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Why is Secession Difficult in Well-Established Democracies? Lessons from Quebec


Secession, defined as ‘formal withdrawal from a central authority by a member unit’, has been particularly rare in democracies. In fact, there has never been a single case of secession in democracies if we consider only the well-established ones, that is, those with at least ten consecutive years of universal suffrage. The cases most often mentioned happened only a few years after the introduction or significant expansion of universal suffrage: Norway and Sweden in 1905, Iceland and Denmark in 1918, Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1922. What is more, one would hesitate before calling the first two cases real secessions, since the ties between the political entities involved were very loose at the outset. Secessionists never managed to split a well-established democracy through a referendum or an electoral victory. We must conclude that it is very hard for them to achieve and maintain the magic number of 50 per cent support. My aim is to explain why this is the case.

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1 Wood John R., ‘Secession: A Comparative Analytical Framework’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 16 (1981), 107–34, p. 110.

2 Lindgren Raymond, Norway-Sweden: Union, Disunion and Integration (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1951); Tomasson Richard F., Iceland: The First New Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), p. 21; Greenleaf W. H., The British Political Tradition, Vol. I: The Rise of Collectivism (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 206–7, Table 9.

3 For instance, Sweden and Norway were already recognized as distinct before 1905. There were two judicial systems, two governments without hierarchies between them, two citizenships, two armies, and no Swedish population living in Norway. The two countries shared only diplomacy and the person of the king.

4 Secessions occurring under authoritarian rule or in new democracies are beyond the scope of this note, although the argument may offer parallels that would be useful in subsequent analyses.

5 Draper Theodore, ‘The End of Czechoslovakia’, New York Review of Books, 40 (1993), 20–6, p. 25.

6 I will not discuss whether a majority support in the seceding region is sufficient to legitimate a secession. A case can be made that the citizens of the other regions of the country must also be consulted. We may also consider that citizens who are in a minority in the region concerned should not be forced to undergo a change of country against their will. Since democracy is not just majority rule, and demands that the rights of minorities and individuals be protected, some critical decisions must be taken by qualified majorities, and secession is just such a critical decision. Such uncertainties about the adequate democratic rules for secessions will be taken into account in this Note only for the negative effect they may have on secessionist support. In Quebec, surveys have shown that two out of three Quebeckers consider a 50 percent plus one vote inadequate to justify secession. See Massicotte Louis, ‘La réforme de la procédure référendaire québécoise: réflexions sur quelques enjeux’, in Côté Pierre F. et al. , Démocratie et référendum: la procédure référendaire (Montreal: Québec-Amérique, 1992), pp. 117–36.

7 Stepan Alfred, ‘When Democracy and the Nation-State Are Competing Logics: Reflections on Estonia’, Archives européennes de sociologie, 35 (1994), 127–41.

8 Wood , ‘Secession: A Comparative Analytical Framework’; Hechter Michael, ‘The Dynamics of Secession,’ Acta Sociologica, 35 (1992), 267–83.

9 The fear/confidence distinction has parallels with the classic distinction between grievance and opportunity proposed by William Gamson to explain protest movements generally, a distinction that has inspired the ethnic conflict literature in various ways. For instance, Maurice Pinard and Richard Hamilton make the distinction between internal motives and external incentives and Hudson Meadwell between enabling and constraining conditions. The fear/confidence distinction has the advantage of being clearer and simpler, of corresponding to the way people themselves express their perceptions, and of enlightening the contradictory effects that make secession difficult. In an earlier paper, I proposed a distinction between feelings of fear, confidence and rejection. In fact, rejection is an element of fear, a negative consideration about the future within a union. See Gamson William, Power and Discontent (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1968); Pinard Maurice and Hamilton Richard, ‘Motivational Dimensions in the Quebec Independence Movement: A Test of a New Model’, Research in Social Movements; Conflict and Changes, 9 (1986), 225–80; Meadwell Hudson, ‘The Politics of Nationalism in Quebec’, World Politics, 45 (1993), 203–41; Dion Stéphane, ‘Explaining Quebec Nationalism’, in Weaver R. Kent, ed., The Collapse of Canada? (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1992), pp. 77121.

10 Hardin Russell, ‘Self Interest, Group Identity’, in Breton Albert, ed., Nationalism and Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

11 Geertz Clifford, ‘The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States’, in Geertz Clifford., ed., Old Societies and New States (New York: The Free Press, 1963).

