Independence Movements to Divide a Country

Leaders of large ethnic minorities sometimes start independence movements to divide a country, although partition is difficult in practice

As described below (6.6.4), national politicians have more power than any other level of political subsidiarity.  Some leaders of ethnic groups, or ‘nations’, within a multicultural country desire the additional power and autonomy that that they would have by forming a separate political State.  Such leaders can seek to mobilise people’s sense of cultural identity to persuade them to seek independence.  This ethnic form of nationalism is the second category defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Nationalism in winter 2014.  It is exclusivist – emphasising a distinctive shared culture – in contrast to an inclusivist emphasis on shared values that can bind a country together.

Separatist politicians may want to be ‘king of the castle’, without having to defer to national government, but the population might be better served by retaining the greater economic stability of a larger unit and allowing borderless movement within it – as in a federal system (

Secession, leading to a complete partition, must be considered if there is no possibility of peaceful coexistence, but there are strong reasons for rejecting such a solution:

●  It is very difficult to avoid violence during the process of partition, particularly if there is disagreement over where to place the border, as described in an article “Why Pakistan and India remain in denial 70 years on from partition”.

●  Population distribution is ‘marbled’, so it is rarely possible for a process of partition to form self-contained countries with viable borders.  The Economist article, Israel, Palestine and Hebron: Not so easy, shows how the distribution of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is an impediment to a ‘two-State solution’ for Israel and Palestine.

●  There is a temptation to use ethnic cleansing in order to get clear boundaries during the process of partition.  This can be very violent, as was vividly illustrated by the Srebrenica massacre – described in an Economist article, Remembering Srebrenica, which noted that “The genocide’s symbolic importance to Bosnian Muslims is growing”.

●  Even if ethnic cleansing were possible without using force, the requirement to move home and work would damage people’s livelihoods and relationships.

●  In practice, independence movements to divide a country rarely result in a clean break.  India, for example, still contains more Muslims than does Pakistan.  If repeated attempts are made to solve the problems of pluralism by separation, the problems repeat themselves and the outcome would be fragments which would be too small to be viable; this would look very similar to tribalism (

●  National ‘purity’ is unachievable.  Populations are now irretrievably diverse.  People marry across ethnic divisions and produce children of mixed ethnicity, so there are now many millions of people for whom there would be no ‘pure’ ethnic homeland in a world of Nation-States – defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “a sovereign State most of the citizens or subjects of which are also united by factors such as language, common descent, etc., which define a nation”.  In the case of Britain, with its mixture of Celts, Picts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings,[1] Normans and the many immigrants from the different parts of its Victorian empire, the very idea of a ‘pure’ nation is absurd.  A similar argument holds true in America and, to some degree, in most countries.

●  The desire for separation is indicative of intolerance among political leaders, which augurs badly for the treatment of residual minorities after separation.  Michael Eustace Erwin’s letter to The Economist in July 2007, The motive of terror, noted that “One would be hard-pressed to construe the Spanish government as tyrannical and oppressive, yet ETA [a Basque Separatist organisation] still bombs away”.  A Time magazine article, Ban Has Basques Bracing for Bloodshed, reported “a resounding rejection by most voters of Batasuna [the political wing of ETA], principally because of its inability to distance itself from ETA’s violence”.  The fact that ETA ignores the wishes of the majority is a strong indication that it would not govern well if it had more power.

●  There would be economic issues (3.4.5) and legal issues (5.3.2) to be resolved in a partition.

All these reasons make partition an undesirable choice that is unlikely to provide a peaceful solution.  If pluralism is accepted and properly implemented, there is little real need for separation – all it achieves is to increase the political power of the separatist leaders without benefiting the population concerned.

Despite the strong arguments against partition, separatist pressures can be difficult to resist.  A peaceful secession could be negotiated by holding an internationally monitored independence referendum.  By offering that, the parent State would be conceding the potential for secession in exchange for depriving the secessionists of legitimacy if they do not win it.  The Canadians have successfully exercised this strategy with Québec, and Britain followed the same pattern to respond to the pressure for Scottish independence.

Another way of accommodating independence movements to divide a country is to grant sufficient autonomy to the secessionists.  Both Britain and Canada made significant concessions to achieve peace. The requested concessions to Tibet, which mounted an unsuccessful attempt to secede from China in 1959, may be another example of this strategy:

“There should be no doubt that China has had sovereignty over Tibet since 1750. No country in the world has recognised Tibet as an independent state after 1750. …No Chinese government before the Communists had attempted to impose the Chinese language, writing system, taxes, political system or law on Tibet. …Only when the PRC decides to restore this traditional Chinese policy of leaving Tibet alone with genuine autonomous status under Chinese sovereignty, shall peace and stability be restored to Tibet”.[2]

Where a parent State refuses to negotiate, there is a risk of a collapse of law and order – as described later (7.2.6).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6633.htm.

[1] A BBC timeline, entitled Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, was available in March 2020 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/timeline/vikinganglosaxons_timeline_noflash.shtml.

[2] Tibet past and present. Published in Occasional Papers / Reprints Series In Contemporary Asian Studies, Number 4, 1989 (93)