Scotland’s vote for independence fell well short of victory. But pro-independence Scots will surely try again, just like les Québecois. From a practical point of view, perhaps the Scots are better off staying in the United Kingdom; independence would have raised difficult challenges concerning foreign and defense affairs, oil, and the environment, among many others. Still, I found myself wondering what might be the implications beyond Scotland if it had gained independence. Would that have prompted a similar movement in Wales? Might Catholics in Northern Ireland have raised demands for union with Ireland? What about Catalonia? Kurdistan? Tibet? Chechnya?
Secessions of parts of a state to form a new one generally are not well received by other countries. An independent Scotland—not to mention an independent Quebec, Kurdistan, or Tibet—does not have support from the US or any other major country so far as I’m aware. Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway only has Russia’s support. Someday, backing another country’s breakup might come back to haunt us, is the usual thinking. Of course there are exceptions: the breakup of the USSR and the split of Sudan into north and south did not seem to arouse much disapproval. The international approach to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is more typical: for all the ethnic, religious, and political forces within those countries that are pulling them apart, and that might make the case for division into new countries, no one seems in favor.
Nevertheless, I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, the likes of which we haven’t seen since decolonization in Africa and Asia after World War II, in which attempts at breakaways will be more common, and perhaps more successful than Scotland. The reason is that popular dissatisfaction with government is rampant, regardless of political system. Demand (for services, satisfaction of grievances, regulations or deregulation) greatly exceeds what governments can supply. And the opportunities for people to display, communicate, and organize their dissatisfactions are also far greater than ever before. Governments will become increasingly unable to calm or quash widespread anger. Wisely or not, many groups will demand not just greater local autonomy but the right to fully govern themselves.
This possibility should not be surprising. I think we—Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Iraqis, you name it—are fast reaching the point where we see that our units of governing have become too large to accommodate the scope of the demands placed upon national leaders. It’s no longer just a matter of ethnic or religious differences. Climate change and other large-scale environmental problems, rapidly growing rich-poor divides, unemployment, cross-border immigration, migrant workers, tainted food and water deficits, unmanageable public health crises—all these are creating serious protests that challenge the managerial abilities of governments. Central governing units need to be smaller if they are to be responsive and accountable.
“We are living in an era of unprecedented level of crises,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as a new General Assembly session opens in New York. For how long can these crises be contained, or ignored? Can they be handled nonviolently? I’m happy to be old enough that I won’t be around when these questions are answered. When they are, I can only hope the Scottish option is accepted as a reasonable alternative to chaos and terrible destructiveness. My grandchildren may one day be living in a country called Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada), and that increasingly sounds like a good idea.