Brendan McKee discuss one of Europe’s hot topics at the moment – secession and what is required for such a process to be a success.

A good deal of the political air in Europe at the moment is being consumed with questions of independence for sub-state nations, from Scotland’s recent push for a second referendum to Catalonia’s ongoing conflict with Spain over its 2017 referendum. Though these two are not the only such movements in Europe or in the world, they are certainly two of the most prominent and, if the consensus is to be believed, are the two most likely to succeed in the near future. However, this begs the question: what does it take to secede? The answer to this question can be found in the four ingredients for successful secession: fear, confidence, identity, and legitimacy.

Fear and Confidence

We begin by going back to Canada in 1996. The Quebec Referendum of 1995 was still recent news, made pressing by the fact that the separatists had only lost by the slimmest possible margin. Both Canada and Quebec were still reeling from the events of the previous year and any resolution to the issue of Quebec separatism was still years away — the issue of whether the actions of the Quebec government, in calling the referendum, were even legal would not be settled by the Supreme Court until 1998. It was at this time, surveying the aftermath of this great political battle, that the preeminent academic and one-time Prime Minister-hopeful Stephan Dion asked precisely the same question I have posed above: why is secession difficult in well-established democracies? This question was especially pressing when we consider that no secessionist has ever succeeded in a well-established democracy (the case of Jura separatism could be an exception to this rule, but given that the goal of that particular movement was to create a new canton rather than actual independence from Switzerland, this rule can still be said to stand). To this end, Dion came up with a golden rule of sorts, an equation which he argued could be used to determine how likely a separatist movement is to succeed that also explains why no such movement has succeeded within an established democracy: successful secession requires both a high amount of fear inspired by remaining within the union and a high amount of confidence inspired by secession. Without both of these ingredients, a sub-state nation is likely to fail in their quest for independence. Moreover, it is unlikely that both will exist within the confines of an established democracy, given that the freedoms granted to its citizens should go a long way in alleviating any fear of remaining in the union. Quebec separatists had come close because there had been fear associated with remaining a part of Canada: fear that French language and Quebecois culture was under siege due to the dominance of English language and American culture.

Dion’s work in this area still stands as one of the best analysis of secession and can help explain the recent history of national minorities. Success in Scotland’s 2014 referendum, for example, was almost certainly remote as though Scotland may have had confidence in its ability to succeed as an independent entity, most Scots had no accompanying fear of remaining within the UK – something which Brexit has arguably changed. This can also help us understand why some particularly small nations, such as Cornwall and Corsica, have little appetite for discussions on political independence, as their small size makes the viability of their territory as an independent state difficult though not necessarily impossible. Conversely, when we look at successful secessionist movements, such as Norway’s separation from Sweden or the three Baltic state’s secession from the Soviet Union, we see that they almost always have a combination of fear and confidence backing them up.

An Identity of Our Own

However, Dion, in focusing his research and his line of questioning upon Quebec, perhaps took for granted that fear of union and confidence of secession alone are not the only ingredients that are required for secession to succeed. A third ingredient is also required: a cohesive and shared identity among the seceding group. Without this, secession cannot possibly succeed or even get off the ground. Quebec once again illustrates this as the shared history, culture, and language of the inhabitants of the province were appealed to early on by nationalist minded politicians as a way of highlighting Quebec’s distinctness, and by extension the distinctness of Quebec from Canada in particular. We see this same process at the heart of all secessionist movements, whether we are discussing Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan, Tibet, Hong Kong, etc. We would expect to see this correlation as well, as without a shared identity there is nothing that binds and differentiates the future separatist region from the state as a whole.

