The Cambridge dictionary defines sovereignty as “The power of a country to govern itself”. As opposed to what? the power of a country not to govern itself? Defined in this way, the idea of sovereignty is a tautology; power, nationhood and government are effectively a closed loop. This historical weight of sovereignty is the conundrum that lies at the heart of every movement for secession, call for regional autonomy or declaration of independence, that is, the authority to declare sovereignty is predicated on the prior existence of that sovereignty. That is also why secession tends to be such a fraught issue, because it is played out as a struggle over power as a zero-sum game: if I gain, you lose; if you gain, I lose. In the worst-case scenarios winning and losing are calibrated by acts of violence by a perpetrator on a victim, and the final tally is reckoned in standing armies, cowed populations and territory held.
The breakup of Yugoslavia was the exemplar of this worst-case scenario occurring in Europe within recent memory, though, further afield, the creation of South Sudan and the suppression of the Tamil independence movement were events notable for their savagery. Generally, democracies manage secessionist tendencies rather better, as negotiation and concession are built into their modus operandi. Yugoslavia, held together by the iron grip of Tito in the orbit of the Soviet Union, had never developed the democratic traditions as an independent nation to cope with the centrifugal forces operating on its constituent parts post-Tito. By comparison, Czechoslovakia, after a few brief years as a democratic entity could negotiate a peaceful divorce (assisted by statesmen of real stature to be sure). For all the wind and thunder churned out by the mass media, the referendum on Scottish independence and even the Brexit negotiations have been carried out peacefully and with a sense of decorum.
Given this, the present standoff between the Spanish government and the Catalan authorities is unique in recent European history and extraordinary for a modern democratic nation. Having no vested interest in the struggle being played out, my natural inclination is to side with the argument that in any sovereign democratic state there are laws governing the distribution of powers in society, which applies also to the powers ceded to regional authorities; within those laws negotiations can take place on the balance of that distribution. At a level more removed, there is a case for the negotiability of the laws themselves, if they are considered unjust, but this is a case for extreme constitutional discretion. Democracy is never just about voting or “the will of the people” – the war cry of demagogues – it is suffrage under the rule of law. Since the supreme court of Spain has effectively denied the legality of the Catalan referendum, it is within its constitutional right for the national government to suspend the region’s autonomy and dismiss its elected government (although it seems only the latter is being proposed).
We can usefully lean upon Kant’s categorical imperative in this and other questions of secession: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” If Mr Puigdemont were to achieve his aim of an independent Catalonia, would he countenance the further sundering of his independent state, given that the majority of Catalonia’s population did not vote for independence (the turnout was 43%) as the referendum was boycotted by pro-union parties? The question is purely rhetorical, of course, as secessionists are openly on a quest for sovereignty, i.e. power, nationhood and state governance, not for the enactment of abstract philosophical principles.
Yet, the dissembling and hypocrisy of secessionists is only one side in the game of sovereignty, in the political reaction to and decision-making about regional claims to power and the precedents thereby established. In a democracy, unlike an absolute monarchy, or socialist and fascist republics, in which power is centralised and total, the state has a duty to make judgements about the just and wise distribution of power. Thus, in the UK, calls for a Cornish state, the mutterings of the Wessex Independence Party* and the proclamations of the self-declared Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye can safely be ignored. Welsh and Scottish regional autonomy, however, cannot. Even though these identities are largely literary creations, they exert a real influence on the imagination of populations in regions that are geographically, and historically distinct. There is a fine judgement about when and to what extent to concede authority when demands are made. Too little risks resentment; too much fuels the ambitions of the unscrupulous and sets a precedent for those with less justification. In the case of Catalonia, the intransigence of the Rajoy government fails to accommodate the need in any dynamic society to be responsive to the genuine aspirations of a significant segment of its population. Politics is less like chess, the rules of which have been codified and frozen for centuries; it is more like music or architecture in which the most interesting things happen in moving beyond the accepted conventions and structures.
The broad thrust of history seems to have been the absorption of lesser kingdoms and fiefdoms into sovereign nations. Since in most cases the boundaries of nation states are accidents of history – the shadow of battlefronts or the ruled lines of imperial surveyors – it seems a dogmatic article of faith to claim that the sovereign nation state is the immutable and ultimate legitimate player in international politics. A greater law of history, if there can be such a thing, is the chaotic nature of change and the unknowability of the future. However, as rational beings we can mitigate somewhat the turbulence of change through dialogue and negotiation. All people, as free individuals and as individuals identified by their various belonging, desire empowerment and the ownership that gives them over their lives, their community and their environment, something that the great centres of power ultimately need to recognise.
*Wessex was a medieval kingdom, resurrected as a fictional county in Thomas Hardy’s novels; I came up with the name for a projected satirical article, then checked it – the Party actually exists.