14 March 2017

Secession - Australia, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Norway and Scotland

Firstly I cited Jack Peacock’s argument (History Today, Sept 2016) about Western Australia’s desire to secede being undermined by Britain’s new attitude towards in Empire. Then I argued that seces­sion debates are still going on across the world today, so the issues are much broader than the end of the mighty British Empire in the 1930s.

Secession referred to a political community withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the larger federation, to end up with full self-government. But the Australian Constitution made no provis­ion for existing states to secede. The Act of Federation, 1st January 1901, made the union indissoluble!

Largely the Australian federation has been stable since it commenced in 1901. Western Australia’s most famous attempt to exit the feder­ation oc­curred in April 1933 when, after a successful referendum, the WA government wanted to secede. So if Western Australians voted in favour of seceding from the Australian Common­wealth, why is it still part of the Australian federation today? What allowed the democratically expressed will of the people to be ignored? And what did it mean for Australia’s relationship with the British Empire?

Calling on West Australians to complete the union by voting yes, 
this Australian poster noted that Newfoundland did NOT join Federated Canada 
and went bankrupt. 
Printed in 1900

Talk of federation originally began across Australia in 1889. And Western Aus­t­ral­ia became a self-governing state in 1890. Although there was no connection between these two events, Western Australia’s independent spirit appeared the moment it gained self-government. Not wishing to give up its newly acquired sovereignty, WA did not even attend the 1891 Constitutional Convention in Sydney (3,300 ks apart).

Perhaps Western Australia was cajoled into federating. Gold Rush settlers flocked in from the east, bringing with them pro-federal opinions. When they heard that the Western Australian government was against federation, they started their own separatist movements. Thus Western Australia had a choice: refuse to federate and potentially see its gold-rich lands break away, or fed­erate and maintain its territorial integrity. They opted for feder­at­ion on the 1/1/1901.

Yet the Australian parliament was soon hearing the first calls for secession. The Sunday Times in WA had taken an openly secessionist stance and public demonstrations were held, with rousing political rhetoric, poems and songs. And when the West­ern Australian elect­orate went to the polls in 1933, they voted 68% in favour of secession. It was not even close.

But secession never came. In Western Australia’s state elections of the same year (1933), the elect­orate voted to re-elect the anti-secession Labour Party and oust the pro-secessionist conservatives. It didn’t matter - in response to the referendum, the Labour Parliament still had to go ahead with a secession plan.

The Dominion League of Western Australia, 1933 
Westralia would eventually be FREE and they would celebrate victory

After secession, the flag for the new country of Westralia
would be the Union Jack with a WA black swan in the centre

A large petition, filled with maps, arguments and the democratically expressed will of the people was prepared, to be delivered to the British Parliament which would pass a bill granting WA independ­ence. Co-founder (1930) and later chairman of the Dominion League of Western Australia, Sir Keith Watson, was a central figure in the 1933 referendum campaign. He led the optimistic WA delegation to London.

The petition was presented to both Houses of Parliament in London in December 1934 and a joint committee was formed to determine whether or not the British Parliament had any right to receive the petition. This is where the West Aust­ralian secessionists had misjudged Britain’s attitude to its Empire. The 1931 Statute of Westminster declared: “Auton­om­ous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or ext­ernal affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown...” The Dom­inions were on their own. Western Aust­ralia would have to negotiate with its own parliament in Canberra.

‘History will record this as the greatest and most despicable abdic­ation of all time’, Sir Keith Watson replied. The dispirited Dominion League delegation returned to Aust­ral­ia and vowed to continue the struggle, but the mood in Western Australia had shifted. An economic recovery had begun. In 1935 the Dominion League introduced a bill into the Western Australian parliament calling for unilateral separation, but interest was waning. And the Sunday Times saw a change of ownership, meaning the secession movement dwindled.

It was Western Australia’s loyalty to Britain and the Empire that ended its move to independence. Had the Dominion League taken a stronger stance, perhaps issuing a unilateral declaration of independence in 1933, the outcome might well have been different. As it turned out, the secessionists’ faith in the British Empire was shattered and their movement had crumbled.


Jack Peacock suggested that Scotland’s 2014 independence vote and the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union were similar events. While Scotland resembled Quebec (1995) in voting for the status quo, others such as Norway (1905)  achieved separation from Sweden. Following a potential war between the two unified nations, a Norwegian plebiscite overwhelmingly backed dissolution (99.95%). Negotiations between the two governments led to Sweden's recognition of Norway as an independent constitutional monarchy in Oct 1905.