The impact of a lacked shared identity is on display in the case of Western Canada’s current musings on separation. Though support for this is strong in some regions, particularly in provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is an overall lack of a cohesive Western Canadian national identity. Unlike Quebec, the “Canadian West” lacks the criteria of a nation: it has no unified historical narrative, no strong definition of what specific or unique values are associated with being Western Canadian, and no concrete idea of what the Canadian West includes (for example, some depictions include Canada’s northern territories, some do not). This is not to say that there is not a Western Canadian identity, but simply that it is not as coherently differentiated from the Canadian identity as Quebec’s is. This is also not to say that Western Canada cannot ever have an identity coherent and cohesive enough to qualify it for the status of a nation, indeed we may be currently witness some of the first steps in forming an independent nationalism for Western Canada, rather it simply means that at this moment they are not. Finally, this does not mean that Western Canada ought to be stopped from separating if that is what its population so desires, but rather that the odds of a separatist movement in the region succeeding are low as long as it lacks an independent national identity.


The last thing a secessionist movement requires is legitimacy, both for its actions and for its objectives. This legitimacy is needed both to appease the international community as well as the domestic population. This legitimacy has stemmed from many sources in the past, often from the comparative legitimacy of seceding from the illegitimacy of a colonial or a despotic regime, though today the favoured avenue of legitimization is the referendum. As a tool, the referendum is powerful as it can effectively illustrate that independence is the will of the nation’s constituents and thereby validate secessionism through democratic means. However, it should also be noted that the referendum can be a double-edged sword, as a failed referendum can effectively bury the issue of separatism, as it did in the 1995 Quebec referendum and the 2014 Scottish referendum (Scottish independence would likely have been a defeated proposition had Brexit not occurred). Nonetheless, the risk of failing a referendum is often a gamble worth taking for separatist movements as without it, without legitimacy, it is effectively impossible to secede. After all, secessionist states that are deemed to be illegitimate may have their declarations of independence simply ignored, as was the case in Catalonia in 2017, or find their newly sovereign state cut out from much of the world’s politics, the fate faced by Taiwan. The ultimate success or failure of a separatist movement, therefore, hinges on its ability to legitimatize itself.

Most states do not wait on for the results of a referendum and hope for the best, as in many cases allowing the referendum in the first place in effect legitimizes secession as an acceptable political action. Rather, most states opt to directly combat secessionism within there borders. However, precisely how a state chooses to fight secessionism often depends on the temperament of that state’s leader, with autocrats and strongmen tending to prefer violence and repression as a means to subdue separatists. This is certainly how Erdogan, Modi, and Xi have chosen to deal with the Kurds, Kashmiris, and Hong Kongers, respectively. Such means, however, tend to have a blow back effect on the legitimacy of the regime who uses them, risking making them appear aggressive and repressive, a look that most democratic parties seeking re-election would prefer to avoid. As such, in more established democracies the preferred method is to demand that any referendum require the approval of the central government or to simply delegitimise the referendum itself. We see this at full effect in Spain, where the Spanish Constitution has been used to brand the 2017 referendum on Catalan secession as illegal and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the entire movement. Similarly, the UK government has made it clear that any referendum held on independence without approval would be illegitimate and therefore requiring that Holyrood seek Westminster’s approval for any future independence referendum, something Westminster has no obligation to give. In both of these cases, the state government is attempting to undermine the legitimacy of secession and is doing so for the very reason that legitimacy is a core ingredient for secession to be successful.

What does this Mean Going Forward?

Confidence. Fear. Identity. Legitimacy. These four ingredients are all required if a national group wishes to succeed in creating a new state for itself. However, they are also rare to find together as few states can weather having a nationalist group with all four. Canada is one of the few examples of a state which did, but then again only barely as the 1995 referendum failed but only approximately 1%. These four ingredients also help to explain why secession is in the European news today more than ever before: for the first time in a long time, two sub-state nations within European states are on the verge of having all four. Both Scotland and Catalonia have fear of remaining within their respective unions, for Scotland that fear derives from Brexit whereas for Catalonia it comes from the desire to protect the Catalan language as well as from Spain’s heavy handed approach to them. Thanks to their economic strength, both also have a high level of confidence in being able to succeed as states should they become independent. They both have strong identities of their own thanks to their long historical narratives that play up their uniqueness. This leaves them only with only legitimacy as their final hurdle. Where it will come from is yet to be seen, but it is unlikely that the current situation will maintain itself as it is for much longer.

