The 1996 Salzburg Seminar was a prestigious international gabfest organized to discuss “cross-cultural perspectives on conservatism.” Worldwide political parties and movements designated “conservative” at home or considered as such by Westerners were invited to explain their views on conservatism, to discuss what they held in common. With representatives from across Europe to Turkey, and even from China, obviously there was little commonality.
Playing by the rules, this U.S. representative suggested that localism and community could be a unifying ideal for the right, at which the French representative nearly swooned, furiously insisting that conservatism was precisely the opposite. It was love of the patria and of its representative the national state, whose point was seconded immediately by the Turkish representative. The Spanish, Italian, Belgian, and several Eastern European national representatives actually denounced local nationalistic movements as threats. But when I suggested sub-national movements were alive even in Britain, the idea was so preposterous the room immediately broke into laughter, with the Englishmen questioning my very sanity.
Two decades later Scotland massed 45 percent of its population willing to break 300 years of ties to become independent of England. Inspired, a million Catalans went to the street to demand independence, and its regional legislature voted to hold a (non-binding) referendum. Basques threatened the same. Flanders nationalists in Belgium promised that if Scotland received European Union representation, so would they. The Italian Northern League, organized around the ideal of separation, cheered Scotland on. Even Bavaria every so often threatens splitting from Germany. Norway and Sweden did separate in 1905, as did the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
All Europe was centralized under divine right kings and nationalisms at great cost in blood and treasure throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, forcing previously independent nations and peoples into the larger units we know today. Germany and Italy were not unified until the 1870s. Hundreds of independent states were dissolved over the period, but most of the successors retained local customs and institutions, many nursing old and developing new grievances against an often remote and unresponsive state. Even France still has restive Basques, Bretons, Savoyans, and others demanding local rights or independence.
Americans certainly have not been immune to the secession impulse, of course, including a great civil war costing millions of lives. While that war presumably settled the matter, even today a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 23.9 percent of Americans would like to see their state pull away from the union, up from 18 percent in 2008. In the previous year under George W. Bush, 32 percent of liberals thought breaking away would be a good idea, compared to 17 percent of conservatives. Today under Barack Obama, 30 percent of Republicans and even 20 percent of Democrats would have their state secede.
Former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul even claimed  a recent “growth of support for secession” inspired by Scotland and demonstrated by the one million Californians who supported dividing the state into six entities, saying this “should cheer all supporters of freedom.” He was congratulated for raising the issue by Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative, but McCarthy responded that secession is not a principle of liberty . Not only does secession often trade one master for another—as Scotland would do under the European Union and NATO—but there is no guarantee the new state would foster internal liberty. McCarthy argues persuasively that for Scotland and America,
secession and union are questions of security and power, which undergird prosperity, self-government, and individual freedom. For much of the rest of the world, poisoned by ethnic and sectarian hatreds, secession means nationalism and civil strife. In both cases, breaking up existing states to create new ones is a revolutionary and dangerous act, one more apt to imperil liberty than advance it.
Indeed, Paul’s own original article on the matter viewed secession sentiments mostly as pressure on a national government to limit its power over local units as opposed to being valuable in itself. He specifically urged “devolution of power to smaller levels of government,” which can be a very different thing from secession. While secession is problematical as McCarthy argues, devolution of power within a national government is essential to liberty.
While unsuccessful as secession, Scotland’s threat forced even unionist party Prime Minister David Cameron to promise greater local autonomy not only for it but for Wales, Northern Ireland, and even England itself, although federalism will be challenging for Britain since England holds 85 percent of the population. While England basically invented local government with the parish (and transferred this ideal to America while it was being suffocated at home), it has long marginalized local government and restricted its powers. Margaret Thatcher, for all of her love of freedom, overrode local governments with abandon. Scotland’s message just might awaken England to its historical ties to local and regional government. Some useful ideas could be found by dusting off its 1957-1960 report of the Royal Commission on Local Government.
Centralization’s historic claim to greatness was ending Europe’s wars, especially those of religion through the 17th-century Treaty of Westphalia. Despite the claim by an overwhelming number of historians and commentators ever since, ending the 30 Years War did not end wars on the continent, much less elsewhere. A long series of dynastic wars followed, including the worldwide War of Spanish Succession, which Americans call the French and Indian War. More important, the 30 Years War was not a religious but a dynastic struggle. Catholic France actually fought on the supposed Protestant side. Major dynastic wars continued right up to World War I.
Westphalia actually created a number of powers sufficiently strong to challenge each other in alliances to decide which would rule, leading to the instability of the period. The world is more peaceful today because only one power emerged from World War II and the Cold War. While the U.S. has engaged more than was prudent, as McCarthy emphasizes, “a world consisting of more states more evenly matched, would almost certainly not be more peaceful.” Those who understand the fragility of freedom “should appreciate that all states are aggressive and seek to expand, if they can—the more of them, the more they fight, until big ones crush the smaller.”
American hegemony properly controlled thus assists world peace, and secession could threaten international and domestic liberty. Still, secession in its tamed form of federalism and decentralization presents the secret to domestic liberty, especially in larger states. The ability to devolve power to the lowest levels possible—first to the individual, then to the family, to free associations and businesses, to the community, to local and regional government, and only to the national state when no other institution can perform the function—allows freedom to adjust to community differences and make individuals more satisfied with their national state.
Where secession sentiments are high, it is a strong indicator that too much power is centralized. It is a lesson for Britain but, alas, increasingly one for the United States as well as a glance at recent federal court decisions immediately confirms.
Donald Devine  is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution , and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.