Had Scottish nationalists got their way, 2023 would have seen the country head to the polls in a second referendum over independence from the United Kingdom – and they might have won. Whereas the first attempt in 2014 resulted in 55% voting “no,” polls suggest that after Brexit, a majority of Scots might now favour secession.
But that plan for a fresh referendum was scuppered in November 2022, when the U.K. Supreme Court decided that Scotland could not hold such a vote without the consent of the Westminster Parliament. And that permission seems unlikely given that the governing Conservative Party believes the 2014 referendum settled the debate “for a generation.” Even a change of government is unlikely to matter, with the opposition Labour Party indicating that it too is not inclined to allow a second vote.
It seems that when it comes to disentangling nations with a shared government, breaking up can be hard to do.
Yet, some advocates of Scottish independence point to an event that took place 30 years ago as an example of how such a divorce can be amicably managed and beneficial for all concerned: In January 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia were welcomed into the United Nations as separate states.
While it is tempting for some to look back to the Czech-Slovak split for comforting lessons over the long-run consequences of Scottish independence, as a scholar who has studied the politics of Central Europe, I’m mindful of two things: It wasn’t entirely smooth, and the circumstances were not all that comparable to Scotland’s situation today.
Combined at the end of the First World War, the two national identities that made up Czechoslovakia were papered over under Communist rule and burst into the open with the return of democracy in 1989.
This came to a head with elections in the summer of 1992. The decision to terminate the union was rooted in an aversion among leaders of the largest Czech and Slovak parties to sharing power – and a vision of post-Communist economic reform – in a coalition government. The Czech side, which had been secretly thinking through what uncoupling would entail, had no appetite for Slovak proposals of a loose confederation and insisted on a cleaner break.
In the end, a chaotic vote in the federal parliament on Nov. 25, 1992, saw a slim majority in favor of dissolving the unionat the end of that year. But it was messy: The first two attempts failed, and the third attempt succeeded by just two or three votes (the votes cast and tallied did not add up).
Furthermore, the legislature did not have the expressed will of the people behind it – parties that months earlier had campaigned to preserve the union in some form acted without prior authorization or subsequent affirmation by a referendum. Thirty years later, polling finds that very large majorities in both successor states wish a referendum had been held. Czechs still struggle to accept the end of federation, with a plurality of 48% regarding it negatively, while 62% of Slovaks say it was the right thing.
The lack of popular assent notwithstanding, the Czech-Slovak split is cited by advocates for Scottish independence as a model that minimizes the risk of violence and economic disruption.
No doubt, the two new countries seem to have flourished. Both went on to become members of the European Union and the Schengen Area, which allows free movement across much of the continent. They also joined NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Czech Republic is routinely ranked among the safest countries in the world with high scores for quality of life. Its adjusted per capita gross domestic product is now ahead of those of older EU member states such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, and closing in on Italy’s.
Slovakia had to overcome greater political turmoil and structural challenges. But since joining the EU in 2004 and the eurozone in 2009, it has matched or outpaced the Czech Republic in annual economic growth. Indeed, Slovakia has attracted so much investment by foreign automakers that it is now the world’s largest producer of cars relative to population – which at around 5.5 million is almost identical in size to Scotland’s.
Even more so than the Czech Republic, Slovakia confirms that small states can find their way in the world.
As such, it is no wonder that some Scots conclude, “If Slovakia can make a success of itself after the Velvet Divorce, surely Scotland can do so too.”
And Slovakia did so while remaining on cordial terms with the Czech Republic. Setbacks such as the recent Czech reimposition of controls on the border with Slovakia are minor compared with what we see in nearby regions that also fractured in the early 1990s – raging conflicts in the former Soviet Union and simmering tension in the former Yugoslavia.
The velvet divorce
Where the utility of Czechoslovakia as a precedent ends, however, is with the actual process of splitting up.
The appeal of the story of Czechoslovakia’s dissolution is that it seemed to be quick and easy as well as peaceful. In reality, it took years to finalize some issues, such as arrangements for citizens of one state to attend a university in the other and to acquire dual citizenship. Final settlement of the central bank’s balance took until November 1999 to sort out.
Most of the work of dividing assets was governed by a simple 2-to-1 principle that reflected the relative sizes of the Czech and Slovak populations. Liabilities, in the way of external debt, were dispatched on the same basis, and Czechoslovakia had little of it anyway.
The new international border was not agreed officially until 1996 but needed only minor adjustments. Being landlocked, the new states had no maritime issues to resolve.
For several reasons, it is hard to imagine such an amicable and swift grant of independence to Scotland from the rest of the U.K.
For starters, Edinburgh and London might never agree that the time had come to start discussing terms of divorce, in the way that Czech and Slovak leaders did in the summer of 1992.
Scotland’s first minister has said that the next U.K. general election, due to be held before the end of 2024, will be treated as a “de facto referendum.”
The Scottish National Party might interpret a general election result as a mandate to leave, but unionist parties might see it otherwise and refuse to come to the table. Any push towards independence in the face of opposition from the U.K. government could lead to an impasse akin to that between Catalonia and the Spanish government.
Even if talks did somehow get underway, there is no simple rule to hand like the 2-to-1 ratio for Czechoslovakia’s partition. That applied to a process of ending a country, whereas the U.K. would seek to carry on with its remaining parts.
Instead, there would be hard bargaining on every major issue – trade, labor, pensions, currency and banking, debt, citizenship, defense, and borders – including claims to the dwindling tax receipts from North Sea oil and gas fields.
In all likelihood, it would more closely resemble the United Kingdom’s choppy exit from the European Union than Czechoslovakia’s division.
Speaking of which, Brexit itself presents another potential headache. Even if Scotland and the U.K. government were to reach agreement on the terms of any split, they might have to be reopened should an independent Scotland seek to join the E.U. – forcing it to choose between the single market of Europe and that of the rump U.K.
This is not to say that the separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom could not be arrived at. But harking back to events of 30 years ago may not serve anyone’s interests, least of all Scotland’s – especially if the path of the referendum-free “velvet divorce” leaves lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the process.
First published by The Conversation