Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 46 – December 2013

Scottish secession

This time next year I expect (dv) to be writing an update on the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence which is due in September 2015. At the moment the polls are suggesting a majority against independence, but nine months is a long time in referendum politics. For the moment it is worth pondering what an unusual task is being attempted by supporters of national independence: peaceful secession. We have no case of peaceful secession from the United Kingdom. The separation of Ireland into the (now) Irish Republic happened after a five year war of independence (1916-21) and was succeeded by a briefer but even more brutal civil war in the newly independent state. The IRA attempted to complete the process with a bloody campaign to separate Northern Ireland from the UK in a thirty year war of secession after 1968 – without success. In Europe peaceful secession is almost unknown. The breakaway of republics from the old Soviet Union (such as the breakaway of the Baltic republics at the start of the 1990s) was accompanied by bloody conflicts; the break up of Yugoslavia took place through the most brutal conflicts on the European mainland since the end of the Second World War. There seem to be only two instances of peaceful secession, and both are highly specific. Greenland partially seceded from Denmark following a referendum in 1979, but the result was really a form of home rule – a kind of super devolution. And in 1993 the former Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech and Slovak states in the ‘velvet divorce’ which succeeded the ‘velvet revolution’ which had removed Czechoslovakia from the Soviet sphere of independence in 1989. If a majority does indeed favour independence next September, therefore, it will be a huge achievement not just for the nationalists, but also for the cause of peaceful secession.