But I would argue that it was Czechoslovakia’s proposed referendum that was most telling. In a country consisting of two nations of unequal size, their secession referendum would have had to be on a federal level only, or in each of the two regions separately. But what if one voted for secession and the other voted against it? As it happened, the Slovak Parliament unilaterally declared independence in 1992 and no referendum was held.

So the question remains: do all referenda result in the outcome that the voters voted for? And if not, what do the voters do next?

Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia 

The demand to secede may be an end in itself eg the protagonists want to dissolve the union they are living under. Or seces­s­ionist claims may constitute part of a strategic bargaining process to force the central government’s hand eg to repair Australia’s “unfair” mining tax.

Where could the secessionists go next? A state could petition the Commonwealth parliament to hold a referendum and get every citizen in the nation to vote (a la Czechoslovakia 1993). Or the vote would only be for citizens in the state that wants to secede (a la Quebec 1995 and Montenegro 2006)? Or it could secede unilaterally. Would the Commonwealth use the military to force the seceding state to re­m­ain in the Australian fed­eration against its will? I would hope not.

Federations allow smaller states to share the financial burden of running their territory. Secession cost Slovakian citizens who are now a great deal poorer than they were as part of Czechoslovakia. Quebec, had it seceded, would have had to pay for its own army, police, embassies, taxation systems, border control, public service and mints! For small states to break away and become fully self-supporting would hardly be worth­while on financial grounds. WA must have realised this. Only from the moment that WA became a net contributor to the Federal Treasury in Canberra.. were the costs of staying in the Federation a hot issue.

Two years after the 2014 referendum,
thousands of Scots are still marching for independence
Glasgow, 2016, Huffington Post

A final question. How many times can an independence referendum be held, before secession is finally achieved? The cost of staging 2014's Scottish independence referendum came to a staggering £15.8m, so who would pay for a second referendum? or a third? The British PM said that the 2014 referendum result was "'irreversible and binding" but now the Scottish First Minister is planning for a second referendum across the UK in 2018 or 2019. In Canada, Parti Québécois already held a second referendum in 1995 and that time the results were so close (49.4% for secession), a third referendum is still a distinct possibility.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I wonder how many bids for secession are based on freedom ideals and political principles, as opposed to presumed pecuniary advantage. The scars and ill will from secession attempts can last forever, as witness the many ways the Civil War is still being fought in the U.S.

Hels said...


civil war is the most obscene of all wars, with family killing family, towns killing towns. But I wonder if many civil wars started because one side wanted national independence and one side tried to stop it. Perhaps in the Spanish Civil War, at least for Catalonia, but I am unclear about the American, English, Russian etc experience. Freedom ideals and political principles yes, secession not necessarily.

Student of History said...

Can't wait to see the independence referendum in Catalonia in September this year. The Government of Catalonia supports independence but the Government of Spain opposes it.

Hels said...


Catalonia has had a long and troubled struggle for independence. The Catalan State movement started in 1922 and pro-independence parties won the municipal elections of 1931. They proclaimed a Catalan Republic, but that didn't work. And as we discussed today in class, Gen Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938 in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. Keep watching Catalan surveys which suggest that c40% want to become an independent state Vs c47% who want to remain within Spain as an autonomous community.

bazza said...

I wonder if Western Australia's physical isolation from the other great centres of population had led to its demand for secession?
I think it would be disastrous economically for Scotland if they broke away from the UK. I don't think Nicola Sturgeon has the ability to see beyond the feeling of being 'shackled by Westminster'.
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Joseph said...

If I lived in Quebec, I might have voted for independence. But if I lived in the Maritimes, I would have been very unhappy. Those provinces would have been totally cut off from the rest of Canada.

Hels said...


It is a 4,000 ks road trip from Perth to Sydney, and there isn't much in between. So yes, the sense of isolation from all the Eastern States is powerful, both geographically and politically. Furthermore if WA has 10% of the nation's population, then it deserves 10% of the Federal Tax Revenue. Otherwise there will be further calls for Independence in the West.

Hels said...


If Quebec left the Canadian Federation and became an independent country, citizens of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island etc would have no way of getting into the rest of Canada directly. Would those citizens need visas to travel through Quebec en route to the other provinces of Canada?

Some Maritime citizens said they would rather join the USA than being cut off from Canada.

Unknown said...

