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The disassembling of nation-states

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TORONTO — Canadians who’ve had a surfeit of the ongoing Quebec separatism saga can take some perverse comfort in the knowledge that it’s a theme that extends far beyond these shores. Scotland and Catalonia are prime examples.

The Scots even have a date for their referendum — the autumn of 2014 — cannily chosen to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the great military triumph over the English at Bannockburn. The idea is simple. Commemorative patriotic fervour will drive up the nationalist vote, thereby maximizing the prospect of a separatist victory. Call it the Scottish version of the PQ’s "winning conditions."

Mind you, consistent with the universal practice of appropriating past events to bolster current political narratives, there’s a bit of historical invention here. As the historian Hugh Kearney observes, Bannockburn wasn’t really a conflict between Scotland and England, but "rather a struggle for power within the Norman ascendancy." Robert the Bruce versus Edward Plantagenet was really Robert de Brus versus the great-great-grandson of Henri d’Anjou.

Unlike the Scots, Catalans don’t have a referendum date, or at least not one that the central government has agreed to. While Westminster has acceded to Scotland’s plebiscite, Madrid has vowed to block the Catalan vote.

For voters in the entity contemplating independence, these situations can be tricky. It’s a matter of balancing nationalist aspirations against concern for day-to-day practicalities, particularly those centred around economics. It’s about whether you’re really up to stepping into the unknown. It’s about whether the heart rules the head.

But perhaps the more interesting question is what do the citizens of the entity that might be seceded from think about it all? For instance, what does the rest of the United Kingdom think about Scottish yearnings for independence? If the nationalists lose the referendum but it’s abundantly clear that fear of the unknown is what’s driven the result, why would the rest of the United Kingdom still want them?

Think about it like a marriage. If one spouse indicated that the marriage was merely a matter of convenience, wouldn’t the mature response from the other spouse be to initiate a divorce? Yes, there’d first be an attempt to understand and assuage the discontent. But if that failed, what would be the point in preserving an unsatisfactory fiction?

Of course, in the real world of families, it’s generally not that cut and dried. There are practical considerations of children and finances, the fear of being alone, social status, pride, identity, and the tug of old ties. It’s the same with countries.

Just over 150 years ago, the majority of Americans decided that their union was indissoluble and fought an extraordinarily bloody civil war to preserve it. As recently as 1995, Canadians outside Quebec got caught up in an emotional wave aimed at trying to convince Quebecers to vote against separation.

Money can enter into it too. In relative terms, Catalonia is an affluent region of Spain. So, for purely material reasons, Spaniards may not be keen on the idea of it exiting.

But money clearly isn’t a universal determinant. After the transitional difficulties had been navigated, the rest of Canada would be better off financially without the need to make ongoing equalization payments to Quebec. And although the United Kingdom’s internal financial balances are the subject of some controversy, nobody would suggest that Scotland’s departure would have a significant negative impact on those left behind.

Neither is it always about political advantage. Absent Scotland, David Cameron’s Conservatives would have won a modest majority in the last British election instead of being forced into an uneasy coalition with the Liberal Democrats. And absent Quebec, Canada’s political history over the last 50 years would have been mainly Conservative. Yet Conservatives in both the United Kingdom and Canada are firmly opposed to separatism.

Still, one wonders if this will continue indefinitely. A few months ago, the historian Victor Davis Hanson noted that "No entity is ensured perpetual union." Just as modern nation-states were assembled, so too can they be disassembled.

The Velvet Divorce ended Czechoslovakia in 1993. Could it be a harbinger of things to come? After all, the Czechs and the Slovaks seem to be doing alright.


Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years.


—Troy Media

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