Why Calls for Secession Come and Go
In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Kevin Gatter, an IGCC dissertation fellow from UC Los Angeles, analyzes why secession movements come and go.
On the night of October 30, 1995, Canadians held their collective breath as the votes in Quebec’s independence referendum were counted. In the end, the pro-independence camp lost the referendum by a figurative eyelash: 49.42 percent of voters supported independence, while 50.58 percent voted to remain part of Canada. Quebec’s political status continued to be a delicate issue in the years following the referendum.
In March 2022, I was in Quebec City, a hotbed of Québécois nationalism in the 1990s. But apart from the omnipresent blue-and-white Fleurdelisé (flag of Quebec), I saw little evidence that this had been the center of a passionate pro-independence movement just a few decades prior. On the train to Montreal, I asked my seatmate, a student in their 20s, about Quebec independence. The response was a confused “Quoi?” and then a timid, “Oh, that’s not really a thing anymore.”
The case of Quebec illustrates a challenge facing many secessionist movements, which seek to detach a region from a country and make a new country out of that region. These movements often ebb and flow: they go through periods where they are more active and others where they recede into the background. The secessionist movements in the headlines have varied quite a bit over the past few decades: it was the Basques in the 1980s, Quebec in the 1990s, and Scotland in the 2010s.
Some of these movements are currently on the downswing, like in Quebec. The Parti Québécois—the main party advocating independence—currently holds 3 out of 125 seats in Quebec’s National Assembly. In Catalonia, a region in eastern Spain, the independence movement has held massive rallies since 2010. But while the pro-independence Estelada flag is still a common sight on the balconies of Barcelona, opinion polls have shown a decline in support for independence since 2018.
In other regions, secessionist movements are gaining momentum. The pro-independence Scottish National Party has had the majority in Scotland’s parliament since 2011. Since 2014, when 45 percent of voters backed independence in a referendum, support for independence has climbed to 54 percent. And in nearby Wales, 10,000 people marched in Cardiff in support of independence in October 2022.
Why do these movements go through periods of higher and lower activity? There are a variety of reasons that can account for these swings. Sometimes a violent government response to calls for secession intimidates would-be supporters. In Catalonia, the Spanish government’s jailing of pro-independence leaders and violence against participants in the 2017 referendum created a sense of apprehension. Catalan nationalist organizations have since complained of government surveillance and harassment. In other cases, would-be supporters feel they have received satisfactory concessions. In Quebec, the younger generation has come of age in a time in which French speakers can manage companies, there are laws strengthening the public use of French, and immigrants are required to enroll their children in French-speaking schools. The French language in Quebec is in a more secure position than it was a few decades ago, alleviating a major concern of independence supporters.
But government actions can also fuel secessionism. The Brexit vote played a major role in strengthening the independence movement in Scotland and, to a lesser degree, in Wales. Many people in both regions believe that independence would allow them to rejoin the EU. For many people in Scotland in particular, the Brexit vote was taken as evidence of the difference in values between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Recently, the UK government has indicated that it will block Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, further contributing to the deadlock between Scotland and Westminster.
Even the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in secessionism. In Wales and Scotland, there is a sense that the governments of these regions handled the pandemic better than the UK government in London did. This has given people a sense of confidence in the ability of the Scottish and Welsh to manage their own affairs, leading to a reevaluation of these regions’ ability to govern themselves as independent nations.
It is hard to predict what the future will hold for secessionist movements. Movements that seem unstoppable at one point can suddenly go stagnant, as in Quebec. Independence might have the upper hand in Scotland, but the movement risks becoming divided over disagreements on how to react to the UK government’s refusal to sanction a second independence referendum. In Wales, traditionally anything but a hotbed of secessionist activity, support for independence is rapidly growing. As we continue to grapple with a pandemic, the war in Ukraine, challenges to democracy around the world, and the climate crisis, we will have to see how secessionist movements adapt to these new realities.
Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.