H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the third post of its “Secessionism and Separatism Monthly Series”, which looks at issues of fragmentation, sovereignty, and self-determination in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Michael Keating (University of Aberdeen), deals with peaceful separatism and ways of achieving consensual secession. Please feel free to participate in the discussion by commenting on the piece.
Negotiated and Consensual Secession
Secession refers to the exit of a territory from a state to make an independent state of its own. Negotiated and consensual secession implies agreement on the process and acceptance of the outcome by both the state and the secessionist movement. This is extraordinarily rare. We lack a normative framework for assessing independence claims beyond the classic remedial and decolonization theories. There is little relevant international law. International and European practice is inconsistent. States themselves rarely have the necessary provisions in their constitutions. Cases like Scotland or Montenegro are so unusual that it is difficult to build anything broader upon them.
To gain analytical purchase on this, we need to reframe the question by redefining both the subject and the object of self-determination and rethinking the relationship between political sovereignty and territory. This does not yield a definitive outcome but allows us to frame the question as one amenable to political solutions. State and international practice, however, have not caught up.
The principle of self-determination is, at first sight, unobjectionable, but, as Ivor Jennings put it, it looks meaningless if we cannot define who are the relevant people. Saying that nations have the right just begs the question of what is a nation. The term ‘nation’ in any case carries in itself a normative charge that implies the right to statehood. So political movements shifting from autonomy to self-determination will often adopt the vocabulary of nation, as in the Catalan movement of the early twentieth century (originally Liga Regionalista) or the Lega Nord’s shift from northern regionalism to the nation of Padania in the 1990s. Ethnicity is so slippery and charged that most movements have abandoned it altogether, although Alesina and Spoloare (2003) seem to think that there are ethnically homogeneous regions in which people agree with each other on public policy issues. The ‘right to be different’ is almost as unhelpful since it implies that the justification lies in the difference when many contemporary nationalist movements stress their adherence to universal values as their ethical basis. Stéphane Dion (1992) called this ‘de Tocequeville’s paradox’, political divergence with cultural convergence.
Modern sociological approaches to the nation are largely in agreement that it is socially and politically constructed and, to various degrees, malleable. It seems difficult to base a right upon such a flimsy ontological foundation. Yet the matter is not beyond empirical investigation. Political communities (to use a less-charged but not entirely neutral term) cannot be defined objectively, but nor are they purely subjective. They represent, rather, intersubjective understandings, which are never completely uncontested, even in the most stable states. It is this feature that underlies the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec secession reference, that a clearly-expressed desire on the part of any province, to separate, would oblige Canada to respond and negotiate. This takes the issue out of vexed questions of nationality towards democracy. If this sounds too vague, let us remember that existing states, now that they are called on to legitimate their existence (faced with challenges from above and below) resort to exactly the same arguments.
As concerns the object of self-determination, this is classically seen as an independent state, but we no longer really know what this means. Nationalist movements seeking independence by peaceful and negotiated means almost invariably provide for continued association with the rest of the state. Increasingly, they support transnational institutions (notably in the European Union) as a way of overcoming externalities and finding security in the world. So Quebec nationalists repeatedly come back to formulas like sovereignty-association and sovereignty-partnership. The Yes side in the Scottish referendum stressed the European Union framework and, like the Quebec nationalists in 1980 and 1995, proposed a currency union with the old state. Flemish nationalists talk of independence as a long-term vision but in the meantime play with confederal ideas. The shift of mainstream Catalan nationalism from autonomy to independence in the last few years is significant, but the vision is of a strong Europe and continued links with Spain.
The third key element is territory, a defining feature of statehood in the traditional sense. States have clear territorial borders, with sovereignty within them and do not share space with anybody. This is one of the classic objections to self-determination by consensus, since nations, however defined, rarely correspond with territorial demarcations. Yet new understandings of territory see it, too, as socially constructed in the sense that its meaning is not merely topological but sociological and political (Keating, 2013). Territory has different meanings, including the symbolic, the historical, the political and the institutional and it is not necessary that these always coincide. The geographical expression of the Basque Country varies hugely, depending on which criteria are used but this does not mean that the concept is meaningless, just that it is complex and variegated. Catalonia may be defined by the present autonomous community but there is a wider concept of the Països Catalans. Scotland is highly exceptional here, as its boundaries have been accepted for the last five hundred years with little dispute.