Brendan McKee
Brendan Mc Kee is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a particular passion for nationalist politics. His work focuses on unpacking the complexities of current affairs and expand the political conversation. You can read more on his blog: https://medium.com/@brendanmckee

    The EU, Albania and North Macedonia- a crossroads in the future of the Balkans

    Previous article

    The Wall 30 – Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall – a troubling image.

    Next article

    You may also like


    1. In the final paragraph ‘Scotland that fear derives from Brexit’ is the reason given for 2014 and a future referendum which is largely untrue. The independence movement was formed at the end of the 19 century, they merged to form SNP in 1934. They have carried the first priority of the party over since the establishment of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999, when the SNP became the second largest party just behind Labour, then in 2007 as a minority government finally as in 2011 a sizeable majority. At each stage independence was the first thing on their manifesto. Brexit was not even a serious topic in 2014, hence the unionist win when Westminster proclaimed the only way Scotland could remain in the EU was by remaining part of the UK. It has become the leading reason for the present demand for a referendum, but the element of ‘fear’ makes that a nonsense statement. Implying ‘new’ as that statement does is in fact quite clumsy when one bears in mind the Scottish home rule bill that was presented to the Westminster parliament in 1913 but the legislative process was interrupted, then dropped, by WW1. That was as close as anything might be to the process that gave Ireland its independence, indeed there were so many people in Westminster who would have been more than happy to have simply dumped the impoverished Scots that independence was seriously on the cards. Vastly increased industrial capacity and output in the west particularly during WW1 then on until the 1960s reversed that, however the rot began earlier which is precisely why my own family chose to live in England where there was employment and good housing.

      I got to read the entire Stephane Dion article (‘Why is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies? Lessons from Quebec’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1996, the advantage of using my Cambridge University Library membership). It is a good article but conceptually rather dated. It is also quite biassed, which one might well expect from a Québécois, so some of it can only be taken at face value. Irish independence was 1921, Dion got that wrong. Details let ideas down very often.

      The examples are good but not explicit enough. Norway and Sweden don’t really fit because they were a twin monarchy that split into two as part of changing their existing monarchies into constitutional monarchy, answerable to the populations and parliaments, having previously been absolute monarchs, at least heads of kingdoms with parliaments answerable to them. Jura, (it helps having a Swiss wife for this) was once a kingdom, taking in parts of other modern French departments such as French Jura and some of the modern Swiss cantons as they were in the Holy Roman Empire for around 800 years. The French part is now a department in the old Franche Comté de Bourgogne, now known as the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. The people were, still are, Arpitan speaking, similar to the Romande spoken in Geneva, and Roman Catholic but were in the predominantly German speaking and Protestant canton of Berne. Only three districts of that part of Berne, Delémont, Porrentruy and Franches-Montagnes, opted to secede, while four districts, Courtelary, La Neuveville, Moutier and Laufon voted in favour of remaining in Berne. So, in 1979 Jura, became a canton, but never actually wanted to be independent. Their economy and population size would never have supported that aspiration. Laufon is now an exclave of Berne but chose to remain in that canton by an overwhelming majority. There was a Jurassic independence movement, but that was something that began in 1815 when the Congress of Vienna decided how to divide up a former bishopric in the Holy Roman Empire. By the time of the 1974 referendum they were really a devolution movement, seeing the advantages of remaining in Switzerland with a small population that would have made full independence untenable or unification with French Jura necessary, which the French department did not aspire to. The eventual choice of three of the seven districts reaffirmed that decision. Denmark and Iceland; you have to look at the complicated history of the Kalmar Union, but Iceland actually left the Kingdom of Denmark in 1944, it was only a sovereign (devolved) nation from 1918 to 1944.

