Option Zero is not an Option
Much discussion has been had lately if the Scottish independence movement should treat anything other than a mutually agreed and consented referendum as a valid mandate for independence, given how certain unionist politicians in the Conservative and Labour parties have explicitly spoken out against even the prospect of another referendum on independence. And so, the “prospect” of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) has once again reared its head among the twitter fringes of the independence movement. The prospect is, in my view, best illustrated by a few notable examples.
1916, Ireland. The Irish Republic is proclaimed during the Easter Rising. The Easter Rising is crushed, but full-blown resistance flares up again in 1918 as Sinn Féin wins a majority in the general election of 1918, withdraw to form the Dáil Éireann and the Irish War of Independence begins. After much brutal violence between the auxiliaries of the British government and the Irish Republican Army, the Irish side eventually accepts the Anglo-Irish Treaty, that partitions the country into a dominion (the Irish Free State, that eventually becomes the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland, which is kept within the UK. Right now, we’re into our 96th year of that partition.
1991, Slovenia and Croatia. The unilateral declarations of independence of the two set off respectively the Ten-Days War and the Croatian War of Independence, becoming the first phase of the Yugoslav Wars. Eventually, the two do become independent, but not before militarily repelling an invasion in the case of the first and tens of thousands of deaths and about 700,000 people displaced in the case of the latter.
2017, Catalonia. After a referendum complicated by Spanish police intervention and the ensuing loss of, by the Catalan estimate, approximately 770,000 votes, Catalonia unilaterally declares independence from Spain. In the event, the referendum is dismissed, Spain dissolves the Catalan autonomous parliament and calls new elections. Catalan independence does not manifest in the instance and most pro-independence parties effectively accept this.
In summary, there is one thing to learn from all these examples for the Scottish independence movement: unilateral declarations of independence are no laughing matter. They should not be resorted to lightly. The risks of UDI include:
1) the blunt cancellation prospect: a virtually unchallenged assumption of central control (Catalonia in 2017)
2) attempts at political and military subversion and economic blockade (the secession of the Baltic States from the USSR in 1990)
3) a full-blown war of independence, frequently with elements of a civil war (Ireland, former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, most other post-colonial nations)
4) partition of the country along lines of constitutional opinion (Ireland in 1922, partly Bosnia in the 1990s)
It is at its core a fundamentally and inevitably controversial, confrontational and usually not properly legal path. What a lot of the fringes of the independence movement do not seem to understand, when discussing possibilities for what we can do if the UK government denies us a Section 30 order for an independence referendum, is that a UDI is not a matter of simply declaring that “we are now independent” and the UK government will have no choice but to accept that. Declaring independence without mutual consent is tantamount to declaring the state you are seceding from your enemy. It is for all intents and purposes a gauntlet of challenges that there needs to be a profoundly unified political will in both government and society to take on.
In a scenario where Scotland were to declare independence unilaterally without any agreement with the rest of the UK, we would have to have somehow converted 70%-90% of the population to support of independence for it to even be feasible. Otherwise, there would likely remain a large proportion of the Scottish population that would be devoted unionists disinclined to accept the legitimacy of this process. Nearly all of these people would support the British government in whatever measure is taken to repress such an independence declaration. This is even leaving aside the fact that virtually all Scottish business would continue to consider the UK government the legitimate authority to receive their taxes and British military forces would remain based in bases across Scotland. We would have virtually no feasible peaceful way to remove them without their consent.
Internationally, speaking of any kind of recognition for a UDI in any scenario is ridiculous. No nation that desires to have any kind of friendly or even working relationship with the UK would support a unilateral Scottish declaration of independence. Even the worst opponents of the UK in international relations would not recognise us out of sheer selfishness: it simply does not benefit virtually any nation on the planet to side with this hypothetically isolated Scotland against the UK.
To survive a UDI, we would require strong enough popular support by our population at large to defy the world. It is a path that would present the Scottish political class and population with challenges of a scale that the average Scottish person has not only never faced but also quite frankly never conceived of. The Scottish population, even most yes voters, would not be willing to accept these challenges and their patience with us would run out in months at best. Activists that are pushing this almost universally do not understand the implications of what they are proposing.
It is a non-option. And any conversation about it needs to cease now.