I suspect that each case of separation has its own justification. Quebec separation at first was primarily driven by ethnic nationalism, and the fear of losing the francophone Quebec cultural heritage in the North American anglo melting pot. The first referendum was held in 1980, when the majority of citizens were still young, and there was a momentum plainly visible, with Quebec chansonniers and writers almost all climbing on the bandwagon towards sovereignty. However, when it came to voting, conservatism held the day, and the referendum was defeated by a 20% margin. The second referendum in 1995 took place in a different atmosphere, as an attempt at modifying the federal constitution to enshrine certain guarantees for Quebec failed at the last minute due to some resistance in western Canada, and emotions were raised on both sides of the question. Seeing as it was now more about pride more than culture, the separatists managed nearly to win the referendum with 49 percent yes versus 51% no, which resulted in Quebec premier Parizeau claiming that it had been lost due to "money and the ethnic vote". This politically incorrect (but probably factually correct) statement cost him his job, and since then Quebec politics has been mainly about health care and corruption... until next time, of course.

Hels said...


each national referendum, as you note, can take place in a different atmosphere and with different goals, even though the state/province seeking independence stays more or less constant. For example if francophone Quebec's cultural heritage was in danger of disappearing, the 1980 independence referendum would have had a lot in common with Catalonian and Slovakian pushes for national sovereignty.

But independent Westralia would have shared exactly the same culture, history, religion, language, cuisine etc as the rest of Australia. So I must start looking at each secession process individually. Many thanks.

Giles Tremlett said...

If Nicola Sturgeon thinks she can ride a wave of anti-Brexit sentiment that will carry Scotland all the way to independence as a brand new EU state, she must think again. The dream of seamlessly swapping the chilly isolation of the United Kingdom for the warm embrace of the European Union has already been dashed by an unexpected opponent – Spain.

Separatist Scots can be forgiven for asking what they have done to annoy the government of Mariano Rajoy – Spain’s conservative prime minister – and his People’s party (PP). The answer is nothing. But at the last referendum the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow were filled not just with flags bearing the cross of St Andrew. The separatist flag of Catalonia – red and gold, with a white star on a blue triangle – was also being waved, as campaigners pursuing independence for their wealthy north-eastern corner of Spain marvelled at the way their Scottish friends were being allowed to vote.

Rajoy’s real aim is to stop Catalan independence. So Madrid would want Scotland to be worse off if it set the precedent of EU members states (which the UK still is) breaking up internally. That might help dissuade Catalans, Basques and others from trying to follow the same path.

Giles Tremlett
The Guardian
16th March 2017

Hels said...


amazing! The separatist flag of Catalonia being waved all over Scotland suggests that Scotland is acting as a powerful model for the next independence campaign in Spain. But do the two national campaigns have much in common? Clearly Spain's prime minister fears they do.

The main confusion for me is combining the concepts of "independence" and "membership in the EU". Brexit may have been an issue for Britain in general and Scotland in particular, but the EU is not an issue in Spain.

WoofWoof said...

I think there has to be a good reason to split up a country, and genuine grievances that can only be remedied by separation. South Sudan for instance is different racially and in its religious profile - and the North repeatedly showed itself unwilling to allow any kind of federal system or toleration of non sharia based law. But looking at subsequent events you wonder if south would not have been better off sticking with the North? I don't think history and nationalism alone are good enough reasons for all the upheaval - eg Scotland's grievances are nearly all historical and psychological. There is no way that Scots can claim to be oppressed and culture/language etc are very much shared with England. I agree that the EU question is a real one but hardly worth severing the union. (With Australia, I wonder why they didn't build Canberra more centrally (not in the outback but maybe near Adelaide? I can understand Perth people feeling isolated and perhaps ignored - a non federal system ruled from Canberra would be difficult.)

Hels said...


many thanks. Re Australia, the two biggest cities both REALLY wanted to become the capital city after Federation. All the government facilities were placed in Melbourne in 1901, but only till land could be found as close as possible to halfway between Melbourne and Sydney.

I agree with you totally about Scotland's grievances being historical and psychological, but as you say, the Westralia push seemed to have been because of physical and political isolation. Now I will have to go and read about Sudan.

Michael Holden said...

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to British Prime Minister Theresa May, formally requesting a second referendum to be held on Scottish independence ahead of the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union.

Scots rejected independence in a 2014 vote by 55 to 45%. But Ms Sturgeon says the situation has changed since 2014, because of Brexit. The results of the June 2016 Brexit referendum called Scotland's future into question because England and Wales voted to leave the EU, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

Michael Holden
Sydney Morning Herald