      ‘This question was especially pressing when we consider that no secessionist has ever succeeded in a well-established democracy (the case of Jura separatism could be an exception to this rule, but given that the goal of that particular movement was to create a new canton rather than actual independence from Switzerland, this rule can still be said to stand). ‘ There are lots of examples in Europe: 1830, Belgium from The Netherland; Norway from Sweden in 1905; the breaking up of Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia becoming the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Outside Europe there is Pakistan from India in 1947 then Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Quite a few others I can’t think of. Nearly 60% of modern states worldwide are secessions from original larger countries. Conversely, many are amalgamations. It has been an almost constant process for as long as recorded history can recount it.

      ‘Success in Scotland’s 2014 referendum, for example, was almost certainly remote…’ Nonsense. The final opinion polls before the last unionist drive that helped generate the 55.3% vote to stay in the UK had been in the range of 51% to 52.2% for independence. A month later, the referendum came out as it did because the government, according to several reliable sources, panicked therefore pushed the campaign for union harder including adding the only way of staying in the EU… (Not my biased opinion, just well documented). Scotland, is a member country of a union, the UK, now devolved within that union seeking full independence almost parallel with Iceland’s separation from Denmark, except that it means revoking two Acts of Union from 1707 and if they ever became a republic (following Ireland’s example) would revoke the Union of Crowns 1603, that made the Stuarts joint monarchs of the kingdoms of England and Wales and Scotland. Hence, today in real terms the present queen who is known as Elizabeth II is Elizabeth I in Scotland. That should follow as per James Stuart who was king of Scotland as James VI from 1567 and England and Ireland as James I from 1603 until his death in 1625.

      Catalunya and Scotland are incomparable. The inclusion in what is now Spain begins back with the Visigoths when the Romans withdrew, then in 718 with the Arab conquest. History tells us that in 1137 dynastic union made it part of the kingdom of Aragon, with exception of a period of French rule (part of Catalunya, Foix, is in France just south of Toulouse to this day and a large part of the department of Haute-Garonne is Catalan speaking). By the 1280s the first predecessor of the modern constitution had fully integrated it into Spain. When we look at the origins of the independence movement at present, what we actually see is it beginning as a campaign for full autonomy within the Spanish state, which would have been a move toward a federal structure that other Spanish provinces also campaign for, but less forcefully. When successive governments were unwilling to go any further than the existing autonomy, especially fiscally so that Barcelona kept revenues but paid to Madrid, rather than receiving only a rather small part back, the ambitions escalated into the present conflict.

      In Scotland the two Acts of Union of 1707 made England and Scotland equals in a union binds them. That equality has never manifested itself, the differences between Holyrood and Westminster that arose with the Scots majority expressing a wish to remain in the EU in 2016 and the subsequent failure of the incumbent government to consult and negotiate as required by the terms of the Scotland Act 1998 is driving the demand for a new referendum. It may be said that Brexit is the force behind that drive at present. A referendum actually resolves the impasse, it is the case that simply if a majority is for revocation of those treaties to decide, not a longstanding constitution. Without such detail, this article fails to deliver its message.

      Catalunya and Quebec have none of those complications; also both are constitutionally tied to the nations they are in whereas the UK does not have a set (written) constitution that could ever bind any country to the union in perpetuity. Scotland is a country already, both Catalunya and Quebec aspire to be for the first time ever. In theory, although conquered fully in the 12 century, nothing could prevent Wales leaving the union either, albeit that is very unlikely.

