Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Referendums and sovereignty

Next week, the Scots will get to vote to determine whether Scotland becomes its own country.

As a middle-aged Quebecker, I spent much of my youth hearing about the separation of Quebec from Canada. We had two referendums. The first one in the 1980s was defeated decisively. The second one in 1995 was a close call. Because of these two failures, I get to live in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world instead of an independent (and poorer) Quebec.

There is much to be said about the United Kingdom. It is a fine country. But If I were in Scotland, I’d vote for the independence of Scotland the same way I could be convinced to vote for the independence of Quebec.

Why? Because a fragmented Europe took over the world.

Let me explain. If you go back a few centuries… you had huge empires in China and India. The Qing dynasty ruled over 300 million individuals while the Maratha Empire counted 150 million individuals. In Europe, you had a giant mess. Lots of small and weak states. Instead of the modern-day Germany, we had a collection of small kingdoms, the largest one being maybe Bavaria. Italy (and the Italian language) only came about in the second part the IXXth century. France was a collection of culturally distinct provinces, with the French language becoming a standard only after the French revolution. Scotland joined England only in 1707. This patchwork of weak states enabled great prosperity, at least locally. First in Venice, then in the Dutch Republic and then in England. Venice counted less than 200,000 people, the Dutch Republic had fewer than 2 million people while England had 5 million people.

There was so much prosperity that the Dutch and then the British took over the world. They could afford it.

People look at Europe and think that the lack of unification is the problem. One united Europe would be stronger. But that is like saying that by putting all your eggs in the same basket, you can carry eggs more efficiently.

Europe contributed most as a political laboratory. It gave us the democracy, the industrial revolution and modern science.

It is entirely possible that the United States works better as a giant unified country… But then you get things like an all-powerful spy agency and a federal government that can arm the local police forces for war. If you broke up the USA into small states, at least some of them would be free from this nonsense. Some of them would not have gone to war in Irak. Small countries tend to trade more with other countries than large countries, and trade discourages war. And as an individual, you would have more choices. You could move more easily if you disagreed with the current policies.

Of course, small countries do not have large open markets. But the only 6 countries that offered economic freedom in 2014 are Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. They are all relatively small countries in terms of population. The largest ones (Canada, Australia) are modest countries on an international scale… So some small countries can be nice places where to run a business despite their size.

How far would I go? I think that the idea of the city state had a lot of good. The 5 richest countries in the world right now on a per capita basis are Qatar (2 million people), Luxembourg (500,000 people), Singapore (5 million people), Norway (5 million people) and Brunei (400,000 people). Let cities compete for talent and industries. One screwed up city will not harm us much, while one great one can make all the difference. Have Montreal compete against Toronto and New York City. Singapore proves that it can work.