonial independence movement—local people resisting the will of rulers they have deemed illegitimate. These issues also make up the majority of the unserious separatist rhetoric in the United States.
Nationalism is a funny thing: consisting of ephemeral, socially-constructed, imagined-communities, various nationalisms have given rise to some of the most violent conflicts and worst regimes known to humanity, yet can wither and fade into nothingness in the span of several generations. Nationalism is a creature of the public consciousness, influenced by education, media, and a population’s internal social dynamics. It emerges from perceptions of a shared experiences, be they ancient history, contemporary tragedy, or idealistic goal for the future. Interestingly, these experiences can be embellished or even fabricated entirely. Though Scotland and Catalonia both possess longstanding histories as independent peoples, the American national identity was forged relatively recently in the Revolutionary War and expanded upon through sometimes-overwrought and unnuanced retellings of events such as the Battle of the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11.
Yet these identities can be chipped away from both above and below. Napoleonic France set about systematically undermining the diverse local identities within the borders it had defined solely by right of conquest, forging a unified French identity from populations that would have previously defined themselves by their region or town. Spain underwent a similar, if lesser process that has seen significant reversals over the last decades as local identities gained new relevance. With the proliferation of communications technologies and digital communities, location-based identity has had to contend with a wide array of alternatives. Though none necessarily supplant national identity, there is a crowding-out effect.
I would argue that nationalism is almost always a second-order factor in modern separatist movements. Those with grievances against a central authority look to differentiate themselves, and inflaming nationalist sentiment is a good way to do so.
Very similar to nationalism, religious identity today serves more as justification and multiplier for correcting other grievances rather than the spark that lights the fire. While religious conflict and tension can maintain a steady burn for centuries once set alight, many such struggles have roots in leaders and elites pursuing their own ends instead of peasant rabble independently roused to fervor by some divine spirit. Take Sudan, for example: The declining British Empire handed over governance to the more pliable elites, Muslim descendants of Arab migrants in the North, giving them dominion over the previously separate Christian South; while religion factored in, the civil wars that followed and subsequent secession of South Sudan had their roots in the Northern regime’s political interests. Like national identity, a people’s religion can become a way it divides itself from the disfavored government, while rousing them to greater action.
The reasoning behind Scotland's drive for independence is hard to dismiss: the country is economically-strong, may be better served by self-rule, and possesses a national identity of real legitimacy. It is as of yet difficult to predict the results of any referendum--plenty of Scots don't care to upend centuries of established institutions--but it is hard to deny them the right of self-determination. An independent Scotland need be no less friendly with their neighbors to the south. At worst, England takes notice and allows for greater autonomy.