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Does the SNP have the right to demand a second independence referendum?

As I was going home the other day, I passed a group of students waving Catalan flags. I didn’t stop to find out what they were demonstrating about. Rather confusingly someone handed we a leaflet about socialism in Chile. Were they Chileans complaining about Catalonia, Or Catalans complaining about Chile? The flags have a certain similarity. But these were definitely Catalan flags. I’d seen enough Scottish nationalists waving them in sympathy. I moved swiftly on.

A little later I wondered if I might have asked them (L’esprit de l’escalier) what they thought about the fact that they were only studying in Aberdeen because they were Spanish citizens and because Spain was part of the EU. Otherwise they would have had to pay full fees like the Chileans. But I had seen enough scenes of Catalan anger over the past couple of years, to realise that the mixture of Southern European volatility and truth does not always end well.

Catalans have taken to the streets once more mainly in Barcelona, but no doubt also wherever one or two are gathered together, because their desire for Catalonia to become an independent nation state has not merely been thwarted, but quite possibly reburied in a different grave like Franco.

Catalan independence supporting parties demanded a referendum on leaving Spain. When the Spanish Government refused, they organised an illegal referendum. This referendum did not lead to independence for Catalonia, rather it has led to long jail sentences for those who organised it. There have been demonstrations. Some people in places like Scotland have sympathised with the Catalans. But these things will pass. It is quite clear now that Catalonia isn’t going anywhere. Spain will never give them a legal referendum on independence and anyone who tries to go down the illegal route will end up in prison.

Has anyone much complained about how Spain has acted? No. It is quite clear that the Catalans who tried to organise secession from Spain were acting illegally. They are Spanish citizens and they broke Spanish law. It might be harsh to imprison them and especially for so long, but each country in the world applies its laws differently and has the right to choose how to punish lawbreakers.

There are though some oddities about this situation. The EU fully supports Spain. Indeed, the EU would support practically any member state, which was faced with an independence movement. There isn’t a single EU member state that would allow a legal referendum on independence to take place within its borders, except the UK. There are very few UN member states which would allow such a referendum either. Canada allowed Quebec to have two referendums on independence, but I understand that a third would now be illegal and in any case is not wanted anymore. Where else in the world would a UN member state allow an independence movement within its borders to hold a legal referendum which successfully led to independence? I can’t think of anywhere.

Crimea was annexed by Russia after an illegal referendum, but almost no one in the rest of the world recognises that Crimea is legally part of Russia. It didn’t matter whether Crimeans wanted to be Russian or not. Crimea legally is part of Ukraine.

Kosovo was allowed to secede from Serbia, because the Serbs started a war against their own citizens and the price they paid was the loss of part of their territory. World opinion made Kosovo an exception, but that same world opinion almost universally supports territorial integrity.  The reason is obvious, member states of the EU and the UN do not want to lose parts of their territory.

Neither, Russia, the United States, China or France would allow secession under any circumstances. The past centuries and indeed decades have shown that they have been willing to fight wars to prevent independence movements succeeding. Have they acted illegally? No. The so called right to self-determination does not apply to these places. Nor does it apply to the UK. It only applies to colonies, which are not part of a nation states territory. For this reason, the UN and world opinion generally will support and sometimes demand that, for example, the United States gives up the Philippines, France gives up Indochina and the UK gives up India, but this is simply because these places were not parts of the USA, France and the UK.

Catalonia is a part of Spain, in exactly the same way that Vermont is part of the USA and Scotland is a part of the UK. None of these places are colonies. To suppose that they are would immediately give rise to the question, who are the colonisers? If Scotland is a colony who are the colonisers? The English, the Pakistanis or the Poles?

So, Scotland no more has a right to secede from the UK than Hong Kong has the right to secede from China. Each nation state in the world has the right to protect its territorial integrity using force if necessary.  It has the right to protect its territory against foreign aggression and internal agitation. The rest of the world will only intervene if there is oppression as in Kosovo. But even here it will only do so if the nation state concerned (e.g. Serbia) is weak. No one seriously thinks that Russia should be forced to allow Chechnya to become independent. No one will intervene to give Uighurs in China freedom, though they certainly are oppressed. There is zero chance of Xinjiang gaining independence.

Some Scottish nationalists think that Scotland has the right to independence because we are a country. But this is rather begging the question. It is to ascribe a quality to Scotland that makes it different from the parts of every other UN sovereign nation state in the world. But neither history nor present circumstances warrant this. Taiwan, for instance is far more an independent country right now than Scotland but try telling this to Beijing. Scottish nationalists invariably assume that Scotland has the quality of independence in order to prove that it ought to be independent. They argue that Scotland is a country like France. But France is an independent sovereign nation state. In this way they surreptitiously assume what they are trying to prove.

Scotland is a country,

countries are independent,

therefore Scotland ought to be independent.

But Scotland in fact is more like those formerly independent parts of Germany, France, Italy and the whole of the rest of the world, that don’t nowadays have the right to independence. It matters not one little bit how what is now Catalonia was incorporated into Spain. It may have happened because a King married a Queen, or it may have been conquered in a war long forgotten. It is now part of Spanish territory. So too Scotland is now part of UK territory. The agreements that were made when the English and Scottish kingdoms were united and when later the Act of Union was passed are as beside the point as the Norman Conquest. It doesn’t matter what happened then, whether it was just or unjust. What matters is that all four parts of the UK are now part of UK territory. This gives the UK Government the right to prevent secession by any means it pleases.

Why was Scotland granted an independence referendum in 2014? Was the UK Government forced to do this? No. It chose to.  In the same way a Corbyn Government would choose to grant a second independence referendum while a Conservative Government would choose to refuse. But why would any UK Government choose to grant Scotland a vote on secession when no other Government would do something similar? This is because of a political convention that has existed in the UK for many decades.

