Having what it takes to secede

Only a tiny minority of independence movements have been both peaceful and successful

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In December 2019, an island and a collection of islets in the Solomon Sea voted to secede from the state of Papua New Guinea some 400 miles away. When the result was announced after two weeks of voting in remote communities, crowds burst into song. The margin — 98 per cent had opted to leave.

The story in brief: the island was inhabited by Melanesians for millennia. It became a whaling station for British and Americans, before being colonised by the Germans. An Anglo-German agreement in 1886 separated Bougainville, which is culturally and geographically a part of the Solomon Islands, lumping it with a diverse set of islands and cultures that would become the state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1975.

This led to a war that lasted for the entire 1990s, in which an estimated 20,000 people — a tenth of the population — were killed. The capital, Arawa, was destroyed, as was much of the islands’ infrastructure. An entire generation grew up in the context of war and without formal education.

Why in Bougainville, after so much bloodshed, was the final stage achieved so peacefully? Part of the answer is exhaustion, the rest is outside pressure

The PNG hired a British private military firm, Sandline, to keep the rebels at bay, leading to an international scandal. With both sides ground down, a peace agreement brokered by New Zealand was finally signed in 2001. This included a pledge to hold a referendum within two decades. Why, after so much bloodshed, was the final stage achieved so peacefully? Part of the answer is exhaustion. The other is pressure from outside. Australia and the other regional powers told the PNG to let go.

Formal negotiations on the manner of the separation have yet to begin. The referendum was “non-binding”, and there are fears that the PNG government might drag out the consultation process yet further. But the change, it seems, will eventually be made.

Why focus on a set of islands on the other side of the world? Because of the rarity of this case. As Scots brace themselves for one more heave, their usual reference points are Catalonia and the Basque country — two different campaigns in the same country that have failed, so far, for different reasons. They might be advised to look back into history and further afield. 

Before embarking on my tour d’horizon, it is worth noting at the outset: very few independence movements end in success. 

Professor Ryan Griffiths, a politics professor at Syracuse University, New York, has spent much of his career tracking secessionist movements. Over the past two centuries, he says, 403 campaigns have been mounted, of which 60 are currently active. Some die violently; most fade away; a few of them stagger on; some are given and accept more limited autonomy. Only a tiny minority enter what he calls “the narrow gate into the club of sovereign states”.

Aside from Norway there hasn’t been a successful independence movement in an advanced democracy

Indeed, if you take away Norway’s successful breakaway from the Kingdom of Sweden in 1905, there hasn’t been a single instance of a successful independence movement involving what are now regarded as advanced democracies.

One might throw in perhaps the Velvet Divorce in 1993, but that event differs in a number of ways. The state of Czechoslovakia was a short-lived embrace of democracy (although the 20-year rule of Thomas Masaryk between 1918 and Hitler’s invasion in 1938 is still remembered with considerable affection). It survived little over three years after the anti-communist revolutions of 1989 and dissolution.

Both the Czech and Slovak entities were happy to split, rather than one buckling to the demands of the other. The decision was ratified in both parliaments, rather than through a referendum. And — another exception to the rule — it happened without violence and with impressively little acrimony.

Secession, the act of breaking away, is quite different to independence, the securing of recognition for statehood. The contemporary mark of success is a full seat at the UN General Assembly. The process requires nine of the 15 members of the Security Council to approve the application, without a single veto from the five permanent members. 

Only a precious few have prevailed. The newest of the UN’s 193 nations have been South Sudan (admitted in 2011), Montenegro (2006), East Timor (2002) and Eritrea (1993). Each emerged as a result of violent conflict. South Sudan has been wracked with ethno-political strife since prising itself away from Sudan in 2011 at the end of Africa’s longest-lasting civil war. Eritrea is a demagogic one-party state, which emerged after a 30-year-struggle against Ethiopia. Timor-Leste, as it is officially known, became the first independent state of the twenty-first century and, while it is not failed or failing, it is highly unstable. 

Which leaves Montenegro, one of the last constituent parts of Tito’s Yugoslavia, that took its leave from its larger neighbour Serbia with relatively little discord. Contrast that with Kosovo, one of several states that could be described as limbo lands, countries that have adopted for themselves the accoutrements of statehood but without the acceptance of others. In the case of Kosovo, the international jury is split down the middle. The Kurds, even though they are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, are still some way from achieving statehood, with neighbours Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Armenia all resisting. At the other end of the spectrum is Somaliland, which is really only Somaliland in its head. As for Northern Cyprus, although it is recognised only by its benefactor Turkey, the emergency arrangements of yesteryear have become as good as permanent.

The right of a people to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law. It states that people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right freely to choose their sovereignty and international status without interference. The principle is nowadays interpreted more narrowly, applying only to existing states and to colonies or peoples who have a serious grievance or have suffered oppression.

The concept was first expressed in the mid-nineteenth century and spread rapidly. It was most powerfully expressed by the leader of the emerging power, US President Woodrow Wilson, in February 1918: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”

The problem is: which people and whose consent? And is self-determination reconciled with territorial integrity, another concept that manages to be both principled and flexible? And where a form of self-determination is achieved, does that have to mean full independence or can it be confined to confederation, federation or other forms of autonomy? 

