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‘Here’s to the British Way’

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Regardless of how the Scottish independence referendum turns out, secession is not the simple answer to society’s problems, writes international law expert Thomas Burri. The creation of a new state must not be associated with exaggerated expectations.

On Thursday September 18 Scottish voters go to the polls to decide whether to dissolve the centuries-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Over recent months, what has been interesting to observe is the mature way in which the British have handled this ‘thorny affair’. The British government did not fundamentally oppose Scotland’s request for a referendum and a compromise was found.

Thomas Burri is an assistant professor in international and European law at the University of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland.

As voters prepare to cast their ballot the decision appears to be finely balanced between those for and against independence, but it would be wrong to blame the British government for any political miscalculation. The government was undoubtedly aware that any push for secession was likely to gain greater support if those concerned were prevented from clarifying the issue of independence.

The British government must also have been mindful of an important opinion by Canada’s Supreme Court in 1998 about the secession of Quebec from Canada. That year the court declared that under the Canadian constitution a clear “yes” vote in a Quebec referendum in favour of separation from Canada would mean that all those involved would be obliged to negotiate secession in good faith. It can only be hoped that the confirmation of this approach by Scotland will allow an all-embracing – perhaps western – way of dealing with the desire of one part of the population to secede.

Unlike the UK, Spain has failed to listen carefully to the Canadian Supreme Court’s message. And in so doing, it has encouraged those citizens seeking secession from Spain. To invoke the Spanish constitution comes down to creating a smokescreen. Secession is almost always revolutionary, since it implies the end to constitutional consensus.

The maturity of the British approach to secession can be revealed through a simple intellectual experiment. Imagine the majority of people from canton Schaffhausen or Jura decide they want to split from Switzerland. Would you react with a disconcerted shrug of your shoulders? But what if the citizens of canton Zurich expressed the same wish? Would you remain indifferent? Desires for secession are usually sparked off by absolute ideas, such as the abolition of slavery or conflicts of faith.

One part of the population refuses to obey the constitutional regime. Imagine canton Geneva decides to leave Switzerland because it wants to set up a theocracy, or canton Basel City refuses to remain outside the European Union. If a wealthy region like Zurich choses to break away, it could end financial solidarity between cantons and ignite passions. Is secession a privilege of the poor? These examples just show how difficult secession can be – and how mature the British have been in their approach.

But regardless of how the referendum in Scotland turns out, secession will not solve the problems of society. The creation of a new state should not come with exaggerated expectations. The mere fact that a new state has come into existence as such does not solve challenges like excessive debt, poor social cohesion or an ageing population.

And like most other territorial decisions, secession often creates new problems. Minorities resulting from new emerging borders may suddenly feel uneasy, as happened in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. How many advantages are offered by approaches which home in on people rather than soil. I talked about this using the example of the Romansh in an article in the NZZ newspaper on August 6, 2014 – “Der Romanenstaat”.

In view of recent developments, it’s worth reflecting on how the situations in Scotland and Crimea are different. After all, votes were and are being cast in both places. Why are we prepared to accept the Scottish result for secession but not that in Crimea? Is it due to the lack of consent by Russia, or maybe even due to the region’s immediate accession to Russia? In Switzerland we have great experience of popular votes but are we really able to distinguish between “good” and “bad”, or constructed, referendums?

(This text is a translation from an article originally written in German) 

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