The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Independence Movements

On Thursday, September 18th, Scotland voted in a historical referendum on the question of whether or not they wanted independence from the United Kingdom. The devolution of power to the Scottish assembly under Labour governments in the last four decades and the growth of the Scottish independence movement under the leadership of a small but organized group of zealots had made the referendum inevitable. The referendum had a very high voter turnout – 84.59% and in the end the no side won with 55.3% of the votes.

This outcome is pleasing to those, such as myself, who did not wish to see the United Kingdom break up. It was also not particularly surprising. Here in Canada, the Quebec separatist movement failed twice to win their independence in referendums. Quebec is far more culturally distinct from English Canada than Scotland is from the rest of the United Kingdom. Quebec is a French speaking province – the rest of the country speaks English, Quebec is traditionally Roman Catholic, English Canada is traditionally Protestant, and so on. Yet despite this, the secession movement lost twice, albeit by a much narrower margin the second time around than the Scottish independence movement, and is now basically dead. When the Parti Quebecois made it an issue in the last provincial election earlier this year their overwhelming defeat by the Liberals sent the message loud and clear that no further such referendums were welcome.

The unity of England and Scotland goes back much further than that of English and French Canada. The English and the Scots have had the same sovereign since 1603, the year that the King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne from the last English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, becoming King James I of England. Note that the Scottish king inherited the English throne. This can by no means be construed as England conquering Scotland. In 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, the parliaments of the two kingdoms that had shared a monarch for a century voted to unite and form a single country. England and Scotland were both better off for it and the union thus formed proved greater than the sum of its parts. The idea that after three centuries as a united whole one part of this whole should be able to unilaterally vote on whether to break or maintain the union is perverse.

There are some who might charge me with holding to double standard on the matter of secession. When the subject of the war the American states fought between themselves from 1861 to 1865 comes up I ordinarily put forward as my opinion that the South was in the right. In that conflict it was the Southern states that had seceded from the American union to form the Confederate States of America. Recently, when the anti-European Union nationalist parties scored major gains all across Europe in the European Parliamentary election, while progressives were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth in frustration I was rejoicing.

My answer to the charge would be to say that it is unreasonable to insist that if someone supports one independence movement he must therefore support all independence movements or that if he opposes one he must therefore oppose all. “A foolish consistency”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” To insist that secession must be either supported or opposed across the board is surely to insist upon a foolish consistency.

If independence movements arise in different countries their reasons for wanting to secede are unlikely to be identical and even less likely to be equally valid. Surely the question of whether we favour or oppose these movements should be more influenced by our evaluation of the reasoning behind these movements than some abstract ideal that supposedly settles the question of independence at a general level.

The leaders of the independence movement among the American colonies in the eighteenth century expressed their intention of seceding from the British Crown in terms of accusations of tyranny and oppression levelled against King George III and lofty sounding ideals about natural rights and democracy drawn from liberal philosophy. The accusations of tyranny were completely bogus and would have been so even if they had been levelled against the elected Parliament that had deliberated and decided upon all the acts to which the American colonists objected. The liberal philosophy behind the lofty ideals was unsound. At any rate, the accusations and ideals both concealed the real reasons for the drive for American independence, not least among which was the fact that the King’s guarantee of the French language and Roman Catholic religion in Canada interfered with their goal of creating a united, English speaking, Protestant, North America. My opinion, of the American independence movement of three centuries ago, is therefore rather low.

When the leaders of the Southern states declared their secession from the American republic a little less than a century later they justified their decision on the grounds of “states’ rights” a phrase which expressed both their objection to federal interference in what they regarded as the domestic affairs of the states and their theory of the American constitution, i.e., that it was a federal union of sovereign states which retained the right to secede at any time. This was one of two constitutional theories that had been competing with each other since the founding of the American republic. Ultimately, the argument was settled in favour of the other side by a bloody internecine war but a strong case can be made that by the terms of the American charter, the South was in fact in the right and that constitutionally, the members states of the federal republic of the United States had the right to secede. (1)

Of course, although the matter was decided by the war, at least from a historical perspective, the states did not divide and fight each other over a disagreement in constitutional theory. Nor did they divide and fight each other over slavery, despite what the politically approved history of the day will tell you, or over tariffs as pro-Confederate libertarians will tell you. Slavery and tariffs were both peripheral issues.

The antebellum Southern states comprised a society with an agrarian economy and an Old World culture with traditional codes of honour and chivalry, presided over by a landed patrician class. By contrast, the society of the north-eastern states was a dynamic society, with an economy that was rapidly being modernized and industrialized, a culture shaped by Puritanism, presided over by a class of wealthy merchants and factory owners. When the latter society succeeded in unilaterally electing a Republican president the leaders of the former society could see the handwriting on the wall – the forces of innovation, modernization, and industrializing now had complete control of the United States and their older style, more rooted, traditional society would be swept away. Secession was a last ditch effort to prevent this, albeit one that ultimately failed and resulted in their society being ravaged by the merciless war machine of the North.

The South, therefore, politically correct propaganda about race and slavery be damned, fought for their independence over what I would regard as a worthy cause – the preservation of a traditional, honourable, chivalrous, rural, society against “the Modern Age at arms” to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh. By contrast, the separatist movement in Quebec arose precisely at the time when that province had thrown off most of its traditional elements and embraced modernity.

As for the Scottish independence movement, it sought to break up a kingdom that has been united for centuries, that was united peacefully by mutual acts of the English and Scottish parliaments a century after the Scottish king inherited the English throne, the union of which has stood the test of time. Let us hope that after this defeat at the polls it will soon be as dead as Quebec separatism.

(1) The case is based upon the ninth and especially the tenth amendment to the US Constitution.


  1. It does make little sense to say to support one independence movement, one must support (or, at least, not oppose) all. Part of that depends on the rationale for supporting it though. Most of the time one hears an argument for separatism these days, it is usually on the grounds of "democratic self-determination" or some other such liberal idea. If one adopts that approach, then it is hard to vigorously oppose separatism. It would make it especially hard to consider it tantamount to treason, as a hardline conservative might think of it under many circumstances. Such reasoning in support of separatism ultimately boils down to anarchism, as any subset can democratically choose to leave the state, down to the individual theoretically.

    Of course, conservative traditionalists often support separatist movements when they are intended on restoring or preserving an old order, such as separatism from the EUSSR. In this case, the conservative usually denies the legitimacy of the state/institution to be separated from, at some level at least. Denying institutional legitimacy in the first place is entirely different than arguing that any group of people can vote with a 50%+1 margin to separate from legitimate governments.