The Law of Lesser Crapping

Glen Newey

A striking current feature of the European political landscape is its convergence and separatism. As the European Union expands, secessionism keeps pace. Scotland’s referendum is next September. Artur Mas steps up the pressure on the Spanish government to timetable a poll on Catalan independence. In Belgium, borborygmal noises from Flemish separatists are a ground bass over which national politics plays.

Anyone tempted by the thought that secession is always nice has to face the history of Texas. It was part of the Mexican republic when the latter proclaimed independence in 1821. Arriviste gringos who’d been encouraged to settle there to quell banditry duly turned poacher and seceded, partly in order to keep the institution of slavery and dodge property taxes. The Texan republic acceded to the United States in 1846, once the slave-owning articles of its constitution had been ratified by the US Congress. Sixteen years later, with similar thoughts uppermost, the state of Texas joined Jefferson Davis’s secessionist confederacy in the American civil war, known to francophones as ‘la guerre de sécession’.

Seceders often want to split in order to hang on to their loot, as in Katanga, Flanders and to some degree also in Catalonia and Scotland, not to mention Ukip. That these ideas are often delusional – and, in the case of Scotland, might well condemn the rest of the UK to near-permanent Tory rule – doesn’t much increase their political attractiveness. Nor does the fact that separatists often exemplify what might be called the law of lesser crapping, with which Scottish nationalists have rightly charged Ukip: breaking away from being crapped on from above (by the EU, the UK etc) leaves the newly independent entity free to crap at will on those below (south-east England on the rest of the UK, Edinburgh on Shetland etc).

This is not to say that Catalan or Scottish secession would not be nice, only that the mere fact of secession doesn’t make it so. What legitimates secession – the separation from a sovereign territory of one of its parts, to form a sovereign entity of its own – is a knotty question of theory. How can the demos decide the limits of the demos, when that very decision, short of a global plebiscite, must be made by a limited demos? On one view, when there is question over the sovereignty of territory Z, the question should be put to a vote of the people who live in Z, and only to them. But here principle gets foxed by history. The province of Northern Ireland was created as an entity with an inbuilt (now much diminished) protestant-unionist majority: does it matter that the six counties of the historical kingdom of Ulster owe their integrity to a 1920s gerrymander? Then there are questions about enfranchising resident aliens, who pay local taxes in Z, and expat Zians who don’t. And even in a world with a simple one-to-one correspondence between citizenship and domicile, the Anschluss question comes up: when may a state be absorbed by, or remain in, another?

On the one hand, it seems daft to suggest that a country like Scotland could simply be annexed by a majoritarian plebiscite in, say, Brazil, though no doubt that would improve its World Cup prospects. On the other hand, one group’s membership in a union is something in which all members have an interest. One answer to the Anschluss question is to frame terms not just for secession, but expulsion, and indeed a sizeable minority in England, according to the latest UK social attitudes survey, favours booting out the Scots. A majority of people in England think that the Scots are getting a fair or better-than-fair deal out of the union; conversely the SNP has long maintained that Scotland stands to benefit from separation. As Northern Ireland and Texas show, colonisation can be a successful strategy in state-formation, with previous dwellers like the Comanche and old-colonial Hispanics sidelined. Since the resident English-born will get a vote in next year’s referendum, the SNP could consider bussing in pro-independence Sassenachs.

I sometimes suggest to Belgian friends that English should be the country’s one official language, and indeed at soccer internationals bladdered Walloons and Flemish unite in chanting ‘Belgium!’ rather than ‘Belgique!’ or ‘België!’ At the conclusion of Belgium’s successful World Cup qualifying campaign last week, Belgian supporters held up banners addressed to ‘Bart’ (de Wever, the Flemish separatist leader): ‘Bart, tonight you are alone.’ The banners were in English.


  • 21 October 2013 at 9:33pm
    Jock says:
    While tempting to think that Brazilians, having been confused by a viral video of Archie Gemill scoring against Holland in 1978, might be keen to annex Scotland, think of the opportunities for mischief and delight if wee dreich nations could vote themselves a part of better-appointed (or located) polities. If national self-determination is to mean anything at all, Ardrossan should have the right to vote itself a suburb of Rio.

  • 21 October 2013 at 11:33pm
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    I am surprised at Glen Newey repeating the old misconception that Scottish secession "might well condemn the rest of the UK to near-permanent Tory rule". Scottish votes have only once prevented an outright Tory majority - in 2010 - and the UK ended up with a Tory government in any case (you can quibble about coalitions all you like, the effect is the same). Labour's last three majorities exceeded the total number of constituencies in Scotland. Labour doesn't need Scotland. The only thing that can save the rest of the UK from Tory rule is a Labour party worth voting for.

  • 22 October 2013 at 12:39pm
    AlexS says:
    Who are these gibbering fools who are "tempted by the thought that secession is always nice"?
    Egregious straw men do not advance the debate.
    Outright fallacies - of the kind highlighted by Amateur Emigrant above - are just outrageous.
    The idea that rest-UK would be left with permanent Tory majorities is not just wrong because Labour has won in England before, it's also wrong because it takes no cognizance of the fact that the political dynamics of the rUK might change quite substantially in unpredictable ways if Scotland became independent.
    The evidence suggests that an independent Scotland would be pretty likely to take a constructive approach to increased autonomy for Shetland and Orkney. A stance not well-described by metaphors of shitting on people.
    Maybe someone who cares about facts and accuracy could annex Mr Newey.

  • 22 October 2013 at 9:37pm
    Glen Newey says:
    As egregious straw men don't advance the debate, I hesitate to point out that I did not assert the 'outright fallacy' that with Scottish secession the rest of the UK would be left with permanent Tory majorities. What I said was that it might well be that the rest of the country was left with near-permanent Tory majorities. Those qualifications are there to do some work.

    Nor did I describe those who think that secession is nice as gibbering fools. In the blogpost I do question the notion that the expressed will of the electorate in a particular territory whose sovereignty is in dispute is sufficient to legitimate secession – a view held by not a few people, including those who think that a majority 'Yes' vote in next year's poll will justify Scottish secession from the UK and therewith the EU.

    On the substantive point, I'd respectfully take issue with Amateur Emigrant's view. On my reckoning, without Scotland's contribution the period 1950-97, for instance, would have seen a Labour majority at Westminster only during the period 1966-70. As AlexS perceptively remarks, the political fall-out from Scottish independence in the rest of the UK is imponderable, as the above qualifiers indicate; all the less reason, I'd have thought, for loose talk about 'outrageous fallacies'.

    • 5 November 2013 at 2:50pm
      RandyMcDonald says: @ Glen Newey
      In fairness, raising the example of a Texas that seceded to (among other things) protect its citizens' right to hold slaves in a discussion about a Scottish separatism that is not at all devoted to such crimes against humanity could itself be seen as an "egregious straw m[a]n".

      George Eaton's recent analysis in the _New Statesman_ suggesting that an independent Scotland would merely make a Labour majority more difficult ( is more convincing. Without Scottish MPs Labour would still have won in 1997 and 2005. Might I suggest that holding not Scottish separatists, but Labour itself, responsible for not being as electorally competitive in England as one might wish would be more productive?