      Quebec is much debated. Within the province, Montreal is fairly pro-Canada, Ottawa (in the Francophone region if outside the province) is very divided. The former is very US oriented, the banks of the St Lawrence river are USA up to the suburbs of Montreal, the latter is on the border with the USA and very dependent. Montreal is now less than 50% Francophone with other languages including English increasing, Quebec is much debated. Within the province Montreal is mainly pro-Canada, Ottawa is very divided. The former is very US oriented, the banks of the St Lawrence river are USA up to the suburbs of Montreal, the latter is on the border with the USA and very dependent. Montreal is now less than 50% French first language, Ottawa is officially English-French bilingual with over 60% using English as their first language, they are the biggest population concentrations in the province. The northern part of Quebec is mainly indigenous people who are quite happy to stay in Canada but want to have their own autonomy, that is around 30% of the whole territory. This article oversimplifies a very complex question, therefore is not a good comparative with European secession issues.

      Dion was writing on the back of the last Quebec referendum, thus it is those 23 years outmoded, which is always a risk with academic work on the contemporary at the time of writing. That becomes history fairly rapidly. Thus said, as an element in the bigger devolution, autonomy and independence picture it provides interest historic data. The two provinces and one country used for comparison simply do not work since the differences between them are too great and too different.

      1. Hi! I am glad that you took the time to read my piece and to write such a long response to it. Just to reply to what you said however:

        When I wrote that “for Scotland that fear derives from Brexit” I was referring only to now, not the 2014 referendum. Indeed, I am of the belief that one of the primary reasons for the failure of the 2014 referendum was the lack of fear. People were being asked to chose between a safe option, remain, and an unknown, secession. Brexit has effectively turned both options into unknowns and has also frustrated many Scots by muting their political will. I touch on this in my piece on UK federalism (http://theeuropeannetwork.eu/brexit-and-the-uks-federalism-problem/).

        Also, Dion may be Quebecois, but he is a federalist and anti-separatist (this is one of the key reasons he was brought in to the Federal Liberal Party when he was). Moreover, I am not sure Ireland is an exception to his point as Ireland most certainly did not secede from the UK peaceful. And it is the peaceful dimension which is important, as it rules out many of the other cases you have mentioned as well, such as Yugoslavia and Pakistan. The rejection of the other, older cases has a lot to do with how Dion defines “established”. To quote him directly: “there has never been a single case of secession in democracies if we consider only the well-established ones, that is, those with at least ten consecutive years of universal suffrage. The cases most often mentioned happened only a few years after the introduction or significant expansion of universal suffrage: Norway and Sweden in 1905, Iceland and Denmark in 1918, Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1922.” (pp. 269-270). This is a somewhat arbitrary number, why 10 years?, but it does service the argument well – that established democracy tend to reduce fear of union. The closest thing I could find to an exception is Jura, but Jura only aimed to be its own Canton and not its own state and I don’t believe women had suffrage in Switzerland by that point yet anyways (moreover, if you were to include this as an example, I guess Nunavut would fit as well, though it could arguable be more a case of partition as well).

        As for Scotland, the opinion polls may simply have been wrong, Poor data collection and even poorer analysis (a good pollster always presents the percentage for “I don’t know” answers) tends to skew the results. The pro-independence side performed beyond all expectations, but they were fighting an uphill battle as, again, there was not a driver to push voters into wanting to leave the UK. Even the process of devolution had been rather sporadic up until that point (the 1979 referendum on the matter was a failure after all, despite providing a majority Yes vote). Now is different. Now there is a genuine reason to leave the UK. Honestly, the process seems to mirror Quebec’s 1980 and 1995 referendums fairly well (as the patriation of the Canadian Constitution and the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in the intervening years gave many Quebecers a good reason to want to leave), though in a shorter time frame.

        I am not sure Scotland and Catalonia are incomparable, and many scholars have compared them (most recently by J.H. Elliott in “Scots & Catalans”, though I found his analysis of the recent history quite poor and extremely bias). The SNP have also found common ground with the Catalans on many occasions, and most interestingly in my opinion both Catalan and Scottish separatism has been aided and partly designed in no small way by the Parti Quebecois (the PQ advised Catalonia on how to create its language laws back in the 1980s and also aided the SNP in designing their 2014 referendum). They have long and separate histories, sure, but that does not make them incomparable. Rather those differing histories only add to the comparison and help us to address questions such as “why did a lead to b?”