The criteria that determine success or failure have changed little over time. The movements that prevail have tended to rely on international pressure (or military intervention) or the weakness of the parent state. 

Why do some governments accommodate demands for self-rule and others do not? It depends on the value of the stakes and the relative military and political strength of the both sides. Governments are more likely to push back against independence if the risks and costs of confronting an opponent are low, or if the economic, strategic (sea outlet, military base, international border) or psychological value of the territory at stake is so high as to undermine the credibility of the state. 

The end of the Cold War spawned the emergence of two dozen independent states within a few years. Some had long and proud histories, such as the Baltic three — Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia — and the Caucasus three — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Even before the end of the half-hearted experiment with democracy under Boris Yeltsin, Russia was seeking to reimpose its influence on lands it has historically always deemed to fall within its sphere of influence. 

Under Vladimir Putin, it has used all means at its disposal: economic pressure, the use of energy resources as a blackmail, more recently cyberwarfare, plus outright military intervention. One way of undermining a newly-independent state is to encourage some of its constituent parts to declare their own independence. As early as 1999, less than a decade after declaring its own secession, Georgia lost Abkhazia, a beautiful region in its north-west corner with access to the Black Sea. In 2008 Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of another region, South Ossetia. That remains occupied by the Russians, with little prospect for change. So, the new, small state ends up smaller. The same applies to Moldova, which lost most of its jurisdiction over the region of Transdniestria early on.

South Ossetia remains occupied by the Russians, with little prospect for change

Protection of minorities is the argument invoked by powerful neighbours, usually former owners, to reassert control. In the case of Russia that is a common denominator across the former Soviet space. The very fact of independence from the motherland disorientated many (though by not by any means all) of these groups. The Kremlin has been adept at fomenting their grievances, sometimes inventing them through fake news, at other times playing on genuine anxieties, such as the loss of language rights. 

As ever, wider geo-strategic considerations usually determine outcomes. In Estonia, Russia has been whipping up anxiety from the moment it lost its former republic. It would probably have gone further if the risks had not been so high. A military incursion into Georgia is one thing; to do so in the Baltics would automatically trigger Article 5, one of Nato’s founding principles that denotes an attack on one is an attack on all. Donald Trump’s equivocal (to put it politely) view of the Western alliance, and his penchant for Putin and other dictators, raised Baltic fears to crisis point.

The return of Crimea to Russia dramatically boosted Putin’s poll ratings

Ukraine falls between these two sets of examples. Putin will have seen his two actions as medium-risk, high-reward. Emotionally, many Russians see the two countries as intertwined, with a shared history, shared religion and cultural reference points. The annexation of Crimea was relatively straightforward to execute and justify. The peninsula was ceded to the Soviet republic of Ukraine as a random gift by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Its return dramatically boosted Putin’s poll ratings. Even his political nemesis, Alexei Navalny, is careful not to criticise that.

The invasion of eastern Ukraine, largely through proxy local militias, was a simple act of subversion, of seeking to undermine the confidence and territorial integrity of an uppity neighbour. Both cases led to a series of economic sanctions that were surprising in their strength and longevity. But that too is containable.

Putin bucks the trend in one respect. He does not need acceptance of his incursions. For example, the only countries that have recognised the breakaway republic of South Ossetia are Venezuela, Syria, Russian clients Abkhazia and Transdniestria — and Nauru, an island state in Micronesia, and dumping ground for asylum seekers to Australia, which also receives considerable economic aid from Russia. 

What do these examples have in common with more familiar territorial and cultural disputes in the Western world? The answer is: more than one might think.

Both independence movements and host countries operate within the same template — popular support, territorial integrity, strategic importance, power plays, demographic mixes, international recognition, plus the seriousness of the claim.

Some in Europe are more folkloric and cultural. The Corsicans would love to run their own island, but they know full well that they would struggle economically. In 2014 Venetians held an informal non-binding referendum; just over a majority voted for independence, but nobody seriously contemplated it. 

Italy’s Northern League started out demanding greater autonomy for the wealthier north of the country. Then it morphed into an anti-immigration party. Flemish nationalism operates in fits and starts. The Belgian state has always been a hybrid. Allegiance is weak; but that does not transfer into a desire for a full-scale schism.

In Quebec in 1995, the referendum was desperately close, with a margin of victory of less than one per cent

Further afield, and for all the predictions to the contrary over the past decades, Quebec has not gone its own way. The process, one could argue, has been about as smooth as it is possible to be. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the central authorities cannot remain indifferent to the will of the people, once it has been expressed. It imposed four conditions: that the referendum question is unambiguous; that the process is open and fair; that the result is clear (although it does not discuss whether a simple majority suffices or whether a higher threshold is needed), and that if the pro-independence side prevails, it must negotiate in good faith for a balanced and reasonable settlement.