12 See Hechter , ‘The Dynamics of Secession’, pp. 272–3; Smith Anthony D., ‘The Origins of Nations’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 12 (1989), 340–67, p. 363; Pinard and Hamilton , ‘Motivational Dimensions in the Quebec Independence Movement’, pp. 267–8.

13 Elster Jon, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 6970. Also Crazier Michel and Friedberg Ehrard, Actors and Systems: The Politics of Collective Action (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

14 As prospect choice theory argues, people under conditions of uncertainty usually allow more considerations to potential losses than to potential gains. See Quattrone George A. and Tversky Amos, ‘Contrasting Rational and Psychological Analysis of Political Choice’, American Political Science Review, 82 (1988), 719–39. Likewise, organizational theorists suggest that people are more sensitive to issue characteristics associated with threats than to those associated with opportunities. See Jackson Susan E. and Dutton Jane E., ‘Discerning Threats and Opportunities’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 33 (1988), 370–87, p. 370.

15 Darcy R. and Laver Michael, ‘Referendum Dynamics and the Irish Divorce Amendment’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 54 (1990), 120, p. 10. Also Banting Keith and Simeon Richard, ‘The Politics of Constitutional Change’, in Banting Keith and Simeon Richard, eds, Redesigning the State: The Politics of Constitutional Change (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), p. 25.

16 Savigear Peter, ‘Corsica’, in Watson Michael, ed., Contemporary Minority Nationalism (London: Routledge, 1990); Donavan Mark, ‘A Party System in Transformation: The April 1992 Italian Election’, West European Politics, 15 (1992), 170–7, p. 174; Woods Dwayne, ‘Les ligues régionales en Italie’, Revue française de science politique, 42 (1992), 3655.

17 Gellner Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).

18 ‘The fact that the seceding units themselves should grant the right of self-determination within their boundaries should put a prudential check on the aspiration to seek self-determination in territorially problematic zones’ (O'Leary Brendan, ‘The Macro-Political Regulation of Ethnic Conflict’, in Breton , ed., Nationalism and Rationality). This domino-effect in partition is the basic issue addressed by the normative theory of the right of secession. See Beran H., ‘A Liberal Theory of Secession’, Political Studies, 32 (1984), 2131; Beran H., ‘More Theory of Secession: Reply to Birch’, Political Studies, 36 (1988), 316–23; Birch Anthony H., ‘Another Liberal Theory of Secession’, Political Studies, 32 (1984), 596602; Buchanan Allen, Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Boulder, Colo.: Oxford Westview Press, 1991).

19 In 1860, many Americans regarded a civil war as inconceivable. ‘President James Buchanan had insisted that, although secession was unconstitutional, it was also unconstitutional to stop it.’ Morton Desmond, ‘Reflections on the Breakup of Canada, Conflict, and Self-Determination’, in McCallum John, ed., Tangled Web: Legal Aspects of Deconfederation (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 1992), p. 90. Sweden mobilized in the final crisis with Norway and the Irish secession occurred after a series of violent events. On secessionism and bloodshed in non-democratic states, see Premdas Ralph R., Samarasinghe S. W. R. de A. and Anderson Alan B., eds, Secessionist Movements in Comparative Perspective (London: Pinter Publishers, 1990).

20 Craven Gregory, Secession: The Ultimate State's Right (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1986), pp. 34–6. The union may consider that the referendum must be done over the whole country and not only in the secessionist region, and that a qualified majority is necessary to legitimate a decision as crucial as a secession. The state of international law on secession is sufficiently vague and contradictory to open the door to substantial judicial disputes. International law proclaims a broad right of self-determination for all peoples without offering a clear definition of what a ‘people’ is, and at the same time it guarantees territorial integrity for existing states. See Buchheit Lee C., Secession: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978).

21 Horowitz Donald, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 229.

22 Taylor Charles, Modernity and the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).

23 Hiller Harry H., ‘Secession in Western Australia: A Continuing Phenomenon?’, Australian Quarterly, 59 (1987), 222–33.

24 Lemco Jonathan, Political Stability in Federal Government (New York: Praeger, 1991), pp. 7190.

25 After Quebec, the Flemish part of Belgium would come at the top of the list. See Osouf Marc, ‘Interminable divorce beige…ou un champ d'expériences pour l'Europe?’, Relations internationales et stratégiques, 13 (1994), 186–96.

