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.


  • In reading history, I’ve realized how odd it is that a sense of “nationalism” can run so deep when, in the grand scheme of things, nations themselves are rather fleeting. It would be nice if people could just be human beings first and citizens/subjects of a country somewhere down the list — but methinks (like political parties) differences of opinion and belief will ever divide us into categories… The Catalonia deal makes me think of advice so often given to the lovelorn: If you love them, let them go. Does that work with countries? It probably would. “Hey, we don’t really see things eye to eye here, so why don’t we go our separate ways — but remain friends.” But in a society shaped by ego and greed, such, mesupposes, proves difficult…
    A lovely, thought-inspiring blog, Mark!

    • The “nation state” concept evolved in mediaeval Europe and was subsequently imposed on much of the rest of the world during the era of colonialism. It didn’t fit in Africa or the Middle East, and we see the consequences now. And not all of Europe has been comfortable with it, either – hence the background to these independence movements. But I like the point you make about the potential analogy between countries and lovers… Yes, indeed, let them go if you love them, and be willing to remain friends.

      On the other hand, I don’t like Brexit!

  • I am not much of a deep thinker, especially when it comes to politics, but this is an interesting write you have posted. If I gather correctly, we seem to have, once again, history on the repeat. Desire for independence cornered by ability to sustain emancipation. It is a struggle that goes to the bone of every man woman and child on earth to varying degrees. Liberty. In our fight for our rights sometimes we find that we have uncovered our right to remain hungry. Being from a country that was once the rebellious child, I may lean toward the cheering on of the underdog via emotion. But then, I was not there in the beginning, watching the struggle. I ride the coat tails of the courageous who are responsible for this 241 year old child.

    Nice piece, as usual. Very thought provoking. Thank you for posting it.


    • Thank you, Shai. I think we’re all emotionally inclined to side with rebels (provided they don’t commit outright atrocities), and in respect of events on your side of the Atlantic during the 1770s, I believe the “rebels” held the moral high ground. It should never have happened: one of the best and most underestimated of our prime ministers, the elder William Pitt, had a vision of empire during the mid-18th century that gave every colony semi-autonomy; the British Empire was to be a coalition of equals under the guidance of one crown as figurehead. Within a generation, Pitt’s vision was lost, replaced by economic exploitation, and Britain justifiably lost the American War of Independence.

      I don’t know enough about Spain and Catalonia to have a fully informed opinion, but once again my heart is with Catalonia, wherever my head might be!

  • Hi Mark,
    As you know, I share your views on the folly of Brexit and found your summary of the independence campaigns fascinating. My instincts pull me towards greater unity, rather than today’s tendency to constant fragmentation. Staying united however brings its own responsibilities and the newsreel scenes from Spain of the police’s treatment of some of their fellow Spaniards from Catalonia were truly shocking.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Phil. What particularly upset me was that the rest of Europe (including the UK) stood aside and said little or nothing about the draconian behaviour of the Spanish authorities. Of course, all member states – Scotland aside! – had their reasons for disapproving of Catalonia’s unilateral action, but surely the most basic tenet of moral philosophy is that you can approve the ends without approving of the means!

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