The right of self-determination is enshrined in international law. Should it even be allowed to be put as a question before the British people? After all, referenda were held in Gibraltar (1967 and 2002) and the Falkland Islands in 2013 on whether these territories wanted to remain overseas territories of the United Kingdom. Numerous territories of the Empire became independent without requiring specific consent from the British electorate. However, none of these territories affected the status of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland itself whereas, as noted above, the independence of Scotland does.
Lawyers would have you believe that lawyers can determine this for you. The British and Scottish Governments sought legal guidance on the independence referendum. As we have seen, a legal process was followed. As we have seen, no-one thought to ask the people.
There is no doubt that Scotland is a nation. It was an independent country from before Macbeth until 1707. Whilst the process leading to the Union of 1707 falls somewhat short of modern democratic ideals, there was no coup, no armed occupation of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland was bankrupt following the disastrous attempt to start a Scottish empire on the remote shores of Darien in Central America. Union with England was the price of the bailout.
Scotland retained an identity throughout. Despite arguments from the No campaign leading up to the referendum that Scotland would struggle financially as an independent country, there was no debate that Scotland does not fulfill the criteria of being a nation.
Self-determination elsewhere and in the past
The lessons from history – very recent and not so recent – are mixed.
The Southern States of the USA felt themselves sovereign. They freely joined the United States, explicitly approved its new Constitution after the failure of the Confederation and never questioned their right to leave. After several compromises papered over the cracks of how a slave-owning and non-slave owning people could co-exist, the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860 was the final straw. The Southern States broke away and formed their Confederacy. The Northern States refused to accept their withdrawal and a bloody civil war broke out in 1861.
Many in Great Britain supported the Southern cause as representing the right of self-determination. Their President, Jefferson Davis, barely mentions slavery in his autobiography. The only issue was the right of States to withdraw from the Union. Lincoln and the Northern states denied that any right of secession existed. Not for nothing was the army of the northern states called the Union army. It took two years before Lincoln had the courage to change the war into one against slavery rather than coercion of seceding States. Only then did a dodgy war become a noble cause.
The Versailles Treaty of 1919 spelled out the principle of self-determination; thus legitimising the successor states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia with numerous border adjustments, determined by plebiscites in an attempt to align the new states amongst the jigsaw of nationalities of Eastern Europe. Poland was now free; as were Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Self-determination provided the solution to the collapse of four Empires – Germany, Turkey, Russia and Austria-Hungary.
The borders were aligned again with the Second World War and hermetically sealed between East and West along the Iron Curtain.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War provided further burgeoning of nation states including Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic Republics restored. Tragically, the collapse of Yugoslavia triggered immediate war between the old nations – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Slovenia, Montenegro.
Slovakia peacefully broke away from Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia; South Sudan split from Sudan after bitter wars.
These are useful examples, but as a worker once pointed out to Gladstone, when the great statesman gave examples of how other countries did things and that Britain should follow suit, “we are Great Britain and it matters not what other countries do.” The Grand Old Man, suitably humbled, took this wisdom on board. When it comes to independence, consent and self-determination, we will work these out together.
Self-determination is not automatic. It has yet to be applied in the Basque region or on behalf of the Kurds or in Catalonia, for example. Separatist movements have been crushed in Chechnya and Mexico. For some reason self-determination does not apply to Tibet. Is the status of Crimea a matter for the people of Crimea alone? Should the Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine be allowed to determine their fate irrespective of the wishes of the rest of Ukraine or would it be wiser to ensure that any future settlement of that troubled region has the consent of Ukraine?
Tyranny of the majority
One must take the greatest care to always respect the rights and opinions of minorities. That does not mean that they are immune from being challenged or criticised, but it is incumbent on the majority to demonstrate restraint and sensitivity in how that criticism is expressed and is best avoided. It is equally questionable that a minority should always have its way. Had there been an independent Scotland, it is unknown how the rest of Scotland would react if, say, Aberdeen, had decided that it might wish to hold a referendum on independence from Scotland.
A tyranny of the minority is to be avoided. The path to devolution in the UK should be seen as a prime example. After the initial referendum of 1979 – itself clearly pledged in the Labour Party manifesto of October 1974 – consent was not forthcoming for another 18 years. The country had had plenty of time to debate and get used to the idea. When devolution arrived, no-one cried foul. It was accepted by all including those who were passionately opposed to devolution. That’s democracy.
Each case is different but most were the result of the collapse of the ruling country (the multi-national empires after World War One; the resurrection of old nations from the end of the Cold War). Only the Slovakia example bears a parallel with what might have happened to Great Britain had Scotland voted Yes. Even then the break-up of one country from a 70 year construct of the Great Powers at Versailles is not quite the same as the break-up of a state freely united for over 300 years.
These are powerful examples and powerful arguments that would most likely have been persuasive had the country been asked to ratify Parliament’s decision to grant Scotland a referendum on independence.
The risk with consent for the minority to make up their own minds is the majority may refuse. The tyranny of the majority is a valid concern. If sufficient numbers feel sufficiently passionately in the nation looking to secede then at some point the majority in the overall nation risks civil war if permission to withdraw is denied or perceived to be denied for too long. Thankfully we are British. The good sense of the British people will prevail. Ultimately they would recognise that efforts at persuasion have failed and provide the consent; divorce would win over coercion.