Is secession a recipe for disaster? There seems to be an emerging consensus on the point, at least in the case of Scotland. I shall confess I am biased in the opposite direction. I read this piece by Murray Rothbard ages ago, and that convinced me that "every group, every nationality, should be allowed to secede from any nation-state and to join any other nation-state that agrees to have it," or form its own. It doesn't take an anarchist to favour secession over maintenance of the government boundaries as they exist. The Ludwig von Mises Institute has conveniently assembled here a few quotes by Ludwig von Mises on secession, that exemplify rather clearly the classical liberal rationale for secession. It is an argument based on self-determination, on the fact we should be free "to stay with whom we like and who like us," as Italian political scientist Gianfranco Miglio put it.
As always, the real world is different. We know that secession may go together with the creation of almost toxically homogeneous communities, that make life difficult, almost impossible, for anyone with a different background. We know that some secessionist groups may actually be practicing an exercise in nostalgia: nostalgia for smaller, simpler, less open and less tolerant face-to-face societies. We know that sometimes, in the great theatre of politics, secessionist groups may be puppets in the hands of foreign powers, more interested in bringing confusion to the enemy than to aid the cause of long suffocated nationalities.
Not all secessions are alike, and yet I would maintain that, in the broader context of our relatively open societies, there are good reasons secession should be allowed. A very simple example: it was for the sake of the values of our open society, that we thought Kosovo was to be granted the right to secede from Serbia. Not being forced to share a meal with somebody you despise: isn't this, simply, freedom?
I find it difficult to assume that the above mentioned concerns apply to Scotland, or Catalonia. Do we really think that Scots and Catalonians want to secede to close down borders and persecute dissent? For one thing, they have repeatedly pledged they want to stay within the EU, a goal that doesn't seem compatible with claustrophobic localism.
And yet opinion leaders in the Anglo-Saxon world are getting increasingly vocal about Scottish secession. The arguments seem to be of two kinds. One are the bluntly "nationalistic" ones. There is not much reasoning in that. A good example was provided by George Robertson, former chairman of the Labour party in Scotland, in the FT. Before forecasting financial Armageddon, the death of the welfare state, Nato and the EU closing their doors to the Scots, Robertson tells this story:
My taxi driver in Glasgow last week told me the had switched from No to Yes. I asked why. He listed the reasons and I countered, to little avail. Then he delivered the killer blow. Of course there would be difficult negotiations after a Yes vote. Of course there were a lot of risks. "But," he added, "the negotiations will be done by the likes of you and Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. You guys will sort it out."
I was stunned. He was prepared to break up my country; unpick three centuries of integration; face unquantified risks and the costs of setting up a state - yet he wanted defenders of the union to save him.
Note, for one, that the "reasons" the poor man gave for secession are not even listed by Mr Robertson. He wants to ridicule his taxi driver, who had nonetheless understood that the Scottish referendum is not the movie Braveheart: indeed, there will be long negotiations, and compromises to reach. The taxi driver was perhaps naively assuming that politicians could be trusted in acting for the common good, even if they lose at the ballot box. Mr Robertson's article is no good publicity for his like.
Robertson's reaction is rooted in an understandable longing for stability and keeping the status quo, no matter what, and perhaps in affection for the Union Jack. These are not despicable sentiments, per se: but they are sentiments indeed. One may long for one flag or another. Can we objectively state that for Mark it is better to love Pamela than to love Christine? Are our opinions on that matter enough to prevent him from divorcing one to marry the other?
The other kind of arguments against the Scottish secession is the one economists are making. For them, a currency union "à la euro" with London would be very bad for the Scots, that should thus vote "no." Paul Krugman expressed this argument with great clarity:
Could Scotland have its own currency? Maybe, although Scotland's economy is even more tightly integrated with that of the rest of Britain than Canada's is with the United States, so that trying to maintain a separate currency would be hard. It's a moot point, however: The Scottish independence movement has been very clear that it intends to keep the pound as the national currency. And the combination of political independence with a shared currency is a recipe for disaster.
You may agree or disagree with this statement, depending on your understanding of the euro crisis. However, is it really a good argument against secession? It looks to me at best an argument against currency unions, based upon a certain understanding of what a currency should be used for (on the opposite side, Harold James suggested the Scots should join the euro).
In a paper by Alberto Alesina, you may find a very different view. Alesina begins with a rather obvious, and yet underrated, point. Borders are man-made. Governments' dimensions should be also part of a learning process, unless we pretend to know already what the "optimal dimensions" should be.
True, it was pre-euro-crisis, but Alesina quotes an article from the Financial Times arguing that
(...) the existence of the European Union lowers the cost of independence for small countries by providing them with a free trade area (...) and by creating a common currency which will relieve the Scots of the need to create one for themselves
By the way, note that the article says that the existence of the EU should "lower", not eliminate, the costs of secession. On the costs of Scottish secession, I recommend this remarkable post by Jason Sorens.
More generally, Alesina argues, "ethnic and cultural minorities feel that they are economically "viable" in the context of a truly European common market, thus they can "safely" separate from the home country." Therefore, going back to the fear of secession leading to homogeneity, intolerance, and isolation, it is precisely the fact that these secessions may happen in a more economically integrated world, that vaccinates us against such risk. Put in other terms, now you can have the pride of waving your own national flag, the opportunity to experiment with your vision of what services government should supply, and yet still reap the benefits of economic integration.
I'd like to add two further considerations.
First, I think it has been extremely civilised of the British government to allow the Scots to have this referendum. Whatever the results may be, it is a great testimony of respect for people's right of self determination, and a great act of faith in democracy, which is considered apt to sort out questions such as this.
Second, it is not perhaps by chance that the strongest opponents of Scottish independence appear to belong to the Labour Party, or to sympathise with it. It has been argued that "The results are so strongly one-sided in Scotland, in fact, that there is a significant electoral advantage to be had for the Conservatives in letting Scotland go - although few will admit it". It would appear that parochial self-interest is not a monopoly of the advocates of secession.