        I am not sure I agree with what you say in relation to the UK. Remember, the UK is governed by an unwritten constitution and the chief component of that is the supremacy of Westminster. A constitution may not bind Scotland, but Westminster can. Even if the majority of people in a region vote for something, it technically matters little if Westminster does not approve of the motion. There is really no reason to think otherwise, especially when we keep in mind the example of the failure of the Irish Home Rule movement.

        On the subject of Quebec, there is a lot to say. Firstly, and importantly, Quebec has been recognized as a nation by the Canadian government (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qu%C3%A9b%C3%A9cois_nation_motion). Moreover, the politics of Quebec are radically different from any other Canadian province or, indeed, any other place in the developed world that I can think of (Scotland is one the closest, for reasons that will become quite clear). The main political division in Quebec is not between pro-Canadian or pro-Quebec factions, but rather between federalists and sovereigntists. Federalists, as represented by the Liberal Party of Quebec, are Quebec nationalists who believe in devolving more powers to Quebec while remaining part of the Canada federation. On the other side, are the sovereigntists who are a much more varied group. They are Quebec nationalists who generally, though not necessarily, seek Quebec’s independence from Canada (I say generally as historically many sought Sovereignty-Association, an arrangement that would see Quebec and Canada having a relationship not dissimilar from two EU countries). All parties effectively fall into these two categories and there is no real political representation for parties seeking to decrease or even maintain the current amount of devolution (the ideological battle between Bourassa and Lévesque is instructive in this regard: Bourassa sought a ‘new federalism’ that better served Canada while Levesque sought sovereignty association). As for the cities you mentioned, I think you mean Quebec City as Ottawa is in Ontario (Gatineau is in Quebec and across the river from Ottawa, but it is fairly federalist). Regarding the cities, I am not sure where your assessment of them is coming from. In Montreal, according to the last census, the population of people who speak French as a mother tongue is approximately 50.84% and growing, with a large portion of allophones (roughly a third of the population, though these allophones themselves tend to be from countries with a French colonial history, like Vietnam or Syria) and a fairly marginal population of anglophones (about an eighth). Montreal has traditionally been the home for federalism, making it comparable to Edinburgh in Scotland. These stats only refer to the mother language though, and not the languages that individuals are able to speak, but it is still revealing. When we get into Quebec City, those numbers jump up to an over 90% francophone majority.

        As for why I have used Quebec for comparison, I think that reason is rather evident: Quebec is the model for cases of secession, as Levesque more or less invented the procedure that other separatists would follow. Moreover, Quebec has blazed the way in terms of policy work, as I mentioned, and is emulated by similar movements. Moreover, the issues faced by Quebec are faced by many separatist movements around the world. For example, you mentioned the First Nations in the north, who would certainly be opposed to separatism baring some extreme circumstances. These concerns can find an easy comparison in places today like Greenland and, I would argue, Scotland (the people of the Orkneys and Falklands have a non-Scottish identity and politics and would certainly be opposed to independence).

        Dion’s rubric for understanding what secession needs to be successful is a brilliant piece of theory that holds up today, but it was incomplete from its inception. That is why I wrote this piece: to fill it out. The four elements I describe are not meant to be an exhaustive list (as there are many things which help secession that I did not mention, such as foreign support or a strongly pronounced ideology), but what I simply sought to do here was outline what a case of secession could not due without.

        As a final note, I should also mention that there are two general types of comparison: most similar case studies and most different studies. the former is best used when two cases are similar in every way except one, and you wish to understand why that is. The latter is best used when the cases are different in every way but one, and again you wish to know why. My point is that difference does not make a comparison bad. Indeed, it can actually be a more effective tool at many times.

    Leave a reply