Everyone has dreams. In some cases, our hearts’ desires are simple—a career, love, an iPhone. But in other cases, we yearn for things that are so impossible, so ridiculous, so self-defeating and yet so alluring that we can’t help but be drawn to their siren song. People aren’t the only ones susceptible to this kind of strong want; entire nations, in fact, also find themselves in the compromising position of wanting something that, while tempting, will ultimately be their ruin. An example of this is separatist movements.
Separatist movements pop up around the world, often in places where there is an entrenched sense of identity independent from the larger country within which the specific region rests. Scotland and Catalonia, where referendums on independence will be taking place in coming weeks, are perfect examples. Both were conquered centuries ago by England and Spain respectively, but maintained their strong sense of cultural autonomy. In Eastern Ukraine, where separatist rebels have been fighting the Kiev-based central government for months, many feel an ethnic connection to Russia. For Kurds, long-suffered persecution and “outsider status” in the countries in which they live has been fuel on the separatist fire. In the case of South Sudan, a long and hard-fought battle for independence resulted in a sovereign state mired in lingering issues and conflict.
The thing about separatist movements is that they sound really great. Who wouldn’t love to be autonomous, free to make their own policy decisions without some other, often times larger government mucking it all up? But like all things that sound too good to be true, the devil is in the details. While it’s easy to sell sovereignty, it’s harder to make it work.
We all love dissing on our governments for not getting anything done. Politicians are self-serving and institutions are mired in bureaucratic quagmires that render actual progress nearly impossible. And we, the humble and unfortunate masses, must while away our days hoping they get their shit together. But this all-too-common fist shaking at the government obscures just how much goes into actually having a government, and by extension being a sovereign nation. The very necessary but far from simple elements that make up an actual, functioning country are what gets left out of the arguments in favor of independence.
There is a lot people take for granted when it comes to their government. Some things are logistical—infrastructure and accessible energy, for example. Other times, it’s things like taxes. How do you effectively tax a population in a way that makes ends meet, but doesn’t leave the people strapped for cash? This question becomes a larger issue when the population is smaller, which would be the case in break-away Catalonia or Scotland. What about the military? Or currency? Will Catalonia and Scotland be part of the European Union, and if they do so wish, could they get around the powerful member states from which they seceded? What about the United Nations, which votes to recognize states as members? Will these new states be strong enough to stand on their own, or could they fall under the influence of meddling countries looking to exploit resources?
Let’s take a look at Scotland, where a referendum will be held on the 18th. Scotland has long struggled with how to balance national identity with political and economic links to England. In 1999 Scotland was granted limited rights and established a parliament, but that’s not enough for leaders like Alex Salmond, who is heading the latest campaign for independence. The impetus behind the vote is concern over Westminster cutting funds to the NHS, Scotland housing the UK nuclear Trident submarines, and increasing disagreement of Conservative leadership in Westminster—in short, Scotland is tired of being tied to politics it disagrees with.
Unfortunately, breaking up the United Kingdom has potentially very big consequences, both for Scotland and England. Domestically for Scotland, it raises a great many questions that they don’t have answers to. Can Scotland keep the Pound Sterling? If not, will a new currency they create have any worth? If they do keep it, how much independence will they really have if they must rely on the Bank of England? Will they lose valuable revenue and business without a tie to London? Many major businesses and banks have already said that if the Scots vote “Yes” for independence, they will be moving south and taking their business with them which could cripple Scotland financially. Another critical question is whether the North Sea Oil that is so critical to financial success, actually yields the amount of oil they’re projecting and would Scotland get to keep it if the UK owns its infrastructure?
There have been quite a number of alternating opinions on that feasibility as well as on how much of the UK’s national debt Scotland would inherit by leaving. Salmond argues that Scotland would join the European Union, but membership is a long and arduous process that would beget more questions, and potentially eliminate open borders between England and Scotland due to the EU’s open immigration laws. Citizens are also deeply concerned as to whether they would lose their access to the NHS and what would come of their current health care. The countries are so closely tied together in their infrastructure, that it’s even questionable whether Scotland could keep the BBC or if they would have to buy individual show rights like other countries. If the Scots had to lose “Doctor Who,” is that really worth voting yes?
Scotland heads to the polls on Thursday, with Catalonia following suit soon. Meanwhile, clashes between rebels and the Ukrainian government rage, drawing in Russia and the United States. Although nationalist sentiment can be benign, when it turns to separatism to appeal to the masses there can be very real consequences. It’s important to remember that the struggle doesn’t end when the final vote is counted; the work of building a viable, strong country comes later and getting it right is critical. Being realistic rather than emotional can be hard when cultural identity is on the table, but when the less romantic debates about governmental logistics are pushed to the back burner, the likelihood of suffering only increases. Although the elites are often the ones pushing for sovereignty, it’s the masses who stand to be hurt if the big picture doesn’t come together.
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