Scotland, Separatism, and the Global Struggle for Democracy

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Staff Editor

Democracy advocates would do well to scrutinize the white paper released last month by the Scottish National Party in preparation for an independence referendum scheduled for September 2014. The document and the vote it heralds may have important implications for the viability of multinational democracies elsewhere, the global balance of forces between free and authoritarian countries, and the fundamental notion of democracy as a sturdy supplier of good governance.

There is certainly nothing undemocratic about self-determination, or indeed about the many admirable policy proposals contained in the SNP document, which is meant to make the case for Scottish independence and lay out a vision for the future in the event of a “yes” vote next year.

More unsettling is the idea of separatism in a well-functioning democracy without any precipitating event, as opposed to a context of authoritarian misrule and repression. The white paper fails to identify serious grievances that would necessitate the dissolution of a 300-year union, and the policy goals that the SNP seeks to achieve through such a drastic step are surprisingly quotidian. Greater state support for child care and minimum-wage increases are high on the party’s list.

The grievances that are included do not look insurmountable within Britain’s existing democratic institutions. On defense and foreign policy, for instance, a major complaint is the presence of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. There is a robust antinuclear movement in Britain at large, and even if likeminded Scots are unwilling to continue pursuing change in London as part of that movement, they could find other means of pressing for the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland—including through a new referendum on the subject.

But this is just one issue. Underpinning them all is the “trend of Scotland voting for one government and getting another.” The white paper states that for “34 of the 68 years since 1945, Scotland has been ruled by governments that were elected by fewer than half of Scottish constituencies.”

The problem is that roughly the same could be said for any territorial unit, or any individual voter, in any healthy democracy. Heavily Democratic New York City must periodically endure Republican presidents, for example, and heavily Republican South Carolina must suffer through Democratic rule in Washington. Some sections of an independent Scotland would no doubt be routinely frustrated by the results of national balloting. Working toward the next elections to achieve desired policy outcomes seems a far more prudent course than declaring independence.

The SNP document strives to portray the multiplication of sovereign countries as “the natural state of affairs” in the modern era, noting the sharp increase in the number of UN member states over the past 60 years. Nearly all of these new nations were emerging from colonial empires, however. One might propose that Scotland has been “colonized” by England since the Middle Ages, but the white paper does not do so, and the fact remains that Scots have long enjoyed the same political rights as other Britons, which colonial subjects in Africa and Asia certainly did not.

The amicable 1993 divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the less amicable but peaceful separation of Montenegro from Serbia in 2006, are held up as European precedents. Not mentioned are these countries’ unique historical circumstances. The Czechs and Slovaks were paired up after World War I and spent just two decades together under relatively democratic rule before falling under fascist and communist dictatorship. Montenegro was independent until 1918, after which it was ruled by a series of authoritarian regimes in Belgrade. In short, the bonds between these peoples were understandably weaker than those between Scots and other Britons, and they were seeking to escape very recent legacies of violence and oppression.

Absent such conditions, democracy advocates would expect free institutions and high-quality governance to successfully accommodate any ethnic or regional differences within a state’s borders, making separation unnecessary. Among democracy’s chief selling points are its guarantee of considerable constitutional stability, and its capacity to meet the needs of racial, linguistic, religious, and other minorities. Both boasts would be thrown into doubt in the event of a decisive “yes” vote in Scotland. Yet in an era of growing intra-European and non-European immigration, it is especially important for these two qualities—institutional resilience and inclusion—to offset older and increasingly elusive ideals of homogeneous nationhood. (The efforts of Scandinavian countries—which the white paper repeatedly cites as models for Scotland—to integrate newcomers are a case in point.)

If separation really is as ordinary as the SNP claims, and the unexceptional reasons and goals articulated in its white paper are deemed sufficient grounds for the disassembly of a long-established democracy, one can imagine a future in which other free peoples fragment into ever smaller units, perhaps still cooperating through complex alliances and confederations, while authoritarian behemoths remain just as large, unitary, and dangerous to global freedom. Even now the European Union struggles to deal effectively with Russia and China, and increasing its membership through mitosis would be unlikely to help. The white paper proposes establishing separate Scottish embassies in Moscow and Beijing, in addition to 14 democratic capitals, as one of the new diplomatic corps’s first steps.

Scotland will hold its referendum next year, and there is every reason to believe it will be fair and well conducted. Should voters overwhelmingly choose to leave the United Kingdom, it would be both wrong and unwise to stand in their way. But if they do so based only on the thin rationale presented last month, it could suggest some critical weakness in democracy itself, which the world will need to study and address.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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