There’s an interesting study of independence referendums that has been published in the British Journal of Political Science, titled “Contested Sovereignty: Mapping Referendums over Time and Space”. The study’s authors – Fernando Mendez and Micha Germann – have found that previous attempts to investigate the phenomenon all-too-frequently muddy the waters something terrible: insufficient definitions on what constitutes a ‘sovereignty referendum’, difficulties in determining when exactly the first referendum of the modern epoch was, etc. To navigate these problems and others, Mendez and Germann take the simplest route: ‘referendum’ becomes defined as “any popular vote on an issue of policy that is organized by the state or at least by a state-like entity, such as the authorities of a de facto state”; while ‘sovereignty’ is rendered as “the right to make authoritative political decisions within a territorial unit”. The sovereignty referendum is “a direct popular vote on a reallocation of sovereignty between at least two territorial centres”. This establishes two (primary) forms of political logic: integrative tendencies, which sees the multiple political actors shift their loyalties into a new system with a higher order principle of jurisdiction (prime example being the unification of Europe under the auspices of the EU); and disintegrative ones that move in the precisely opposite direction. Disintegration entails “the dynamic whereby political actors in one or more subsystems withdraw their loyalties, expectations and political activities from a jurisdictional centre and either focus them on a centre of their own (for example, secession) or on an external centre, such as a cultural motherland.”
What Mendez and Germann end up finding is that the amounts of new sovereignty referendums have steadily increased over time, and have continually broadened their scope. For example, referendums tended to be a primarily Western phenomenon for the two first centuries of their existence, but since World War 2 – that is, time frame encompassing the consolidation of a global economic system and the decolonization process – they have globalized. At the tame time, however (and this is critically important for the ongoing interests of this blog), disintegration has not happened at the expense of integration, which itself has advanced in tandem.
Figure 6 suggests some distinctive patterns. Until the post-war period, sovereignty referendums tended to follow the integrative logic, with notable spikes at the time of France’s post-revolutionary annexations, the unifications of Italy and Switzerland in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the interwar period redrawing of the European map. Much of the baseline integrative activity is due to the drawn-out process of the formation of the American union. However, after 1945 referendums tended to increasingly follow the logic of disintegration. Essentially, this is due to three partly overlapping processes: (1) the wave of referendums related to decolonization after the Second World War, (2) the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union and (3) the spike of self-determination referendums referred to in our eighth cluster. Although disintegrative activity has increased, integrative activity has far from ceased and has indeed even increased in recent years. This is mainly due to the referendums triggered by European integration. Finally, Figure 6 points to another recent development: the emergence of multi-option referendums with mixed logic post- 1945, mostly related to decolonization.
We have some of our own predictions here on how this will ultimately shake-out, of course.