The question of secession has recently become particularly topical in light of the twin independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilst the history and geopolitical situation of both regions is hugely different, at the heart of both referendums is a shared principle; that it is legitimate and right for a body of people to, by majority vote, declare themselves independent of the political entity to which they presently belong.
Catalonia and Kurdistan are not unique in holding to this view. Indeed, this view of sovereignty and secession seems to have been in the ascendancy for the last sixty years or so; it has formed the crux of arguments for decolonisation, and is generally accepted by the international community, hence the UN’s support for referendums on ‘self-determination’ in South Sudan or East Timor, or indeed the British government’s decision to permit a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.
This view of secession, however, has multiple flaws. The most important of these – in fact, the one upon which the others are predicated – is the fallacious assumption that popular opinion can affect the fundamental essence of a nation. According to this line of argument, there is no thing which cannot be altered if a sufficient number of people approve of the alteration, up to and including the character of a country as manifested in its borders.
The flaw here is that popular opinion can never be more than a snapshot, a freeze-frame of what the majority of the people think at a certain point in time. To rely upon that in deciding questions of sovereignty is to ossify that one moment for all of eternity. This is patently absurd; popular opinion is as mutable as the tides, and with regards to sovereignty particularly there is often considerable change – one example might be the enthusiastic vote in 1974 for Britain to join the European Union, followed by the vote in 2017 to leave it.
Taken to its extreme, this position seems to imply that secession is an inevitability which merely needs to be ‘ratified’ by asking the same question over and over again until the people can be worn down. An example of this is the present situation in Scotland; the Scottish people voted against independence in 2014, yet Scottish nationalists are already agitating for a second vote. Even if a second such referendum were not held imminently, it is almost certain that it will take place at some point. Such a system is grounded in the belief of an elite that secession must happen; it is the people’s fault for not voting for it, and they must be pressed again and again for a ‘correct’ response.
Beyond this, there is a further objection. Secession is often presented as something which only affects the seceders, but in reality to secede is to create two new polities – the new state and a remaining rump. This is often a profound alteration of the national identity of the rump; for instance, Catalonia has been central to Spanish culture for centuries, and contains much of the historical heritage of the wider Spanish nation. Equally there may be economic imperatives at stake; Iraq’s wealth is staked on its hydrocarbon deposits, of which a great amount are located in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Surely, then, when secession entails such a great alteration to the condition of both entities, it is only right that a vote take place (if it take place at all; see above) across the entirety of the initial state? And that the consent of a majority in both polities be required for secession to be actualised? But even here we see the absurdities of predicating sovereignty on popular opinion. What if secession is only approved by a slim majority? What if only by a single vote? Is it then the case that the views of the minority, even if that majority constitute 49.9% of the populace, be disregarded? Such aggressive majoritarianism seems a profoundly instable way to ground sovereignty.
The logical conclusion of the belief in self-determination as justifying secession is individual independence; a dystopic libertarian scenario in which each individual might declare independence purely out of dislike of his neighbours or the prospect of being ruled over by someone else. If all that matters is opinion, then we end up in such a nightmarish situation.
Of course, none of this should be construed to suggest a total opposition to secession per se. There are a variety of situations in which secession is justifiable; one is particularly minded of instances where peaceful co-existence between two groups seems impossible, and the only pragmatic solution is to divide them into two states. The partition of the Palestine mandate in 1948 is one such situation; equally the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
But the situation in Catalonia and Kurdistan is not similar to either of these. In Catalonia, Catalans have prospered under Spanish rule for centuries, and presently enjoy a very generous political and economic settlement. Similarly in Kurdistan, the current compact between Erbil and Mosul allows the Kurds profound autonomy. In both cases, one suspects that the motivation behind secession is more likely the ambition of nationalist elites than a general will of the people.
The essence of a state is not something which should be set in stone; states evolve and change along with their societies. But those who suggest that secession can be effected by a mere referendum are risking fundamentally altering the national identity of two peoples on the flimsiest of grounds. Both the Catalans and the Kurds should proceed with caution.
It wouldn’t be a total exaggeration to say that Britain has, for the last three days, been embroiled in its biggest crisis of the 21st century. On Friday we saw Britain exit the world’s largest politico-economic bloc, swiftly followed by a collapse in the value of the pound and trillions being wiped off the value of stock markets worldwide. Hours later the Prime Minister announced his resignation, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply vanished. By the weekend over three million people had signed a petition calling for a second referendum, and MPs were openly calling for Parliament to simply ignore the referendum.
I voted to remain in the EU. I believed, and continue to believe, in the European project and the creation of the world’s first superstate based on values of humanism and liberalism. Like the vast majority of experts, I think that a British departure from Europe will be have serious economic consequences, ones which will damage the prosperity of the nation for years to come. Perhaps more fundamentally than any of this, though, I feel that this referendum was more than a question of membership of the EU; it turned into a plebiscite on modernity, one in which we seem to have voted against the liberal values that many had presumed we held dear.
Nonetheless, I oppose a second referendum, and I urge you to do so as well. Why? Not because I’m a defeatist, or have simply given up. On the contrary, I think this result should be an impetus for liberal-minded individuals across the political spectrum to make sure their voices are heard louder than ever. This is not a retreat.
