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Nationalism, self-determination and secession
Nationalism, self-determination and secession

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3 Self-determination: individual and collective

The idea of a right to ‘collective self-determination’ is a difficult one – how can a group, as opposed to an individual, have a ‘right’? To argue that a nation has a right to self-determination is, some might argue, to overlook what rights are, and who can claim them.

'Self-determination’ has a positive ring about it – how could anyone oppose it? The idea of self-determination has strong resonances in political theory, dating back as far as Hobbes, at least in England. As European societies over the centuries became gradually more individualistic, so the idea of individual judgement and freedom gradually became more prominent. In the works of the great European political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of individuals consenting to – choosing, voluntarily – government restrictions on their freedom was crucial. Often political theorists talk of ‘autonomy’ as a principle, underlining the importance of separate, rational, thinking and choosing individuals as the core of political life. The idea of self-determination gets much of its resonance and attractiveness, I suggest, because it taps into this deep vein of thinking about individual rights, autonomy and freedom which runs through the Western body politic up to today.

However, that tradition is about individual self-determination. Even if it is a principle we could all sign up to, transferring it uncritically to a group or collective context creates problems. Can a group be said to have a ‘will’, or to be ‘rational’, in a way analogous to an individual? Can a group make decisions, for example about how to live or who to live with, with the same kind of conviction and clarity that an individual (sometimes) can? The problem is that in a large group there is often no unanimous view on any issue. How many members of a potential group would need to live together in a political community to make that community so legitimate that it could be imposed on dissenters? For example, if there were a 51 per cent vote for an independent Quebec, would that be enough to justify its imposition on the large minority in the province who opposed secession from Canada? If it was 70 per cent would that make a difference? How large or active or vocal does a dissident minority, who want a different community, have to be to challenge that legitimacy effectively? I will pick up some issues of majorities and minorities below; my immediate point is that the very idea of collective self-determination is problematic. Its proponents cannot draw easy support from the idea's linguistic link to the notion of individual self-determination. Perhaps the links between the two are more rhetorical than substantial.

Collective self-determination could mean various things, but most importantly today it means national self-determination: the idea that each ‘nation’ should be self-governing, i.e. it should have its own state. So, for example, Palestinians see themselves as a nation, and seek their own independent state so that they can be self-governing, and not be subject to governance by Israel (or any other state). Many Quebecois – mostly its non-immigrant francophones – regard their primary political loyalty as being to the Quebec nation, and they would like to live in a Quebec that is an independent country alongside Canada, rather than being a province within Canada's federal system.

It is worth noting that this fairly simple picture smooths over some important exceptions and complications. Collective self-determination need not mean outright statehood. It could mean instead some form of autonomy or self-government within another state. Many Quebecois are federalists, rather than nationalists; for various reasons, they prefer Quebec to remain within Canada, even if they favour considerable autonomous powers for the government of the province and special recognition of its francophone culture. Recently, Kurdish parties and leaders have broadly accepted that the predominantly Kurdish regions within Iraq, which might potentially be part of an independent state of Kurdistan, should instead be semi-autonomous regions within the federal, post-Saddam Iraq (see Guibernau, 2005, on definitions of federalism). However, these are exceptions to the rule that national self-determination is normally an aspiration to statehood.

The idea of national self-determination first came to prominence as part of the plans of US president Woodrow Wilson to rebuild Europe after the First World War. His famous Fourteen Points at the Armistice conference in 1918 set in motion a process of national self-determination across the war-torn continent. The Great War had destroyed the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany, and the Russian and Turkish empires. A new way had to be found to organise government in the region. Wilson saw himself as involved in a process of constructing nations, and indeed many new states were created from the ex-empires. Some, such as Poland, were states based more-or-less on a group with a recognisable and felt common culture. Others, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, were multi-nation-states, which dissolved into the constituent nation-states more recently (between 1992 and 2003, Yugoslavia broke into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro; in 1992, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the so-called ‘velvet revolution’).

After the Second World War, a new wave of national self-determination accompanied the process of decolonisation. Across Asia and Africa, through the 1950s and 1960s, several new independent states were formed out of the former British, French, Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese empires. This wave usually kept intact the political units that together made up empires; though there were major exceptions, such as the break-up of India into the two states of India and Pakistan (and later into three states, with east Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971).

The meaning and application of the idea of national self-determination has evolved during the course of the twentieth century. Most recently, as we have noted, after the end of the Cold War, there was a strong revival of interest in national self-determination among political theorists and international legal theorists. Today, with many ‘nations without states’ asserting their right to self-determination, what can political theory tell us about identifying nations and specifying principles (and practices) of national self-determination?


  • National self-determination is one type of collective self-determination.

  • The idea of collective self-determination gets much of its force from the analogy with deep-rooted ideas of individual self-determination or freedom; but shifting too easily from the individual to the collective can be problematic.

  • A demand for national self-determination may not be a demand for outright statehood.

  • The idea of national self-determination gained special prominence after the First World War.

  • Interest from political theorists has been revived by the pressing nationalist demands in eastern Europe and elsewhere after the end of the Cold War.