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Should I stay or should I go? And who decides?

Dr. Alison Holmes (an unexpected rock chick) compares Scotland's secession referendum and California's mini–state movement

The Clash's question is on many minds – and not just in Scotland. Puir wee grumpy Alex Salmond has finally been forced to deal with some of the issues created both up and down the line by his woefully under–scrutinized plans for a fully independent Scotland. Meanwhile, across the water on the west coast of America, a plucky venture capitalist (aren't they all plucky?) has been suggesting the break up of the state of California in the form of the 'Six Californias initiative', a proposal that has been long in the making for some parts of the state, but newsflash–worthy elsewhere. How do American and Brits view contemporary 'secessionist' movements and what constitutes the 'core' constituency?

Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, is pushing for full independence for his nation.
Salmond has been coping, not altogether well, with recent bumps along independence road. First, the Norwegian Scots of Orkney and Shetland have suggested that, rather than follow the Nationalists into an abyss, they might like to stay with London thank you very much. Alternatively, they have posed the idea that they, too, might like to be their own little island state – an idea first proposed back in the 70s and made possible with all that handy North Sea oil that surrounds them. Unfortunately for Salmond, he has already at least double–counted the proceeds from the North Sea for his own plans, and has little more than a fingernail hold in the politics of Orkney and Shetland. The long–rooted Tavish Scott, MSP for the islands and leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, is unlikely to rush to create a new country, but he is enjoying directing his sharp suggestions to tender places of the SNP program.

Closer to home, the troika of power to the south in the form of the Coalition plus Labour, have announced that, contrary to Salmond's glib assertions that all would remain stable, they would not recognize Scotland in a currency union. Salmond has declared it a bluff he intends to call, but given the longstanding refusal of the UK to join the Euro by arguing they will not give away any fiduciary responsibility, he might do well to take care.

Further afield, the freedom case has also been dented by José Manuel Barroso, current president of the European commission, who recently threw a caber or two of his own. In the EU, the idea of bits of countries declaring themselves independent tends to cause angst – not least from Spain. Doubtless with that in mind, Barroso suggested that, if Scotland should decide to leave the UK, they may find that all of their treaties with the European Union are null and void. Scotland would first have to apply for entry as a separate entity, then renegotiate all of the (relatively lucrative) treaties in terms of fishing, agriculture, investment etc. This should send a shudder down the spine of any thrifty Scot looking to their pocketbook.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Tim Draper, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley, has created (and financially backed) the 'Six Californias' initiative. It is worth noting from the outset that, if CA went the way of Scotland towards State–hood (vs just statehood) it would instantly become the 9th largest economy and the 34th most populous place in the world. Instead, CA claims it wants to go the other way to carve out 6 separate small 's' states within the existing Union (capital U). So far, and true to Salmond's game book, Draper has been able to propose some fairly radical ideas while facing little serious scrutiny. That now looks set to change give that, what first seemed to be more fluff than foment, Initiative 13–0063 was officially cleared by the California Secretary to begin the referendum process. According to the rules of this unusual state, he now has about 4 months to collect the 800,000 signatures necessary to place his motion before the people of California. Of course the problem, as with so many ideas that find their way from radical idea to the law books here in the far west (and as Salmond is now finding) there are a number of other folks who will have something to say about this, most of them concentrated in faraway places.

Like the islanders of Scotland, this is not the first time there have been murmurings of discontent in the management of the behemoth of California. California became a state in 1850, but it was settled long before not only by Native American tribes, but also Russians and Spaniards. The Russians settled along the coast claiming much of Washington, Oregon and into California as far as what is today Mendocino County and regularly trading with San Francisco, while the Spanish Empire or old Mexico extended up the coast to the current southern border of Oregon, across parts of Idaho and well into Wyoming before taking an angled turn south to include most of Colorado, the Oklahoma panhandle and most of Texas.

Given this recent history in terms of an overlap of identity and interest, it is perhaps not surprising that it is in the far north of California that the desire for change has been most evident. A separatist movement known as Cascadia hasn't gained much support, but the state of Jefferson, covering much of the same territory as Cascadia and designed to cover the rural, relatively isolated coastal communities between Oregon and California, has been slowly gaining strength.

Draper has had the sense to leave Oregon out of his plans, but Jefferson would become reality under the Six State Initiative, at least on the CA side (it remains to be seen how their Oregonian cousins would react). The other 5 states, he argues, would become more coherent in terms of interest and economy. Like other secessionist movements around the world, there is a long memory for history, language and culture. However, the American experience of such issues is but a dot on the timeline of history, perhaps explaining the different tone of voice in the American debate. The Scots – and the Norwegians – of the United Kingdom arguably have a clear and distinct identities, if slightly manufactured for the modern ear, whereas, the 'melting pot' idea of American identity means the discussion is framed more about pragmatism meets economics. Happily, and perhaps the result of decades and centuries of peaceful if skewed democracy, the very notion of a civil war, while part of the history of both the UK and the United States, still seems remote. Sadly, that is far from the case in Sudan and Ukraine where brinkmanship and blood continue to fill our front pages.

The question of who gets to secede from what and why has become almost daily fare in the post–colonial, post–Cold War, post–globalization world and the distance from cohabitation and interdependence to fragmentation and civil war seems dangerously small. The lesson of the Balkans is surely that even in places where people were neighbors and friends, it took frighteningly little to spread the seeds of mistrust and a harvest of violence.

Should I stay or should I go? Either way, be very careful what you wish for.

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