Scotland made history last week. They held a referendum election to decide whether or not they should become an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom. The measure was narrowly defeated (45% for independence) although strong support among the younger generations ensures this question will resurface in the not too distant future.
However what is interesting about this event is not such much the result but rather that it took place at all. Historically the general trend has been toward greater consolidation of power under a central authority. It is a rare event to find wide popular support in the other direction. Why would this be? Fear and uncertainty. Humans, like sheep, follow a herding instinct. Biologically this makes sense; there is safety in numbers. But there is a point of diminishing returns when group size changes from hundreds to thousands to millions. When the numbers scale into the millions, our hunter-gatherer mathematically challenged brains cannot make sense of such enormous numbers; we fail to realize the gains relative to the tradeoffs are negligible and so we are easily fooled by anyone promoting confederation. We are easily herded by our so-called leaders who capitalize on our fears. But confederations only last if all parties are treated fairly. Democracy itself is inimical to fair outcomes as democracy inherently marginalizes the desires of (political) minorities. Democratic countries are born in the heat and fire of common cause. But, like glass, these democracies will suffer fractures under the pressure from the repeated blows of each election cycle. As disagreements fester, the structure weakens, until eventually the confederation will shatter like so many pieces of battered glass.
What is the take home message of any secession movement? That perhaps we might all live more peacefully if we are allowed to go our separate ways rather than be forced into unions based solely on the opinions of those living nearby. If the Methodist is not required to be a citizen of the Baptist State, even when that Methodist is a minority amongst his Baptist neighbors, then why should anyone be compelled to be part of a group they have no desire to be a part of? Why are religious convictions the only thoughts worthy of such respect?
Another interesting aspect surrounding this attempted secession is that it was done so non-violently. Historically, secession attempts often trigger an overwhelmingly violent response from the “parent” who refuses to let the “child” go its own way. Americans have long lost the ability to rationally discuss the concept of secession given the Pavlovian association it has in this country with slavery. But perhaps Scotland can finally get Americans to view secession in a new light. It is possible for secession to be about something other than racism.
Secession is a fundamental right, namely the right of association, which conversely implies the right to not associate. Secession is the only tool that minority groups have in a political union insofar as the very threat of it may be sufficient to alter the behavior of the majority. For example, Scotland achieved many concessions from the UK. Sadly most of those concession had to do with granting Scotland greater power to tax its citizens, so Scotland is certainly no poster child for some sort of Randian free-market utopia.
In reality this whole process has been nothing more than political parties jockeying for power. Their goal is not a noble quest to unburden their citizens from the oppressive yoke of a foreign regime. No, their goal is to be the ones with their hands on the reins of that yoke. However Scotland is not unique in this respect. Every act of secession has been about shifting power from one group to another. The only benefit secession confers is that as power is divided, it becomes progressively weaker and hence less of a threat. One can only hope that such attrition of power will one day consume today’s “superpowers” leaving behind a collection of small, peaceful and prosperous communities that are too busy and too weak to provoke conflict in foreign lands.