Last updated: February 17, 2014 7:13 pm
Scotland can be a model for how to handle separatism
There are remarkably few examples of nations breaking up in a civilised way
Some years ago, I made a futile attempt to persuade a Chinese diplomat that Taiwan should be allowed to declare independence – if that is what its people want. “If Scotland voted to be a separate nation,” I argued, “England would not stop it.” The diplomat smiled sceptically, like a man recognising a particularly crude falsehood. “I know that’s not true,” he said. “England would never accept Scottish independence. It would invade.”
I recalled that conversation in Edinburgh last week as I watched preparations for Scotland’s referendum on independence next September. George Osborne, the UK chancellor, had travelled to the Scottish capital to give a speech warning that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to keep the pound as its currency. A few days later, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said that it would be “very difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU. This is tough, even brutal, politics – and it has provoked complaints of bullying from pro-independence campaigners.
On this story
- Barroso warns Scots on EU membership
- Report warns on Scottish currency union
- Cameron tells Scots ‘We want you to stay’
- What happens next if Scotland votes Yes?
- Spain promises non-interference on Scotland
Yet take a couple of steps back – and place the Scottish referendum in a historic and international context – and what is remarkable about it is how consensual and peaceful it is. The Chinese are not alone in finding it remarkable that the government of the UK is willing to allow the country to break up without a fight. Elif Shafak, a Turkish novelist living in London, told me that she had been pleasantly surprised by the speech in which David Cameron, the British prime minister, appealed to the Scots to vote against independence. As she put it: “Coming from Turkey, where more than 35,000 people were killed in Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Turkish state is yet to recognise the Kurds’ right to education in their mother tongue, I was positively surprised to hear Cameron speak so peacefully about the possibility of Scottish independence.”The international reaction to the Scottish debate makes me think that the prime minister got something wrong in his speech on February 7. Mr Cameron argued: “If we lost Scotland ... we would pull the rug from our reputation.” On the contrary, I think the UK government’s willingness to allow the centuries-old union to be dissolved peacefully is a boost to the country’s reputation. To adopt Mr Cameron’s marketing speak, the British brand is built around tolerance, the rule of law and democracy. There is no better demonstration of those values than the Scottish referendum.
There are remarkably few examples of nations breaking up in a civilised way. The most famous is the velvet divorce between the Czechs and the Slovaks in 1993. A better analogy to Scotland’s situation may be Norway’s referendum on independence from Sweden in 1905. After briefly contemplating war, the Swedes thought better of it and negotiated a divorce.
Given its brutal history, the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 was surprisingly peaceful – but the Russians have since fought a savage war to prevent the secession of Chechnya. Even in democratic Europe, Spain is refusing to contemplate the idea of an independence referendum for Catalonia. The US, of course, fought a civil war to save its union. If modern-day Texas decided to secede from the US – as Rick Perry, its governor, once hinted that it might – my guess is that Washington would once again fight to keep the country together.So why is the UK government behaving differently? Why has it decided to imitate Canada, which allowed Quebec to hold a referendum on independence, rather than China or the US which take a harder line with Taiwan and Texas? Probably because the government in Westminster recognises that the UK is a union of separate nations with historically distinct identities: morally and practically it can only be kept together on the basis of consent. Britain did put up a fight to prevent Irish independence, almost a century ago, and that was clearly a mistake. Ending the long-running Troubles in Northern Ireland also involved making it explicit that the province’s destiny is ultimately up to the people who live there.
Both sides insist the other side is bluffing. But what if they are not? If the Scots surprise the pollsters and vote for independence, the subsequent negotiations could swiftly become very messy and acrimonious. If Scotland really did refuse to take on a share of the UK debt, it is possible to imagine that parliament in Westminster would reject the terms of the divorce by refusing to repeal the Act of Union between Scotland and England of 1707. It would not be war but it would be an enormous constitutional crisis.
Under such circumstances, even the British might struggle to live up to their self-image of calmness, legality, indifference and fairness. Even so, I still think the assurances I gave to my Chinese diplomat friend hold true. Ultimately both Scotland and England would find a way to make a peaceful divorce work. That would be best for “the children” of the UK. But it would also offer a global lesson in the civilised way to handle separatism.