These ideas present principles for rethinking the issue of self-determination. They do not provide a grid or a list of tick-boxes, which each case must satisfy; the study of nationalism has been all too prone to the generation of taxonomies and generalizations. Rather they provide an approach, permitting a cumulative procedure for assessing cases according to conceptions of subject, object and territory.
For some twenty years, I have been developing ideas like this, along with academic colleagues, seeking a ‘post-sovereignty’ approach to political order that would permit self-determination cases to be negotiated like other political issues. The ideas are now out there and survey evidence suggests that citizens do not make rigid distinctions between secession and autonomy but rather see these as a spectrum. At the political level, however, there is less progress and states and international bodies are thirled to traditional ideas about states, territory and sovereignty, even as these lose their practical meaning.
Catalonia is currently caught in a political conflict with Spain concerning secession and independence. Catalan nationalists insist on an inherent ‘right to decide’, while Spanish parties declare that the Spanish nation is indissoluble and that the Constitution prohibits secession. Earlier efforts to find a compromise were bedevilled by semantic arguments about whether Catalonia could call itself a state. The issue was not, at that time, the question of secession.
Scotland looks like a more promising case. The vocabulary of nation is largely uncontested and can be accommodated within a certain concept of union. The UK Government did agree to a referendum on independence and to respect the outcome. This does not reflect an inherent British moderation or pragmatism, as often thought. Just over one hundred years ago, on the eve of the First World War, the Conservative Party was prepared to countenance mutiny and armed resistance to Home Rule (not even independence) for Ireland. The British political class do seem to have learned something; there is also a sense in which Scotland is less essential to the idea of Britain than Catalonia is to Spain. Yet even then, the UK unionists resisted the option of more autonomy on the ballot paper, insisting on union or independence. The nationalists, while toying with a second question for tactical reasons, were not too keen either.
The international community, too, often sees statehood as the answer to difficult questions about nationality and self-determination. While dismissing general ideas about the legitimacy of secession, they will accept it as a fact. So in the case of Kosovo, where an existing autonomy had been violated, most states accepted secession rather than a restoration of the autonomous order, since the latter is not accepted as an object of international law.
Why does secession in the conventional sense continue to have such a hold, when in practice it is hard to define? Part of the answer lies in the ontological question with which I started. Nationalist movements are at pains to demonstrate that the nation exists and has a will and the clearest way to prove this is through erecting it into a state, the highest category of polity in the international order, even if this is not necessarily the most effective way of wielding power and influence since small states may be less important than big regions.
Nationalism is still bound up with a teleology about its ultimate expression so that anything less than statehood leaves a sense of incompleteness. The expression ‘stateless nation’, for example, suggests that there is something missing or yet to come. Statehood puts the seceding nation on the same moral plane as the state from which it secedes, which mere autonomy cannot do. The consequence is the reinforcement of nationalism as a zero-sum game, not amenable to consensus or the compromises of normal politics. Such absolutes do not necessarily lead to violence but they may do so when there is no political outlet. Violence, in turn, reinforces the reality of the nation, by creating a social and political boundary and defining the political community in absolute terms.
Secessions can be peaceful and consensual. Had Scotland voted for independence in 2014, there is no reason to think that violence would have resulted or that the United Kingdom would have resisted in other ways, but this is an exceptional case. The definition and boundaries of the nation were not in question, not because Scotland is ‘ethnically homogeneous’ but because of the way it had been constructed and reconstructed as a political community over the centuries. British elite and mass opinion did not see it as an existential threat to their own concept of nationality. In other cases, the effort to align political community, identity, institutions and territory within hard boundaries creates a zero-sum form of politics not amenable to the compromises of the political process. Consensual secession, where this is understood in the traditional sense, is a difficult task indeed.
Alesina, Alberto and Enrico Spolaore (2003), The Size of Nations, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Dion, Stéphane (1991), “Le nationalisme dans la convergence culturelle. Le Québec contemporain et le paradoxe de Tocqueville”, in R. Hudon and R. Pelletier (eds), L’engagement intellectuel. Mélanges en l’honneur de Léon Dion Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université de Laval.
Keating, Michael (2013a), Rescaling the European State: The Making of Territory and the Rise of the Meso, Oxford: Oxford University Press.