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

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6.7 What about alternatives to secession?

We have seen that in principle there are alternatives: cultural autonomy or a form of federalism. There are alternative ways to recognise 'national' identity apart from secession.

One conclusion to arise from this discussion of secession is that we are not cast adrift without any general principles or guidelines. We have also seen how the complexities of the real political world impinge upon political theories, and how those theories in turn can help us to make sense of the world. Debates among theorists about secession may highlight how worried these theorists are about nationalism. There are versions and examples of nationalism which are anything but liberal and tolerant of others (perhaps Serbian nationalism is a contemporary example). There are others where, arguably, the opposite seems to be the case (Scottish or Quebecois nationalism might be examples). Looked at through the lens of illiberal nationalism, ‘permissive’ theories of secession, like the stronger democratic theories we looked at, may raise concerns. After all, the democratic theories may end up endorsing either ethnic cleansing or systematic colonisation. The ethnic cleansing involved in efforts to create ‘Republic Serbska’ in Bosnia in the early 1990s would be an example of the former strategy. The moving of Moroccans into the western Sahara since 1974, and constantly putting off the day of an independence referendum for that region as the population changes in a more congenial direction, might be seen as an example of the second. Faced with these sorts of possibilities, we might be moved to favour ‘high hurdle’ theories of secession instead (Beiner, 2003), such as the remedial approach.

However, the issue might look different when viewed through the lens of liberal nationalism. If we take a broadly positive view of nationalist movements that are largely democratic and respectful of minorities, then the more permissive democratic approach may be more appealing. Again, there are important lessons here about the relationship between political theory and political practice. Even in cases where theories come across as abstract and general, assumptions about the real political world can and will influence our approaches.

There are no easy answers to the adequacy of secession and referendums as tools for the satisfaction of claims to national self-determination. Each case will throw up unique features; political theory cannot simply provide a universal blueprint for dealing with such specific claims. Having said that, perhaps it is the case that ‘democracy’ is not just a matter of votes, for instance in secession referendums. It has been suggested that we may be able to take all the concerns about multiple claims for self-determination – illiberal nationalism, the domino effect, political instability and so on – and incorporate them into a wider approach to ‘democratic management’ of these issues: ‘the project of democratic management must protect minorities, resist majority tyranny, correct the misuse of majority rule, and achieve a workable balance between majority rule and minority rights’ (Baogang He, 2002, p. 93).

We noted in passing that some observers worry about permissive approaches to national self-determination and secession, on the grounds that we would end up with a patchwork of too many small states. Critics are concerned about the potential destabilising effects of a secessionist free-for-all. Many larger states today are not in fact national states, but rather multinational states. Encouraging national self-determination in a strong and literal way might threaten the integrity of all but a handful of the world's existing states:

Is it theoretically coherent to try to apply the self-determination principle to all multinational or multiethnic states? … Carried to the logical limit, the theoretical consequences are somewhat catastrophic; for hardly any states today would be immune from having their legitimacy normatively subverted.

(Beiner, 1999, p. 5)

In a similar vein, Ernest Gellner once wrote that we live in a world that ‘has only space for something of the order of 200 or 300 national states’ (quoted in Beiner, 1999, p. 5). Leaving aside the fact that a world of 300 states would be enormously different from one with the almost 200 states of today, there is a case for replying to this by pointing out that size is quite arbitrary when it comes to nation-states. This issue much exercised the great democratic theorists around the time of the American and French Revolutions. Putting it simply, the terms of the debate can be seen as being set by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous Swiss-French political theorist and an inspiration for the French Revolution, who felt that liberty was threatened whenever a political unit grew beyond the size of a city-state; and James Madison, American revolutionary and the fourth president of the USA, who saw the extension of the political unit to continental proportions as a positive barrier to factional domination of a political system.

There are two basic ways in which we can understand the question of the appropriate size of political units. The first is to interpret it as a question about the appropriate extent of a unit's geographical area. The second is to see it as a question about the size of the population of the unit. Geographical size is, arguably, less significant now than before the communications revolution. Peripheral regions of a large political unit need not be out of touch with activities at the centre. Political participation, especially in elections, is not unduly hampered by distances. The question of population size may be more important. Robert A. Dahl suggests that the ‘smaller is better’ argument looks ridiculous if pushed to extremes: ‘If it were true that a smaller system must always be more democratic than a larger, then the most democratic system would consist of one person, which would be absurd’ (Dahl, 1989, p. 205). But there is little need to jump to such extremes. A further objection to the argument that smaller is better is Dahl's view that larger units allow for citizens to have some say in more matters. In other words, the scope of policy in larger units is greater; citizens can participate in the resolution of more issues than they could in smaller units. This may be true, but those ‘extra’ things one might be able to influence may not be matters which citizens are generally concerned about.

Further, the objects of citizen concern can be as much the product of the very existence of the larger unit. For example, the USA being a larger unit means that citizens can have some (highly indirect and minimal) say in nuclear weapons policies, clearly a matter of global importance. However, it is arguably the existence of political units of such continental dimensions which has generated the resources to devote to such weapons in the first place. Smaller units may restrict citizens’ say to smaller, more local matters, but in a world of smaller units the global questions may not loom so large anyway; these small, local matters would no longer seem, or even be, small or merely local.


  • The issue of secession has proved to be a challenge to political theory, and shows how practice impinges on theory.

  • A series of referendums, or ‘remedial right’, are two prominent approaches to secession.

  • Attitudes to nationalism are influenced by whether a given example is seen as ‘liberal’ or ‘illiberal’.

  • The question of the appropriate size of political units is part of debates on nationalism.