As is widely known, a referendum will be held in Scotland this fall to determine whether this ancient nation should separate from Britain and become again an independent nation-state.
Known also is that this process has been carried out with exceptional intelligence and politeness. In London, Prime Minister David Cameron readily agreed that a referendum should be held. A sensible and balanced question — “Should Scotland be an independent country?”— was quickly accepted.
Thus, the ruling Scottish National Party has published an explanatory booklet that addresses directly and honestly questions such as “What will happen to my pension?” and “Can Scotland afford to be independent?”
Less widely known, though, the residents of Scotland’s northern islands, the Shetlands and Orkneys, have just petitioned their parliament at Edinburgh asking to hold a referendum on Sept. 25, one week after the one due to be held throughout the country. So far, the only response is silence.
None of us any longer know who we are. At the very least, a great many of us are far less certain of this than was once the case.
The most obvious cause is globalization. It reduces the authority, and so the credibility, of all national governments. The same effect is caused by cross-border agreements, the European Union as the most extensive of its kind but Canada also constrained by NAFTA.
Immigration is changing the demography of many countries, Canada most particularly. Here, and in other countries, more and more people not only possess two passports, but possess two or more ethnic and cultural identities.
Once, it was easy. For centuries, the basic determinate of who was what was military might. It’s been estimated that throughout history, 80 per cent of all changes in national boundaries were brought about by the use of force.
As religion lost its dominance, ethnicity took over as the referee of identity. “Self-determination” first advanced by former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson after the First World War was sanctified post-
Second World War as a key part of the United Nations’ Charter.
The idea is noble. But deciding who has the right to exercise the right of self-determination is excruciatingly difficult and, at times, random.
Spain’s Supreme Court has just ruled that the province of Catalonia’s long-planned referendum on independence violates the constitution.
Here, though, the separatist-minded Parti Québécois assumes that it has the right not only to call as many referendums on Quebec separation as it wants, but that those lost don’t count, while a victory — even by a single vote — decides everything, no matter the opposed ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The most dramatic current example is, of course, that involving Ukraine and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of force was clearly illegal. But, while sending troops to Crimea undoubtedly affected the result of the pro-separation vote there, it’s all but certain that most people in Crimea genuinely wanted to rejoin Russia.
Contrarily, the U.S. and its allies (Canada included) used force — massive bombing — to secure the separation of Kosovo from Serbia. And the U.S.’s support for the separation of South Sudan from Sudan has accomplished little but continuing civil war.
In the end, what matters most is what most people want. There is one country where that truism applies. It’s Canada. We have found ways to accommodate Quebec so that it now exercises special status. We are in the process of doing the same — however belatedly — with our native peoples.
At the same time, we have opened wide our doors to more people of all kinds, and of cultures and religions and ethnicities, than any other, by far.
Throughout their history, Americans believed that the essence of their system was its “exceptionalism.” That’s true enough.
Except that another version of national exceptionalism now exists. It’s the Canadian version. It’s not perfect. But it is pretty damn good.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org