26 Founded in 1968 by a charismatic leader, René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois held power in the Quebec provincial legislature from 1976 to 1985. It lost power to the Liberal party in December 1985 and has remained in opposition until its 12 September 1994 electoral victory. For some background on Quebec politics, the introductory book in English is McRoberts Kenneth, Quebec: Social Change and Political Crisis, 3d edn (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988). A presentation aimed at a non-Canadian audience is offered in Weaver, ed., The Collapse of Canada?

27 Groupe de recherche sur la mobilité de l'opinion publique, ‘Opinions au sujet de la souveraineté exprimées lors de la campagne électorale au Québec de 1994’, Département de science politique, Université de Montréal.

28 Blais André and Gidengil Elisabeth, ‘The Quebec Referendum: Why Did Quebeckers Say No’, paper prepared for the Annual Meetings of the Canadian Political Science Association, Ottawa, Ontario (1993), p. 6; Gauthier Claude, ‘Les Québécois et la question linguistique… et plus particulièrement la langue de l'affichage commercial. Sondage d'opinion’ auprès des Québécois pour le Conseil de la langue française', Centre de recherche sur l'opinion publique, Montréal, March (1993), p. 3. For earlier evidence of the linguistic and cultural fear of assimilation, see the 1970 poll reported by Pinard and Hamilton , ‘Motivational Dimensions in the Quebec Independence Movement’, pp. 237–8.

29 Blais and Gidengil , ‘The Quebec Referendum’, pp. 67 and 1920.Nadeau Richard and Fleury Christopher J., ‘Gains linguistiques anticipés et appui à la souveraineté’ (unpublished paper, Département de science politique, Université de Montréal, 1994).

30 Before the 1960s, Quebec nationalism was essentially community-based, apolitical, conservative and centred on the Roman Catholic Church: see Bélanger André J., L'Apolitisme des idéologies québécoises (Quebec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1974); Dion Léon, The Unfinished Revolution (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976), pp. 113–24.

31 Coleman William D., The Independence Movement in Quebec: 1943–1980 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 201–2; Borins Sandford F., The Language of the Skies: The Bilingual Air Traffic Control Conflict in Canada (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983); Pinard Maurice and Hamilton Richard, ‘The Parti Québécois Comes to Power: An Analysis of the 1976 Quebec Election’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 11 (1978), 739–75, pp. 745–56.

32 Cloutier Edouard, Guay Jean H. and Latouche Daniel, Le virage. L'évolution de l'opinion publique au Québec depuis 1960 ou comment le Québec est devenu souverainiste (Montreal: Québec/Amérique, 1992), p. 64; Dion, ‘Explaining Quebec Nationalism’, pp. 92–7 and 113.

33 Fishman Joshua A., Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers, 1973); Edwards John, Linguistic Minorities, Policies and Pluralism (London: Academic Press, 1984); Laponce Jean, Languages and their Territories (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987); Conversi Daniele, ‘Language or Race? The Choice of Core Values in the Development of Catalan and Basque Nationalisms’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 13 (1990), 5070.

34 Nadeau and Fleury , ‘Gains linguistiques anticipés et appui à la souveraineté’, p. 9.

35 Bercuson David J. and Cooper Barry, Deconfederation: Canada without Quebec (Toronto: Key Porter, 1991); Gerber Linda M., ‘Referendum Results: Defining New Boundaries for an Independent Quebec’, Canadian Ethnic Studies, 24 (1992), 2234; Watson William G., ‘Separation and the English of Quebec’, in McCallum John, ed., Survival: Official Language Rights in Canada (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 1992); Turpel Mary E., ‘Does the Road to Québec Sovereignty Run through Aboriginal Territory?’, in Drache Daniel and Perin Robero, eds, Negotiating with a Sovereign Québec (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1992); McNeil Kent, ‘Aboriginal Nations and Québec's Boundaries: Canada Couldn't Give What It Didn't Have’, in Drache and Perin, eds, Negotiating with a Sovereign Québec. These territorial claims are challenged by legal experts close to the Parti Québécois; Henri Brun, ‘L'intégrité territoriale d'un Québec souverain’, in Gagnon Alain-G. and Rocher François; eds, Répliques aux détracteurs de la souveraineté du Québec (Montreal: VLB éditeur, 1992).

36 Brodeur Jean-Paul, ‘L'obstacle des troubles intérieurs’, in Gagnon and Rocher, Répliques aux détracteurs de la souveraineté du Québec.

