Ethnic Nationalism and Partition

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6633.htm)

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; it is exclusivist – emphasising a distinctive shared culture – in contrast to a pluralist’s 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 the greater economic stability of a larger unit and borderless movement within it.

Secession, leading to a complete partition, has to 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 distribution of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, as described in an Economist article entitled Israel, Palestine and Hebron, illustrates this 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. As was vividly illustrated by the Srebrenica massacre, as described in an Economist article entitled Remembering Srebrenica, this can be very violent.
  • Even if ethnic cleansing were possible without using force, the requirement to move to what has become another country would destroy people’s livelihoods and relationships.
  • In practice, separations are rarely complete and a partition then doesn’t result in two homogeneous countries. 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.[1]  In the case of Britain, with its mixture of Celts, Picts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings,[2] 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. As one commentator noted, “One would be hard-pressed to construe the Spanish government as tyrannical and oppressive, yet ETA [a Basque Separatist organisation] still bombs away”.[3]  In this example there is already considerable autonomy and there is a lot of evidence that most of the population doesn’t wish for separation.[4]  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, it is unlikely that separatist pressures can always be resisted so it would be advantageous to agree international rules for secession.  Having a mechanism available (for example a referendum) would ensure that, once exercised, if the secessionists failed to get a majority they would then be clearly seen to have no legitimate right to secede.  By offering a referendum 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 regard to Québec, and Britain followed the same pattern with regard to Scottish independence; there are many other places in the world where it could be used to advantage.



[1] The term ‘Nation-State’ is used here in its Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition: “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”.

[2] A BBC timeline, entitled Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, was available in May 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/timeline/vikinganglosaxons_timeline_noflash.shtml.

[3] The Economist published a letter from Michael Eustace Erwin, The motive of terror, on 28 July 2007; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/9539925.

[4] On 29 August 2002, Time magazine reported on the Basque people’s wishes as revealed in the 2001 election:

“The election underscored two political facts of the Basque Country — a resounding rejection by most voters of Batasuna, principally because of its inability to distance itself from ETA’s violence; and at the same time a popular aversion to the strongly anti-nationalist positions of the mainstream Spanish parties.  Moderate nationalism appeared to be the preference of the Basque electorate”

This article was available in May 2018 at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,345821,00.html.