Skip to main content
University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

That’s Not Really a Thing Anymore: Why Calls for Secession Come and Go

February 07, 2023
Kevin Gatter


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?

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.

Don’t have time to read the article? Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.