37 Toulin Alan, ‘Majority back Aboriginal referendum if province separates: poll’. Financial Post, 28 06 1994.

38 Lisée Jean-François, Le Tricheur: Robert Bourassa et les Québécois, 1990–91 (Montreal: Boréal, 1994), p. 121.

39 Bernier Gérald, ‘Economic Policy’, in Lachapelle Guy, ed., The Quebec Democracy: Structures, Processes and Policies (Toronto: McGrath-Hill Ryerson, 1993), pp. 297323; Noël Alain, ‘Politics in a High Unemployment Society’, in Gagnon Alain G., ed., Quebec: State and Society, 2nd edn (Toronto: Nelson Canada, 1993).

40 Vaillancourt François, ‘Demolinguistic Trends and Canadian Institutions: An Economic Perspective’, in Demolinguistic Trends and the Evolution of Canadian Institutions (Ottawa: Commissioner of Official Languages, 1989); Shapiro D. M. and Stelcner M., ‘Earnings Disparities among Linguistic Groups in Quebec, 1970–1980’, Canadian Public Policy, 13 (1987), 97104.

41 Pinard Maurice, ‘The Quebec Independence Movement: A Dramatic Reemergence’, Working Papers in Social Behaviour, No. 92–06 (Montreal: Department of Sociology, McGill University, 1992), p. 28, Table 3 and p. 29.

42 Blais André and Nadeau Richard, ‘To Be or Not To Be Sovereignist: Quebeckers' Perennial Dilemma’, Canadian Public Policy, 28 (1992), 89103, p. 96; Blais and Gidengil , ‘The Quebec Referendum’, pp. 67; Nadeau and Fleury , ‘Gains linguistiques anticipés et appui à la souveraineté’.

43 Québec, Assemblée nationale, Commission d'étude des questions afférentes à l'accession du Québec à la souveraineté Projet de rapport (Quebec: Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 1992), p. 161; Lemco Jonathan, ‘Turmoil in the Peaceable Kingdom: The Quebec Sovereignty Movement and Its Implications for Canada and the United States’, Canada-US Outlook, 3 (1992), 1177, pp. 78–89.

44 Québécois Parti, Le Québec dans un monde nouveau (Montreal: VLB éditeur, 1993), pp. 17, 33, 39.

45 Raynaud André, Les Enjeux économiques de la souveraineté: Mémoire soumis au C.P.Q. (Montréal: Conseil du Patronat, 1990).

46 Blais and Nadeau, ‘To Be or Not To Be Sovereignist’.

47 Nathan Richard P., ‘Defining Modern Federalism’, in Scheiber Harry N., ed., North America and Comparative Federalism, Essays for the 1990s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 8999, at p. 95.

48 Dion, ‘Explaining Quebec Nationalism’, p. 84, Table 2; Gray Gwendolyn, Federalism and Health Policy: The Development of Health Systems in Canada and Australia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), p. 19.

49 Brown Gordon R., ‘Canadian Federal-Provincial Overlap and Government Inefficiency’, Publius, 24 (1994), 2138; Corbeil Michel, ‘Le grand désordre?’ Expression, 06 (1991), 3841; Dion Stéphane and Gow James Iain, ‘L'administration publique’, in Monière Denis, ed., L'année politique au Québec (Montreal: Le Devoir–Québec/Amérique, 1992), pp. 80–1; Delorme Pierre, ‘L'intégration des fonctionnaires fédéraux à la fonction publique québécoise’, in Gagnon et Rocher, Répliques aux détracteurs de la souveraineté.

50 Québécois Parti, ‘Le Québec dans un monde nouveau, pp. 73–4.

51 Mackie Richard, ‘Quebeckers want power shift, poll finds’, Globe and Mail, 20 05 1994, p. AI.

52 Sarra-Bournet Michel, ‘French Power, Quebec Power: La place des francophones québécois à Ottawa’, in Rocher François, ed., Bilan québécois du fédéralisme canadien (Montreal: VLB éditeur, 1992), pp. 209–16.

53 Bourgault Jacques and Dion Stéphane, The Changing Profile of Federal Deputy Ministers, 1867 to 1988 (Ottawa: Canadian Center for Management Development, 1991), p. 4; Savoie Donald J., The Politics of Language (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queen's University, 1991), pp. 35.