However, I don’t feel that a second referendum is at all a productive way of moving the debate forward; indeed, it might easily be seen as a retrograde step. Firstly, a second referendum would be a repeat of the greatest constitutional error in the last few hundred years – a dereliction of duty by Parliament. In Britain, Parliament is sovereign and supreme as a governing body; not the people. Our constitution has historically evolved in the direction of a representative rather than direct democracy, for the very good reason that it provides a vital check upon untrammelled populism. Our representatives are elected on the basis of being the most able to consider what is best for the nation, by virtue of their experience and wisdom. Referendums have no constitutional precedent, and are a dangerous exercise in rabble-rousing. This last one ended with an MP being killed for holding the ‘wrong’ political beliefs.
But aside from the fact that referendums are simply exercises in fear-mongering and pandering to the lowest common denominator (on both sides; Osborne’s ‘punishment budget was hardly better than Farage’s warnings of dusky foreigners attacking English women), there’s a further problem. There’s no guarantee that a second referendum would deliver the result desired, namely a vote to remain. It might – but we don’t know that. 52% of the country voted to leave Europe; some of them might have changed their minds, but surely not enough to change the result? If a second referendum were to reaffirm a Leave vote, we would not only be humiliated but we would be left with no moral high-ground. Put frankly, at this moment we can plausibly argue that the result is not representative of the people, even if we accept it. We would not be able to do this if a second referendum said the same thing.
A second referendum, furthermore, would be exhausting and time-wasting. Campaigning for the first one took months, dominated British public life, and was pretty much universally agreed to be a miserable experience. It was an expensive, tiring mess which poisoned the political culture of Britain, and left most of the publically badly misinformed about both sides of the debate. It was also free publicity for the radicals on the right, particularly Nigel Farage. We do not need this.
Victory for the Remain camp in this second referendum would be equally catastrophic. This country contains millions of people (concentrated in certain areas, admittedly, but to be found everywhere) who despise Europe and the values it stands for. We could run this referendum a hundred times, and each time they would vote to leave. These people tend to be working-class, from marginalised areas of the country, and in many cases feel hard done by neo-liberalism. At present, they are jubilant that ‘they have their country back’, as they so tritely put it. If they were to see their victory snatched from them by a second referendum (or, even worse, by an act of Parliament) then these people would break. The killing of Jo Cox is just the tip of the iceberg; if this subgroup felt cheated, there would be blood on the streets in a way which Britain has never seen. I can foresee right-wing terror on a level which doesn’t bear thinking about, but which would be hugely destructive. Even worse, the strongly Eurosceptic Armed Forces could no longer be fully trusted to maintain order. Britain has never had a coup (though we did come close in the 60s) and I would very much like to keep it that way.
As such, I propose not to annul the referendum but to mitigate it. We must be cognizant of the fact that Parliament is supreme, and utilise this in order to try and minimise the impact of the referendum on day to day life. The anti-Europe fundamentalists will be sated through an official withdrawal from the Union, and a few symbolic gestures; but we should work to make sure that life changes as little as possible for ordinary people.
What would this mitigation entail? Firstly, it would involve the government privately making the proverbial pilgrimage to Canosa. They should inform Brussels that they are utterly penitent, and did not want this to happen, but are bound by the realities of the referendum result. No amount of grovelling is enough – the intent is to soften the hearts of the European leaders, and convince them to offer a good deal. Any deal would ideally preserve access to the free market, border controls at Calais, free movement of people and EU funds. Essentially the EU flag would be taken down, but the reality of EU membership would remain. To placate the Eurosceptic crowd, certain concessions could be made – stronger border controls, deregulation of certain areas, and exemption from EU law in some fields. We will not be able to continue paying as little as £350m for access to the single market, but hopefully the negotiating team will keep the figure as low as possible. These negotiations would take a long time to conclude, but a preliminary document could be agreed upon quickly. Armed with this preliminary document, the government would begin to stabilise the markets and move forward.
I say ‘government’ – a new government is urgently needed. This should be a unifying government, one which encompasses the more level heads from both sides of the political spectrum. The main issue here is to keep Boris and/or Gove from No. 10. Not only are both men despicable traitors for their actions towards the PM, but neither of them are at all figures that the party can unite around. Worse, despite their pretensions to moderation they would enact a strongly Thatcherite and radical agenda as leaders. Much as the referendum can (and should) be mitigated, the resignation of David Cameron should be similarly mitigated by replacing his government with one ideologically similar, and which keeps out his enemies. As Prime Minister I would suggest Theresa May; she has coped admirably with the Home Ministry brief for over five years, and has proven to be a respected and popular figure. Not only is she a moderate pro-Europe figure, she is an efficient and capable administrator with the skills required to hold together an effective government. As such, she is the most viable individual to stand up to Boris and deliver a moderate and viable Brexit.
In voting to leave the EU, Britain has fucked up. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Let’s not get carried away, as the Leave crowd did, and view this as being anything more than what it is – a question of membership in the EU. It’s not a question of liberalism, or immigration, or anything else. Rather than throwing our toys out of the pram like petulant children, we need to focus on making the best of a bad situation. We need to rebuild our relationship with Europe, mitigating what we’ve done; we need to create a functioning government which won’t be hijacked by right-wing ideologues. Petitioning for a second referendum won’t do that; we need to move forward, and do so at pace.