Secession Today

Three things the United States can learn from the Scottish referendum

It’s official: Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom. Last Thursday, Scotland held a referendum on whether it would become an independent country. 55 percent voted to remain part of the union, and 45 percent voted to secede. Though the country's political structure won’t radically change, its bid for independence has big implications outside of Scotland.

The United States, in particular, can learn a few things from the event, and those things may help us remove secession’s stigma.

1. Secession is a legitimate political topic.

In the United States, even mentioning the word “secession” is taboo. People assume you’re either nuts or a racist. They shouldn’t. Secession is a well-established political action, and it’s unwise to dismiss the idea out of hand. After all, the United States was founded by an act of secession from England.

The idea makes sense: If people do not believe their government represents them, they have a right to create their own. If you support the idea of self-governance, you must support the right to secede. At least 45 percent of the voters in Scotland (a great majority of them younger than 25 years old) don’t feel well represented in Westminster; it’s no surprise they wanted a change.

Millions of Americans don’t feel well represented in Washington, D.C. The possibility of secession, however small, should remain on the table. It’s time we stop acting like it’s a nonsensical idea. But the United States doesn’t have the greatest track record on secession, which brings me to point No. 2.

2. Secession can be peaceful.

If Scotland had voted for independence, it would not have been a violent event. Listen to the political commentary on both sides. Practically everyone said the same thing: “Regardless of my personal opinion, I support the right of Scotland to decide for itself.” This sentiment was echoed by Tories, Liberals, and Nationalists alike. The referendum would have been respected, without need for violence or war. Sure, secession might have been messy; Scotland and England share many political ties. But a messy political action is quite different from a violent one.

The last time the United States dealt with secession, the bloodiest war in U.S. history ensued. Around 150 years ago, a large group of states in the South wanted to secede from their political Union, and it sparked a civil war that killed over half a million Americans. But it didn’t need to happen: If the Scots could secede peacefully, so could Americans. Which brings me to the third point.

3. Secession can happen with small numbers of people.

Scotland has a population of roughly five million people. That’s it. Relatively speaking, that’s a small number. By comparison, the greater Atlanta area—home to FEE—has a population of more than five million. Talking about the secession of one state is still largely taboo in the United States, and the idea of one city going it alone would probably sound laughable to many. But there are more people living around Atlanta than in the entire country of Scotland, and few would question the legitimacy of Scotland’s right to secede. If we were talking about multiple states seceding, that’s likely to be an order of magnitude more people. So, if we think of Scotland’s right to secede as being legitimate, why wouldn’t Atlanta’s secession also be legitimate?

This isn’t a case for American secession; it’s about keeping the topic open for discussion. Certainly there are many steps between Americans being angry and Americans forming a new country. But if Washington refuses to represent millions of citizens, secession should be considered an option. It doesn’t require animosity or violence, just the freedom to self-govern in peace.

At the very least, the discussion around secession is not over. The American Civil War was 150 years ago, and everybody who was involved is dead. It’s time to remove the stigma and restart the conversation.


You can find a Portuguese translation of this article here