Beyond The Referendum

Unity Or Separation?

Saral Sarkar

In the three days between the 18th and the 21st September, the media reported on two major events that, taken together, ought to give rise to some new concerns about the state of the world.

On the 18th the Scots took a vote on the question whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom (UK) and become an independent state. The majority of the voters (55%) said no. The so-called unionists, the no-voters, of course initially rejoiced at the outcome of the referendum. Later, however, many of them expressed worry about it, because it was found that a very large minority, 45 percent of the voters, wanted Scotland to leave the Union. This is too high a percentage to return to business-as-usual.

Indeed, shortly before the referendum, after an opinion poll had predicted a majority for the yes-voters, the government in London and all the leaders of the three major parties had panicked. This was followed by big promises of reform and more autonomy for Scotland. For the English majority of the UK, and also the Scottish unionists, feared that exit of Scotland from the union would have unforeseeable negative economic and political consequences for all parts of the UK.

The yes-voters had no such fear. They were totally confident that an independent Scotland would not only be economically viable but also be a success story. When asked about this, they said an independent Scotland with its only 5.3 million inhabitants (in a total population of nearly 64 million) would be a rich country. The main reason for this confidence was the North Sea oil. For about 90 percent of the deposits belonging to the United Kingdom would, in the case of secession, belong to Scotland.

The other major event was a global day of action. On 21st September, in each of over 150 cities around the world thousands of people (in New York three hundred thousand) demonstrated in order to give voice to their demand that the presidents and prime ministers of the states of the world finally take concrete and effective measures for climate protection. Even UN Secretary General Banki Moon, who had invited the latter to New York for a consultation on climate change, marched with the demonstrators.

What was disconcerting in the independence movement of the Scots was their argumentation. They did not say that they were being oppressed or somehow disadvantaged by the English majority. The laws of the UK were equally valid for all its member peoples—the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish. The Scots even enjoy for now several years a certain degree of autonomy. They even have their own government. They of course say they are Scots, not Britons. But how strong and how widespread is this sense of identity? All Scots speak and write English as their main language, Scottish-Gaelic is spoken by only 1 percent. They are all white (except for immigrants from South Asia and Africa), and they are all Christians. A person has after all, usually, several identities!

One can of course say, to want to be independent is very human, both for individuals and for a people. A disappointed yes-voter said after the referendum, he could not understand that a people does not want its independence. But, in the real world, neither individuals nor a people can follow only their feelings. All must also weigh advantages against disadvantages of possible decisions. The majority of Scots, on both sides, have done that. During their campaign, the independence advocates repeatedly emphasized that secession from the United Kingdom would bring no economic disadvantages for the Scots. When the no-voters argued that the oil wealth would not last long, the yes-voters simply asserted that there is still a lot of oil under the seabed. They also wanted, for practical reasons, to both continue after independence to use the pound sterling as their currency and let the British Monarch function as their Head of state.

There can be several motives for an action. Just wanting to be independent has certainly been a strong motive for the Scots. Anyhow, among them, there was a lot of antipathy toward the central government dominated by English Tories and their policies, especially toward their economic policies favorable to the rich and hostile to the poor. And the Labor Party has also been quite strong there. So, many Scots thought they could pursue a better policy for themselves if Scotland could secede from the United Kingdom. Moreover, a people cannot forget its history totally. Scotland's union with England 307 years ago was not really a voluntary one. The Scots remember they were compelled to accept it because of an economic crisis and military superiority of the English kingdom that was threatening to invade their country. However, in the present independence movement a different motive played the main role. As mentioned above, independence advocates think there still is a lot of oil in the oil fields in their part of the North Sea. This oil wealth, the income from it, they do not want to share any longer with the other British peoples.

Not being any longer prepared to share "their" wealth with the poorer peoples in the same state is a motive that plays the main role in other (though not all) separatist movements too. This also works in states in which large deposits of valuable minerals do not play any role. Thus Catalonia is, even without oil and other such valuable natural resources, the economically strongest province of Spain. Although it is true that Catalans have a developed language of their own, which they also use for all purposes, and although it is true that they, therefore, strongly feel a Catalan identity, it may be that not wanting any more to share the wealth produced in their province may be the unspoken main motive for their current independence movement. This can also be said about the separatism of the Flemish people (in northern Belgium) and that of the northern Italians. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the rich provinces—Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg, and Hessen—are of course not trying to secede, but since about ten years ago they are unwilling to pay large sums of money to the poorer provinces, which they are obliged to do according to the present constitution.

