Brendan McKee has written a thought-provoking article about why some secession movements are applauded while others are derided. Frances Cowell adds to Brendan’s analysis.
Brendan McKee’s use of the Dion framework, comprising four elements, fear, confidence, identity and legitimacy, is certainly a useful way of applying reason to the often emotional question of why this secession movement failed while that succeeded.
The first two elements are clear: fear of remaining part of a state that may harm the interests of the sub-state and confidence in succeeding as an independent state.
The third, shared identity, normally drawn from a combination of a shared history, tradition and language, is intuitive, and Scots and Catalans are good illustrations, with distinct cultures, and in the case of Catalonia, language. Spoken Catalan is unintelligible to most Spanish-speakers, unless they have learned it. But is it suppressed in Catalonia? On my many visits to different parts of the province, I see signs systematically displayed prominently in Catalan, with Spanish, English and occasionally French translations alongside. People routinely speak Catalan and my frequent conversations with Catalan friends have never hinted at suppression. So I wonder in what respect Brendan believes Catalan to be suppressed.
His fourth criterion is intriguing, because it seems to confound legitimacy with legality. The two are related, to be sure: as he mentions, legality can confer legitimacy. But I would argue that they are not interchangeable. Legitimacy is generally a question of opinion, while legality is binary: either something complies with prevailing law or it doesn’t. And legality is not the only element that can confer legitimacy: fear and confidence can too – as can a history of prior statehood.
The Catalonian referendum was illegal, because the government of Mariano Rajoy refused to authorise it. But its lack of legitimacy, I would argue, stemmed less from its illegality than from the low (43%) turnout in the referendum, which resulted in a final vote of 40% of eligible voters in favour of independence – well below any reasonable threshold for such a major decision. I would agree with Brendan that heavy-handedness by the Spanish government following the referendum lent the movement legitimacy that it lacked before the vote. I would also argue that the first two elements were missing in Catalonia, which is probably why the independence movement lacked popular support – at least up to the time of the referendum. Catalans are neither oppressed nor otherwise mistreated by the government in Madrid and it is far from clear that Catalonia would be viable as an independent state. Lack of genuine fear and confidence sapped it of legitimacy.
The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014, by contrast, was legal, as it had obtained the necessary approval from the parliament in Westminster; but many viewed it as not especially legitimate, partly because many of the claims of those campaigning for independence were dubious, for example, that Scotland would easily obtain EU membership, when the EU had clearly indicated the contrary; and that they would be able to continue to use sterling as their currency, when the British government in Westminster had stated clearly that they would not. Most would agree that Scots also, as Brendan points out, lacked fear of remaining part of Britain, and confidence of being a viable state on their own.
Should Scotland seek independence from a post-Brexit Britain, the calculation may be quite different, and this illustrates the difference between legality and legitimacy nicely. Scotland’s claim to a distinct identity is unchanged and it may be no more confident of viability as in independent state, though this could depend on how it perceives its chances of quick membership of the EU. A referendum is quite likely to be refused by the parliament in Westminster, rendering it illegal. But it could still be widely perceived as legitimate, and this legitimacy would stem from, among other things, a newly-palpable fear of remaining part of post-Brexit Britain. In 2016, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU, and they will argue, reasonably, that their wishes will have been ignored. Any heavy- or high-handedness on the part of the government in Westminster is likely to add to this fear, and hence legitimacy, even if a referendum is declared illegal.
I was also puzzled that Brendan mentioned Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as cases of sub-states that seek to secede from China. While many in China view them as such, many, perhaps most, in the West view them as efforts to resist being subsumed by their giant neighbour. In Tibet’s case, many see China as a sort of occupying force. I would argue that this existential distinction renders those countries irrelevant to the question of secession. On the other hand, most would agree with him that the likelihood of Kurds and Kashmiris seeking their own states has increased significantly in recent weeks, ironically enough as a direct result of their parent states’ efforts to squash secession movements, which have added to their fear and legitimacy, although neither legality, identity nor viability have changed.
A good illustration of a legitimate – and legal – claim to secession was that of South Sudan from Sudan, following a referendum in 2011. As well as legality and legitimacy, fear, confidence (just) and a distinct identity were also present. Legitimacy derived largely from fear of the regime of Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in Khartoum and its brutal treatment of South Sudanese, although I think it would be fair to say that the referendum’s legality contributed too.
The velvet revolution that saw both the Czech Republic and Slovakia quit Czechoslovakia is perhaps another example of all five factors working in tandem for a successful secession.
I think it is clear that legality and legitimacy are distinct but not entirely independent of each other. As Brendan points out, legality confers legitimacy on an independence referendum or movement. But it is not the only source of legitimacy – the other three elements ban be also.
Are all five elements needed? I will leave it to Mr Dion and other international affairs experts to decide.