Rightly or wrongly we do not view ourselves as being as united as France. Each part of the UK has an identity the like of which hardly exists anywhere else in Europe or indeed the world. Most nation states in the world did there best to eliminate such separate identities. No one now in the United States thinks that he is first and foremost a Virginian, but this was commonplace until the Civil War. No one in Saxony thinks he is Saxon, but not German, as some Scots think they are Scottish but not British. But as I keep pointing out Saxony has a much greater claim to independence than Scotland does, not least because it was made a part of Germany by force.

English people used to think of themselves mainly as British, secondly as English, but this has changed. There has been a response to Scottish nationalism in England, which frequently amounts to good riddance.  This is unique in Europe. How many Spaniards outside Catalonia want to lose a large chunk of their territory? How many Germans would say good riddance if Bavaria campaigned for independence? The UK is different. We do things differently here.

While no other member of the EU would give up one foot of its territory without a fight, the UK would and perhaps will give up both Northern Ireland and Scotland. This would mean the UK ceased to exist. What the remnant would be called is anyone’s guess. England and Wales? Perhaps just England. But I don’t think anyone is going to anything to stop it if it becomes clear that this is what the people living in the UK want.

The UK gets little enough credit for this attitude. In no other nation state would Scottish independence supporters even get one chance to legally achieve independence, let alone two or indeed three. No other nation state would make peace with terrorists by promising to give up a part of its territory if that should prove to be the wishes of those living there.

The UK is different, we don’t force anyone to remain. We could force them. But we choose not to. But there is a danger that people both inside and outside the UK take advantage of our good nature.

Ireland has no claim whatsoever on UK territory. It has no more right to annex Northern Ireland than Russia did when it annexed Crimea. Likewise, it matters not one little bit that parts of Slovakia used to belong to Hungary. If the Government of Hungary issued Hungarian passports to Hungarians living in Slovakia and continually agitated to get its land back, the EU would support the territorial integrity of Slovakia. The borders of nearly every EU member state are arbitrary and due to the accidents of history. They leave peoples on the wrong side of the border. But nowhere in Europe does this cause a problem except in Ireland and Ukraine.

The EU upholds the international borders of each and every one of its member states except the one that exists between the UK and Ireland. It does everything it can to undermine UK territory in Northern Ireland while doing what it can to help Irish irredentism and Ireland’s attempt by gradual steps to gain the territory of its neighbour by continually undermining UK sovereignty. It allows Ireland to behave in a way that it would condemn in every other EU member state and indeed every other UN member state.

The UK does not have to allow any further referendums from secession movements. The UN allows each nation state the right to defend its territory and this right supersedes other rights or treaties. So, there can be no demands from either Scottish or Irish nationalists. But the UK will neither hold itself together by force nor by law. But here is our problem. How are we to give the majority what it wants and how are we to determine what that majority is?

We have learned both in Scotland and the whole of the UK that referendums decide nothing. If there were to be a second independence referendum, neither losing side would accept the result unless it were overwhelming. The lesson learned from the Brexit referendum is that if the losing side is tenacious enough, it can delay, obstruct and perhaps overturn any referendum result it doesn’t like. If Pro UK Scots sided with London after losing indyref2, they could ensure that Scotland got the worst possible deal imaginable. They could use the inbuilt UK majority in Westminster to delay Scottish independence and demand second and third referendums until the result was overcome. This would hardly improve the atmosphere in Scotland.

Many Northern Irish people are rightly bitter about Irish interference in their internal affairs. They are also bitter that the other parts of the UK are happy to treat them differently. Northern Irish politics remains divided with neither side voting for the centre and each side still voting according to its background rather than Left and Right. Any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s future would be still more divisive. An overwhelming vote for one side or the other, might be accepted, but how could that occur when the demographics are close. If a close referendum on Brexit is not accepted by Remainers, why would a close referendum on Irish unity be accepted by the losers? How overwhelming would the result have to be before each community accepted its final defeat without a murmur? Would a close vote be accepted peacefully? Is it worth the risk?

There has to be another way to determine these issues. I don’t want to go down the Spanish route, but those of us who support UK unity cannot have it threatened continually. It may not be fair for Irish or Scottish nationalists to have the route to their goal blocked politically, but neither is it fair that Pro UK people in Scotland and Northern Ireland should face the continual fear of having to leave the nation state in which we were born. No one else in the world has to live with this. No one else would. The UK is my country, I don’t want it to be destroyed, nor do I want to live outside it as a foreigner. Germans, Japanese and Americans feel exactly the same way as we do, but their countries are not threatened with secession and never will be. If it was wrong to partition Ireland it would be equally wrong to partition Britain. Both Irish and UK citizens are going to need to find a way forward that gives all of us something of what we want, without depriving some of us of everything.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2019/11/does-snp-have-right-to-demand-second.html

 

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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One comment

  1. Is this the final scene in the “Death of Empire”? Consider the Romans, Ottomans and Russians, all collapsed back to the original kernel of power. Once an empire contracts it is encircled by the newly liberated who broadcast their struggle for independence globally and internally in the rump of the old empire. Independence from the hegemon becomes the political focus anywhere that there are remnants of empire.

    The English find all of this deeply historical. Labour knew that the English don’t want to know about empire and have become aware that they have their own problems as a nation. To preserve the idea of empire and stop the English they deprived the English of any separate, English representation after devolution. They knew that the English would vote for independence if they had their own Parliament.

    The latest polls show 59% of the English support having their own Parliament. If this happened it would 10 years before English independence followed.

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