A convincing example of how far this kind of separatism can go is the tragic break up of the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia. It was accomplished through a brutal civil war resulting from the selfish separatism of the Slovenes and Croats. Misha Glenny, British journalist and expert on the Balkans, summarized in 1992 a conversation on this topic that he had with Mate Babic, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Croatian government, as follows:

"[T] he imbalance between Slovene sophistication and the developing-world conditions prevailing in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Macedonia could only be rectified by massive state control of the economy. This created resentment in the prosperous north, the fruits of whose productivity were transferred to the dusty climates of the south where they rotted in the sun. Above all, a taut mistrust grew up between Slovenia and Croatia [on the one side], where a more industrious work ethic was the tradition, and Serbia [on the other], the borderland of the Ottoman empire's corrupt economic values. Being inextricably involved with the Serbian economy, which appears to be fuelled by lotus leaves, had a damaging long-term effect on the Croat and Slovene economies. When the political decay in Yugoslavia accelerated, following the multi-party elections in the republics, the economic tensions ensured that this mistrust would deepen.'' (Glenny 1996: 63f.)

But this is a very short-sighted policy. The oil age is gradually but surely nearing its end. The old oil fields and deposits of other important raw materials are rapidly getting exhausted. Who has not heard of peak oil, peak everything? With the progressive rise in the price of crude oil—this main lubricant of the world economy—the industrial countries that are still rich but are not themselves oil producers, are losing the foundation of their prosperity. That also is the main reason for the crisis (and/or stagnation) that is plaguing the world economy for the last 6 years. And even if the oil age is not going to come to an end soon, global consumption of fossil fuels must be reduced rapidly in order to protect humanity from increasingly adverse climatic disasters. Humanity is in a pincer-grip crisis.

A solution to this crisis is not in sight. One international climate summit is failing after the other. And it is totally uncertain whether at all and, if yes, to what extent, the so-called renewable energy sources can one day replace the non-renewable fossil and nuclear energy sources.

Actually, in such a situation, the peoples of the world should rather pull together. They should cooperate and jointly seek solutions to the great problems humanity is facing today. The movements for splitting up existing states are therefore a very deplorable and reprehensible development, especially since they involve the risk of violent conflict, even civil war. All peoples including minorities that live in multiracial (multiethnic), multi-religious or multilingual countries should rather fight for human rights, minority rights, and the right to equal treatment, within the existing state. Only when these rights have no chance of being accepted by the powers that be, can, in this writers’ view a separatist movement be justified. And a violent separatist movement can only be justified, if the dominant people or the majority exercises a ruthless or brutal rule over the others. In the world today, in most countries, even small cities and towns are populated by different racial, ethnic, religious and language groups. In India, even after the country was divided up in 1947 on the basis of religion, villages have Muslim areas and Hindu areas. Should also such villages be split up?

It has also to be considered that in today's globalized neoliberal capitalism, it is the large transnational corporations with their global alliances that are the most powerful rulers of the world. It is a truism that today's states have lost much of their former power. They are actually no longer fully sovereign. Today, in the ultimate analysis, the main opponent of all political activists, no matter what their great cause is, are these transnational corporations and their alliances. In this situation, one can say: the smaller a country is, the more powerless it is, the more it is at the mercy of large corporations, the less sovereign it is, and the more it is reduced to a stooge of the corporations.

Eco-socialists and like-minded people know that for various reasons, in the long-term, political and economic affairs of societies must be managed in small, largely self-sufficient and largely autonomous units. But that situation is still far away. In the period of transition to the goal, one must follow the motto "unity is strength". It is by now abundantly clear that only strong states and political unions like the USA and the EU can to some extent control large corporations like Google, Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, UBS etc. Today, separatist movements are extremely counterproductive.

Glenny, Misha (1996) The Fall of Yugoslavia. London : Penguin.
Sarkar, Saral (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A Critical Analysis of Humanity's Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books.
Sarkar, Saral & Bruno Kern (2008) Eco-Socialism or Barbarism–An Up-to-date Critique of Capitalism. Mainz, Cologne: Initiative Eco-Socialism.
http://www.oekosozialismus. net7en_oekosoz_en_rz.pdf
Sarkar, Saral (2011) Understanding the Present-day World Economic Crisis—An Eco-Socialist Approach.
Sarkar, Saral (2012) The Crises of Capitalism—A Different Study of Political Economy. Berkeley (USA): Counterpoint.

Vol. 47, No. 24, Dec 21 - 27, 2014