Scotland’s vote for independence fell well short of victory. But pro-independence Scots will surely try again, just as the Quebec Sovereignty Movement has stayed optimistic over many years in its fight for independence. From a practical point of view, perhaps the Scots are better off staying in the United Kingdom. Independence would have raised difficult challenges concerning foreign and defense affairs, oil and the environment, among many others. Yet as we look around the world, we find that governments have become increasingly unable to placate widespread anger and demands for change. The sovereignty and decentralization envisioned by Scotland and Quebec is not just appealing, but a rational response of civil society to ineffective, unresponsive leaders.
What might have been the implications beyond Scotland if it had gained independence? Would the success have inspired others, much like the rapid diffusion of the Arab Spring? Would Scottish independence have prompted a similar movement in Wales? Might Catholics in Northern Ireland have raised demands for union with Ireland? What about Catalonia? Kurdistan? Tibet? Chechnya?
Secessions of parts of a state to form a new one generally are not well received by other countries. An independent Scotland—not to mention an independent Quebec, Kurdistan, or Tibet—does not have support from the US or any other major country, so far as I’m aware. Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway only has Russia’s support. The general assumption among policy makers is that backing another country’s breakup might come back to haunt their country.
Of course there are exceptions. The breakup of the USSR and the split of Sudan into North and South did not seem to arouse much disapproval. But the international approach to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is more typical: for all the ethnic, religious and political forces within those countries that are pulling them apart, and that might make the case for division into new countries, no one seems in favor. We might reasonably assume that governments are not concerned with the blowback of supporting secession more than they are with the empowerment of civil society.
We are on the threshold of a new era, the likes of which we haven’t seen since decolonization in Africa and Asia after World War II, in which attempts at breakaways will be more common. Popular dissatisfaction with government is rampant around the world, regardless of the political system. Demand (for services, satisfaction of grievances, regulations or deregulation) greatly exceeds what large centralized governments can supply. And the opportunities for people to display, communicate, and organize their dissatisfactions are also far greater than ever before. Many groups will demand not just greater local autonomy but the right to fully govern themselves.
This possibility should not be surprising. Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Iraqis and many others are fast reaching the point where it is apparent that units of governing have become too large to accommodate the scope of the demands placed upon their national leaders. It’s no longer just a matter of ethnic or religious differences. Climate change and other large-scale environmental problems, rapidly growing rich-poor divides, unemployment, cross-border immigration, migrant workers, tainted food and water deficits, unmanageable public health crises—all these are creating serious protests that challenge the managerial abilities of governments. Central governing units need to be smaller if they are to be responsive, accountable and effective in the public interest.
“We are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as a new General Assembly session opened in New York. For how long can these crises be contained or ignored? Will they be handled nonviolently? I’m old enough that it’s possible I won’t be around when these questions are answered. When they are, I can only hope the Scottish option is accepted as a reasonable alternative to terrible destructiveness. My grandchildren may one day be living in a country called Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada), and that increasingly sounds like a good idea.