The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter XIV

The Area of Government---States and Districts

§3. According, then, to what I have called ``the practical ideal'' of modern Europe, it is held to be desirable that a State should be coextensive with a single nation, in the sense above explained. It does not follow that, when this is not the case, any portion of a State may claim the right to secede and form a separate political community, or join an existing foreign State. How far, and under what conditions, this claim is to be admitted is a disputed question; to which we shall have occasion to return after discussing the structure of government and its constitutional relations to the governed. But a provisional answer to this question seems to be here required, before we pass to consider the normal external relations of States.

We may begin by observing that though the right of expatriation is not formally conceded by modern governments generally to their subjects, there seems to be no practical disagreement as to the expediency of allowing discontented members of a State to sever themselves from it, if at the same time they permanently quit its territory;---at any rate, if their departure does not involve the violation of any special or temporary obligations to the State or to individuals. Suppose, for instance, that any number of Collectivists wished to leave any West-European State, in order to try the experiment of Collectivism on hitherto unoccupied lands in Africa, I conceive that no serious opposition would be made to their collective expatriation; except that in a State that had established compulsory military service, their departure might have to be deferred until their respective terms of service had been completed. Speaking broadly, then, we may say that the practically serious issue as to the ``Right of Disruption'' relates not to the mere secession of a group of the members of a State, but to their secession with a portion of the State's territory. On the other side, few would contend that any landowner should have a right to secede with his land from the State to which he belongs: or that any number of such landowners, scattered through the territory of a State, but not forming with other would-be seceders a local majority in any considerable district, should have a right to secede and form a new political community, exercising dominion over this aggregate of fragmentary lands. Any such claim is excluded from serious discussion by the palpable and extreme inconvenience that its realisation would obviously cause.

The main issue, therefore, as to the Right of Disruption may be thus defined: If in any continuous part of the territory of a State, sufficiently large to form the territory of a new independent State, or capable of being conveniently united to an existing State, there is a decided local majority in favour of separation, has this majority a legitimate claim to secede, carrying with them the portion of territory over which their secessionist majority extends? It seems clear that a claim of this breadth would not be generally admitted, merely on the ground that the interests of the seceders would be promoted or their sentiments of nationality gratified by the change: that some serious oppression or misgovernment of the seceders by the rest of the community,---i.e. some unjust sacrifice or grossly incompetent management of their interests, or some persistent and harsh opposition to their legitimate desires,---would be usually held necessary to justify the claim. If no adequate justification of this kind appeared, the forcible suppression of any such attempt at disruption would be approved by the majority of thoughtful persons.

In examining the grounds of this view, we may put aside as antiquated the survivals of the medieval conceptions of government, which, until recent times, caused certain royal families to be widely regarded as having quasi-private rights of ownership over certain territories and indefeasible claims to the allegiance of their inhabitants. Notions and sentiments of this kind have not ceased to have some force but their influence is comparatively feeble and on the whole steadily diminishing: and in a general discussion of the question they may be disregarded. I shall also defer for the present the question of the right to repudiate the results of unjust conquest, which will come under our consideration in the course of the two following chapters.

Putting aside the rights and wrongs of conquest, I conceive that both the strength of the resistance that would be made to disruptive movements by a modern State,---of which the American Civil War (1861--5) gave a striking example,---and the general approval that would be given to such resistance, depend largely on the degree of disturbance that the disruption would cause in the foreign relations of the disrupted State; either through the increased danger of war from the addition of the seceding community to the number of possible foes, or from the mere loss of strength and prestige. Thus the intensity of the aversion felt by the Northern States of the American union to the secession of the Southern States seems to have been mainly due to the fear of future hostilities between North and South, complicated by the intervention of European powers: and it is difficult to deny that the present hopeful prospect---which secession would have destroyed---of maintaining internal peace over the whole vast tract of territory held by the United States, was worth a considerable sacrifice of lives and wealth.

In most cases, a further strong argument against disruption would arise from the inevitable incompleteness of the local separation between the seceders and the rest of the community: the territory which secession would break off would usually contain a minority of inhabitants loyal to the old government, who would be likely to suffer seriously from the change whether they remained within the disrupted district or migrated from it. Hence a tranquil acceptance of the disruption could not fail to have partially the character of a weak and base abandonment of friends. The loss of Schleswig-Holstein would have been less strongly resisted by Denmark in 1864, had there been no considerable number of loyal Danes in North Schleswig; on the other hand, if the Danes in North Schleswig had been sharply and clearly separated from the Germans, we may presume that less resistance would have been made on the German side to a separation of Schleswig into a Danish and a German part, and a union of the former with Denmark.

Other minor disadvantages of disruption would vary in nature and extent in different cases. The loss of the disrupted district might be specially serious, from its containing mines or other natural resources, in which the rest of the State's territory was deficient. Again, the burden of a national debt might be seriously increased by the diminution of the wealth and population consequent on the disruption: and though the payment of a proportionate share of the debt might of course be demanded from the seceders, it might be difficult and costly to enforce the demand: indeed the desire of avoiding this share of the burden of debt might conceivably have been an illegitimate motive to secession.

But over and above these calculations of expediency, justifying resistance to disruption, we must recognise as a powerful motive the dislike of the community from which secession is proposed to lose territory that has once belonged to it, and to which it has a claim recognised by foreigners. This sentiment---so far as it goes beyond a rational aversion to lose a source of wealth and of strength in international conflicts---seems an outgrowth of patriotism analogous to the strong feelings of attachment to land or other property which long and undisturbed private ownership tends to produce in individuals and families. According to the fundamental principle adopted in the present work, this territorial sentiment should doubtless be overridden, when it prompts to conduct clearly opposed to the common interests of the persons affected by it. But this is equally true of the feelings of mistrust or dislike of persons of different speech, customs, or religion, which operate in favour of disruption: both kinds of sentiment have, however, to be taken into account in any practical consideration of a political movement tending to disruption; and the former must be recognised as an important force, operating in favour of existing divisions. Such feelings are intensified by the close connection established in current thought between political societies and their territories: in consequence of which the characteristics of the territory inhabited by the nation commonly occupy a prominent place in appeals to national sentiment. Our imagination seems to require this embodiment to constitute an adequate object of patriotic devotion; so that in thinking of the ``sea-girt isle'' of Britain, or ``la belle France'', we do not ordinarily separate the community from the land, but blend the two into one notion.

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