A secessionist lust for power that tears lives asunder

Two prominent British politicians recently asked me for advice about how to stem the rising tide of independence in Scotland. The rough stuff – threatening to keep the Scots out of the pound or out of Europe – had failed. What, they wanted to know, had saved the cause of Canada during the Quebec referendum of 1995 when the secessionists came within a percentage point of victory.

In the Canadian case, I told them, heartfelt appeals to stay together were made. Thousands of anglophones from outside Quebec descended on Montreal in the week before the referendum to proclaim their love for the Québécois. But Canada survived, if by a razor-thin margin, not because mutual affection was rekindled but because a cooler consensus prevailed.

Both sides realised two nations could continue to coexist side by side in the same state. Loveless coexistence keeps us going to this day. Recent polling in Quebec indicates that, while 60 per cent of the younger generation reject separatism, only 30 per cent of them express any strong identification with Canada. Quebec is in effect master in its own house – it has “devo max”, as the Scots might say. This, together with a shared shudder at the thought of ever going through the ordeal of a referendum again, keeps Canada in one piece. Once was divisive enough.

This is what I told the British politicians but I felt I had sold my own convictions short. I am an English-speaking Canadian but my entire family – Russian exiles and the Canadians they married – is buried in Quebec, and if Quebec were to separate I would feel I had been cut in two. This is why my belief in multinational, multi-ethnic states, not just in Canada but also in Britain, Spain, the former Yugoslavia and now in Ukraine, has always been a matter of passion.

To me states such as these show that people who speak different languages, worship in different faiths and are heirs to painfully different histories can share institutions and defend democratic freedoms together. When I see Scots or Catalans thinking of breaking up a union, I feel what a poet called a “tidal heave in the chest”. I am invested emotionally in the survival of all multi-ethnic, multinational, multi-confessional experiments in democratic freedom.

It is not that I do not respect the visceral appeal of nationalist feeling: the desire to be master in your own house, to be at home among fellow countrymen who, as Isaiah Berlin said, understand not just what you say but also what you mean. Like Berlin, I have never thought that liberalism and national patriotism should be enemies or that the only good liberal is a cosmopolitan. Belief in liberal freedom and democracy is always belief in it in a particular place, in a national home with histories that only those who are born in a place or who adopt its citizenship can hope to understand.

No, my visceral opposition to Scottish, Catalan, Quebec and other projects of independence is not to nationalism, but to secession – to the breaking apart of political systems that, without violence, have enabled peoples to live together. For the breaking apart does not merely shatter a political union, it forces apart the shared identities that people like me carry in their souls.

Secessionists, whether in Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec or anywhere else, invariably assume that a person must either be Scottish or British, Catalan or Spanish, Québécois or Canadian. What about those who feel they are both? I know that I cannot share the same sense of being a minority my Québécois friends feel but I do know that Quebec’s soil, its language, its winter cold, its languid summers, are part of who I am.

I am not so exceptional. There are hundreds of thousands of Scots who acknowledge English, Irish or Welsh parts of their very being. Lives and destinies are similarly intertwined in Catalonia and Spain, in Ukraine and Russia. The same was true in the former Yugoslavia, where in the 1990s women with Croatian names and Serbian husbands used to ask me with tears in their eyes why the nationalists were forcing them to choose between parts of their being.

This is the moral sin of separatism. Separatist politicians, desiring to be presidents or prime ministers of little countries, force their fellow citizens to make choices that they should not have to make between identities that they have combined, each in their own unique way, and now watch being ripped apart – one portion of themselves flung on one side of a border, a damaged remnant on the other. If Scotland does secede, there will be many torn souls the day after.

I do not claim secession is never justified. When blood has been shed, people will fight to be free of an alien yoke. But where, as in the UK, Canada, Spain and Ukraine, peoples have lived side by side, perhaps not always in justice but usually in peace, secession is the worst sin in politics, a gratuitous infliction of political choice on peoples who do not want to be forced to choose.

Nor do I claim that the constitutional status quo in Spain, Canada and the UK cannot be improved upon. Further change may be necessary in each case. What I do believe is that these states work because they do not force free peoples to choose between identities. They allow them to be Scots or British, Canadian or Québécois, Spanish or Catalan, in whatever rank order a citizen chooses. This is the moral value that redeems multinational states, the freedom to belong, to order your ultimate loyalties as you think best.

If you destroy that freedom – and secession does destroy it – Scotland may be sovereign but its people will be the poorer for it. I hope believers in the union will start making this argument with the passion it deserves.

The writer, formerly a Canadian politician, teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School


Letter in response to this article:

London’s lust to retain power / From Mr Ian Smailes

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