Campaigns for Independence
During the build-up to Scotland’s independence referendum of September 2014 we learned a lot about campaigns for independence. The topics debated included democracy, the economy, international relations, defence, immigration and border controls, citizenship, agriculture, energy provision, taxation, welfare, childcare, health care and pensions, education including universities, and sport. These points of contention seem to be common among independence campaigns throughout the world. (There were also specifically Scottish considerations such as recognition of the British monarchy and the status of the Northern and Western Isles.) But these issues are cerebral, and much of the campaigning came from the heart not the head: on the one hand, references to distinctive history and culture, complaints among Scots about being treated as second-class citizens; on the other, the great success of the U.K. since the Union of Parliaments in 1707 and the vital contribution of Scotland to this success, which the ‘No’ campaigners wanted to continue. Opinions both for and against independence were held strongly and debated fiercely, and the large majority of the population was engaged in those debates. As a result, some 85% of those who were eligible voted in the referendum. The result was the Scotland agreed by a fairly narrow majority (circa 55-45%) to remain part of the U.K.
The arguments pro and contra independence, from both head and heart, were strikingly similar during the U.K. referendum about membership of the European Union (EU) in June 2016. On this occasion, there was a narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU. Increasing numbers of British voters now seem to be regretting this decision, not least because the ensuing negotiations between London and Brussels have, in the words of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, become ‘deadlocked’.
We saw similar topics of debate, similar strength of feeling both pro and contra independence, similar engagement of the population, during the breakup of the USSR and of the former Yugoslavia. In the latter case the old conflicts among the constituent nations of Yugoslavia re-emerged and brutal wars resulted. Since most of these now-independent Balkan nations became part of the EU, the conflicts have subsided; much to the EU’s credit. Comparable arguments, but with much less outright hostility, were exchanged when Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech Republic and an independent Slovakia. There, as in the Scottish case, the relevant national and regional governments had agreed in advance to respect majority opinion, so although feelings ran high there was little violence.
During the past few weeks we have seen another independence campaign in Europe: Catalonia’s bid to separate politically from Spain. Once again the issues were familiar, opinions pro and contra independence were strongly held by both sides, and the large majority of the population was engaged. However, in contrast to the Scottish referendum, there was no agreement between the national government in Madrid and the regional administration in Barcelona. Instead, the Spanish government declared the Catalonian independence referendum illegal, serious police brutality was involved in attempts to prevent voting, and leading independence campaigners have now been imprisoned. So far (and let us pray this continues) there has been no conflict on anything like the scale of the Balkan wars, but this time the EU has proved inept: it has backed the Madrid government’s anti-independence stance in principle, because no one in Brussels wants to see a member state fragmented, but it has failed to condemn the repression of the pro-independence campaigners or the brutality involved in this repression.
We can gain further insight into the politics and psychology of independence campaigns by studying smaller-scale and (dare I say?) less serious examples. In the Thames estuary is a small piece of reclaimed land called Canvey Island, home to some 40,000 residences. Administratively, Canvey Island comes under Essex County Council and Castle Point Borough Council, and there is a campaign for independence. Those who seek Scottish or Catalonian independence (or Brexit) might wish to examine the Canvey Island arguments and see what lessons can be learned from them.
Among Canvey Island’s seventeen councillors, four are now members of the Canvey Island Independence Party (CIIP). The CIIP’s founder, David Blackwell, says that if petitions to the Local Government Association fail to have the desired effect, he plans an unofficial independence referendum to put pressure on central government. He believes such a referendum would show a 98% majority in favour of independence. One source I read quoted Mr Blackwell as stating: “We have taken inspiration from Catalonia, but we’ve been fighting this battle since the 1970s when they lumped us together with the mainland in a completely artificial borough council. They always look after themselves first when it comes to spending decisions and we’re fed up with it. It’s time for change.”
Canvey Islanders raise much the same concerns about sovereignty, pressure on housing, immigration, the National Health Service, and so on that we heard ad nauseam during the EU Referendum of 2016. Some residents are explicit about the comparison: “We’re independently minded on the island. We voted for Brexit because people got fed-up with the EU telling us what to do and I reckon we’d do the same with the borough council.” One resident is quoted as saying: “People here are different from the mainland. They look down on us, but we’re close-knit and look out for each other. If we had our own council we could spend more money on the things we need as I feel we come second at the moment.”
On the other hand, a sixty-one-year-old resident is quoted as saying: “I was brought up on Canvey, but I live in Benfleet now and I can see it from both sides. Independence sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure we’d be able to cope on our own.”
It all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Canvey Island case is a microcosm of independence campaigns everywhere. It’s a PhD thesis in waiting for a politics graduate.