Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The historical precedent for independence

Independence is often the goal of those who feel subjugated by a greater power. Throughout history there are many high profile examples of nations achieving independence, often beginning a domino effect. The two great independence events of the 20th century provide an excellent snapshot of how independence occurs, and the consequences.

Take, for example, the fate of the British Empire. What was once an entity which occupied vast swathes of the world and a quarter of its population was convulsed by independence movements during the 20th century. States formerly under the imperial yoke achieved independence with varying degrees of success.  While many of these states retained British models of government, some descended into political and economic stagnation, and even dictatorship.

Perhaps the most successful independence movement would be that of the thirteen colonies which removed themselves from the rule of George III between 1775 and 1783. Over the next two hundred years the United States of America would grow to reach from Atlantic to Pacific, and subsequently become the most powerful nation on Earth. Yet the US was not immune to independence movements either, with the secession of the Confederacy in 1861 plunging the country into civil war.

The reverberations of a second great independence event are still being felt across much of Europe. The breakup of the USSR in 1991 spawned a number of independent states in Central and Eastern Europe. This event also freed many other states from the Soviet sphere, countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which were previously afforded only as much independence as the Kremlin would allow. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 bear witness to the ease with which the Red Army (under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact) could be used to suppress any inkling of divergence from the Soviet model.

But there had been other cases where independence proved not quite as liberating. Between the World Wars, a number of states became independent after the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire following their defeat after 1918. These newly independent countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, were soon carved up and swallowed by the Third Reich and the USSR. Here, independence had been fleeting, and left them vulnerable to the new, rising empires.

Independence, then, is not a black and white term. Even after it has been achieved there are repercussions which can provide diplomatic headaches for years afterward. If we take the example of the collapse of the USSR and the status of its nuclear arsenal, some of which was located in Ukraine along with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, both of which were inherited by the Russian Federation.  Russia has in recent years been accused of interfering with the affairs of neighbouring sovereign and independent states most notably in Ukraine in early 2014 but also Georgia in 2008. Many of the former Soviet Republics are dependent on Moscow for financial support and security, leaving their independence questionable.

A little bit closer to home is of course the ongoing debate surrounding Scottish Independence. Autumn 2014 will be a decisive time for the United Kingdom as it faces what may be the greatest constitutional crisis since 1910. Granting independence will have massive repercussions both sides of the border as the division of state assets begins, particularly with the removal of nuclear weapons to a location in what is left of the UK.

Successful independence may also have an effect in Northern Ireland and Wales as nationalists there may be encouraged to push for their own sovereignty.  But newly independent states must also be aware of the consequent problems of international recognition; Spain has famously refused to recognise break away states for fear of encouraging nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque country.

It must be said, though, that independence in the 21st century is not what it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. With the relentless march of globalisation and the proliferation of super and supranational organisations such as the EU, UN and NATO, coupled with greater interdependence with regard to security and climate, it is likely that independence will continue to reduce in practical importance. However it is extremely unlikely to reduce in its emotional potency.

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