The ruling took place after the two referendums, which were state-tolerated rather than state-sanctioned (Scotland) or state-opposed (Catalonia). In 1980, Quebecois rejected independence by 60 to 40. Fifteen years later, the result was desperately close with a margin of victory of less than one per cent. Since then the air has gone out of the balloon. A succession of opinion polls and elections have shown a marked ennui with the subject. 

The Quebec example helps explain the three phases of a movement. It starts out as a niche activity that preoccupies idealists/ideologues; it transforms into something bigger when the claims are either ignored or repressed by the host government. The final stage comprises four possible outcomes. It is quashed by military means; it is bought off with lesser degrees of autonomy; it succeeds (rarely), or, the most common of the outcomes, it fades away.

Which takes us to Spain. I have been visiting the Basque country most years for the past three decades, well before the long-weekend Guggenheim and foodie gentrification of Bilbao and San Sebastian. (Interest declared: my sister has lived there throughout this time, married to a Basque.) I was taken to a number of old town bars where allegiance to Herri Batasuna, the political wing of ETA, was proudly displayed. It reminded me of Belfast and Derry, two cities I also got to know in the 1990s. 

The immediate theatricals in Scotland are straightforward to predict

How did the Basque movement fizzle out? The answer lies in a combination of accession to some, but not all of the demands — the Basques have considerable self-government and do not pay their taxes directly to Madrid. ETA itself was seen as grassroots, violent and ideological and therefore threatening to many in the middle classes and elite. When the paramilitaries ended their armed struggle in 2011, many Basques savoured peace as much as they did self-rule. Within their own territory many citizens have little contact with the Spanish state on a day-to-day level.

After decades of relatively peaceable coexistence, the Catalans went full throttle. The referendum was an act of bravura by Carles Puigdemont, president of the Generalitat, the Catalan devolved government. The Spanish constitution expressly prohibits all attempts at secession. “Puigdemont knew it would be unsuccessful, but for political reasons felt impelled to show more radical colours than his more moderate pro-independence rivals,” explains Daniel Cetrà, from Aberdeen University’s Centre on Constitutional Change.

Nine of Catalonia’s leaders were jailed, several other activists received lesser punishments. Five former government ministers, including Puigdemont, are in exile. As an MEP in Brussels, he currently enjoys immunity after several earlier attempts by the Spanish government to have him extradited. 

Now there is an ugly stasis. The two leading pro-independence parties, Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), are permanently at each other’s throats. Elections on 14 February once again demonstrated a region that is split both between the two traditions but also within them too. The ERC plays an important role in the national parliament in Madrid, keeping the fragile socialist government of Pedro Sánchez afloat. It is seeking to use its leverage to begin negotiations with Sánchez, but he is facing a squeeze, with polls showing a large majority of Spanish voters wary of, or hostile to, any accommodation of the Catalans’ demands.

What does this mean for Scotland, the final destination of my worldwide tour of separatism? Previously Scots and Catalans looked to each other for guidance. Now, Cetrà says, “The Scots are trying to learn from the Catalans’ mistakes.” He points out two important differences working in Scotland’s favour. In the Holyrood parliament there is only one independence movement, the SNP. It faces no rivals (unless you count the Scottish Greens, but they barely register). The British state, for all its other flaws and constitutional weaknesses, has shown itself more able to adapt to circumstances. Self-determination is not a red line.

Tory and Labour voters would would probably be encouraged not to show up on the day

In theory the situation is more propitious for Nicola Sturgeon. She is almost certain to win a thumping majority during Scotland’s parliamentary elections in May. According to the polls, the two big trends are now broadly in alignment. Independence + Europe = 50 per cent = SNP; Union + Brexit = 25 per cent = Conservatives. Labour, once all-powerful north of the border, has tried to straddle both and as a result has all but collapsed.

The immediate theatricals are straightforward to predict. Sturgeon will hold a parliamentary vote to mandate a referendum. That will pass easily and triumphally. She will demand the invoking of a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act, allowing for the transfer of a power that is constitutionally reserved for Westminster, in order to hold a referendum. Boris Johnson will refuse. 

That is when the fun begins. 

If she holds an “indicative referendum” she would secure a pyrrhic victory. The Tories and probably Labour would boycott the campaign and their voters would be encouraged not to show up on the day — just as happened in the Catalan “illegal” referendum. Sturgeon will also face pressure from the other side, from activists frustrated by the paralysis. In the meantime, Johnson will call some form of constitutional convention that manages to look just serious enough, but actually will end up advocating only modest change. 

Such a commission will be encouraged to take its time. The aim will be to either to bore Scots into submission or to divert their attention onto other matters, such as a post-pandemic bounce. Johnson is nothing if not an inveterate dreamer. It might yet work, as global secessionist expert Griffiths points out: “Kicking the can down the road is usually the smart move for a host nation, particularly if that is accompanied by a small amount of autonomy for the area in dispute.”

History shows that the odds are stacked heavily against Sturgeon. It also shows that sometimes, occasionally, the odd independence movement slips through the narrow gate.

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