54 Poll reported in La Presse, 29 August 1994.

55 Dion Stéphane, ‘La sécession du Québec: évaluation des probabilités’, Relations internationales et stratégiques, 13 (1994), 205–23, at Table 4, p. 223.

56 Polls reported in Le Soleil, 30 July 1994, and The Gazette, 10 September 1994.

57 For detailed surveys of the course of events during these negotiations, see Russell Peter, Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians Be a Sovereign People? (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), pp. 72153; Gagnon Alain-G., ‘Québec–Canada: Constitutional Developments, 1960–92’, in Gagnon , Quebec: State and Society.

58 Biais André and Crête Jean, ‘Pourquoi l'opinion publique au Canada anglais a-t-elle rejeté l'Accord du lac Meech?’, in Hudon Raymond and Pelletier Réjean, ed., L'Engagement intellectuel: mélanges en l'honneur de Léon Dion (Quebec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 1991), pp. 385402, at p. 398; Breton Raymond, Why Meech Failed: Lessons for Canadian Constitutionmaking (Toronto: C.D. Howe Institute, 1992), p. 16; Franks Charles E. S., The Myths and Symbols of the Constitutional Debate in Canada, Reflections Paper No. 11 (Kingston: Queen's University, 1993); Pinard , ‘The Quebec Independence Movement’, p. 25; Richards John, ‘The Case for Provincial Jurisdiction over Language’, in McCallum , ed., Survival, pp. 956, at p. 10; Simpson Jeffrey, Fault Lines: Struggling for a Canadian Vision (Toronto: Harper, 1993), pp. 356–7; Taylor Charles, Rapprocher les solitudes: écrits sur le fédéralisme et le nationalisme au Canada (Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1992), pp. 215–33.

59 Franks , The Myths and Symbols of the Constitutional Debate in Canada, p. 58.

60 Blais André and Nadeau Richard, ‘La clientèle du Parti québécois: évolution de la clientèle de 1970 à 1981’, in Crête Jean, ed., Comportement électoral au Québec (Chicoutimi: Gaëtan Morin, 1984), pp. 229318, at pp. 293–4; André Blais and Richard Nadeau, ‘La clientèle du OUI’, in Crête, ed., Comportement électoral au Québec, pp. 321–34, at p. 329; Breton Albert, ‘The Economics of Nationalism’, Journal of Political Economy, 72 (1964), 376–86; Guindon Hubert, ‘Social Unrest, Social Class, and Québec's Bureaucratic Revolution’, Queen's Quarterly, 71 (1964), 150–62; Pinard Maurice and Hamilton Richard, ‘The Leadership of Intellectuals in Traditional Parties: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives’, in Gagnon Alain G. and Tanguay A. Brian, eds, Canadian Parties in Transition (Scarborough, Ont: Nelson Canada, 1989), pp. 287308, at p. 294.

61 Blais André and Dion Stéphane, ‘Les employés du secteur public sont-ils différents?’, Revue française de science politique, 37 (1987), 7797, pp. 90–3; Guay Cloutier and Latouche , Le Virage, p. 146; Blais and Nadeau , ‘To' Be or Not To Be Sovereignist’; Nadeau Richard, ‘Le virage souverainiste des Québécois, 1980–1990’, Recherches sociographiques, 33 (1992), 928; Pinard , ‘The Quebec Independence Movement’; Meadwell , ‘The Politics of Nationalism in Quebec’, p. 211, Table 1; Blais and Gidengil , ‘The Quebec Referendum’, pp. 56.

62 Nadeau and Fleury, ‘Gains linguistiques anticipés et appui à la souveraineté’.

63 Russell , Constitutional Odyssey, p. 75.

64 Linz Juan J. and Stepan Alfred, ‘Political Identities and Electoral Sequences: Spain, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia’, Daedalus, 121 (1992), 123–39, p. 130.

* Département de Science Politique, Université de Montréal. The author is indebted for comments on earlier versions of this note to Alain Noël, Jane Jenson, André Blais, Alan Cairns, R. Kent Carty, Brian Lee Crowley, Jean-Pierre Derriennic, Léon Dion, James Iain Gow, Jean Laponce, Jonathan Lemco, Pierre Martin, Laurent McFalls, Brendan O'Leary, Maurice Pinard, Peter Russell, Richard Simeon, Jean-Philippe Thérien, François Vaillancourt, R. Kent Weaver, Robert A. Young and the reviewers of the Journal.

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