Scottish independence could shake up global system

Polls released recently have shown for the first time that a majority — an extremely small majority, but a majority nonetheless — of Scots favour independence, although other polls suggest the ‘no’ camp remains in the lead. A poll is not the election, which will be held on September 18, but it is still a warning that something extraordinary might happen very soon. The political union between Scotland and England might be abolished after 300 years. The implications of this are enormous and generally ignored.

Obviously, this raises a host of question about how such a divorce might take place, whether the expected time frame — divorce by 2016 — will be adhered to, and how state property might be divided. It also raises the question of Scottish foreign policy. Will Scotland remain in NATO? Will it have membership in the European Union? Will it continue to use the pound sterling, and if not, how will it roll out its own currency?

These are important questions, but far more important issues will follow. One of the principles of the post-war world was the inviolability of Europe’s borders. Border disputes were the origin of centuries of war, and so Europe’s borders were frozen after World War II to avoid discussion. This may have left some people of one nationality on the wrong side of a border, but this was accepted since the risk of opening the door to border redefinition was considered far greater than any discomforts stemming from the borders that were locked in place.

This principle has been weakened since the end of the Cold War. Still, though the disintegration of the Soviet Union created fully independent states, these were recognised republics within the context of the Soviet Union. One could argue that this did not in fact represent border change. Later, the ‘Velvet Divorce’ of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak successor countries represented another shift, but in a country that had only existed since the end of World War I. The separation of Kosovo from Serbia was a more radical shift but was justified by claims of Serbian oppression. Though each shift weakened the principle of inviolable borders, each came with an asterisk that is, each had an aspect that stopped it from being the definitive case.

Scotland separating from England, by contrast, can’t be minimized. If that centuries-old union can be revised, then anything can be revised. Scottish separatists’ reason for splitting is that they are a separate nation, that each nation has the right to its own state and the right to determine its own destiny, and that they no longer choose to be in union. But if they have the right to determine this, why shouldn’t others in Europe enjoy the same right?
For example, modern Spain is an amalgam of regions. One, the Catalan region — which contains Barcelona — has a strong separatist movement. If Scotland can leave the United Kingdom, then why shouldn’t Catalonia be allowed to leave Spain? Farther east, the Treaty of Trianon gave Romania and then-Czechoslovakia large portions of Hungary along with the Hungarians living there. Why shouldn’t Hungarians living in those territories have the right to rejoin Hungary? Meanwhile, if French-speaking Belgians and Dutch-speaking Belgians wish to part ways and return their two regions to their respective countries of origin, why should they not be allowed to? And why shouldn’t the eastern part of Ukraine be allowed to secede and join Russia?

Raising the stakes, this is an issue that goes far beyond Europe. There are seemingly innumerable separatist movements in India, China, Africa and so forth. If Scotland has the right to leave the nation-state it is part of and form a new one based on ethnic identity, why can’t anyone follow suit? And if anyone can do it, but they are blocked by the state they wish to leave, is resorting to violence in pursuit of independence legitimate?

The Scottish issue — the claim that the Scots are a separate nation and that all nations have a right to self-determination — simply cannot be asterisked. Having this happen in the heart of Western Europe would set a clear precedent that would expand geographically and conceptually. It would legitimise similar movements globally and force a reconsideration of what a nation is. Ultimately, a nation would be whatever the majority says it is.

It is doubtful that the Scottish precedent could be contained in Europe. And it is hard to imagine how this precedent might not lead to conflict somewhere, not in the British Isles but somewhere where the existing state would be less inclined to grant the right of self-determination to a separatist movement.

Of course, the separatists in Scotland may well lose, sentiment might change in the post-election negotiations, and so on. But if England and Scotland divorce, the right to separate will become an integral part of international custom — and it will arouse other movements.
— George Friedman