Secession is the word of the day. Even now, the people of Scotland are at the polls, voting a simple “Yes” or “No” to decide whether they want to break off from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Their decision will have impact not only in the British Isles but will reverberate the world over.
The question of secession is always a tricky one–for Americans particularly. Our only real experience with it didn’t go so well. The secession of our Southern states led to Civil War and massive bloodshed. But the idea persists. Just recently there were efforts for sections of California to be turned into six states, there continues to be talk of Texas possibly seceding from the United States one day, and we always wonder–mostly tongue-in-cheek –whether the South will decide to “rise again.”
On an international level we just this past year witnessed a referendum in Crimea that involved a rather unpleasant secession from Ukraine. The tension inherent in that move underscores the reality that while it may have its fans, for many others secession is a notion fraught with peril.
But is secession illegal? Not necessarily. In the United States secession has been understood that way since the Civil War. But then that is only because the North won the war. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible, and politics in our country made secession impossible by force of arms. Considering that we live in a democracy, though, it does seem logical that the people of a certain region could decide for themselves how to proceed. Barring the beginning of a British Civil War, this seems to be the operating procedure today in the United Kingdom. We’ll see how that works out.
The situation of Scotland is rather different that the American Confederacy, of course. Scotland was once its own nation, and in many ways has always maintained its own character. The American South, while unique, never had such a cohesive national identity in the years before the Civil War.
Despite Scotland’s strong claim to the legitimacy of secession, the choice they face today does recall a haunting question from the American crisis and similar movements today: what does it mean to be a democracy? Surely such a place must affirm that people have a measure of self-determination, but what are the limits of that freedom? From a certain point of view secession should be possible, but does it really make sense for this option to always be on the table? For a nation to have any stability in the long-term it would seem not.
Though the time may have come for the Scots to decide their fate, an “Aye” today from them and British acceptance of their move will potentially legitimate the efforts of people the world over to break off from their nations to0. While all of this may sound romantic in a sense, it raises important questions about national stability and what it means to exist together for the common good. The answers our world offers will define the fate of democratic peoples everywhere.