Referendums and Ethnic Conflict

By Matt Qvortrup | Go to book overview

Introduction

The core problem in political theory is that fundamental and equally axiomatic principles often collide. A paradox can almost be defined as a clash of two equally incontestable maxims of truth. Two such “truths” are (1) that each nation has a right to determine its own affairs and (2) that the majority has a right to govern. Admittedly these “rights” are tempered by the recognition that no nation and no majority may ride roughshod over minorities. But this caveat notwithstanding, national self-determination and majority rule are principles to which few fundamentally object. Indeed, defending the reverse positions would appear politically absurd. But the problem is that the two principles often are incompatible. To understand why, it might be useful to consider a distinction used in ancient Greek. The Greeks make a distinction between the people as a nation (ethnos) and the people as a body of citizens (demos).1 In the classical city-state—or polis— the two were congruent, and in some present-day nation-states, such as Norway and Luxembourg, the same is broadly true. But more often than not, the two concepts are in conflict. To take an example, small-town English politician, the Conservative councilor Rob McKella from Corby in Northamptonshire, believes that people in England should be given a right to vote on Scottish independence.2 After all, he argues, the voters are citizens in the United Kingdom and collectively constitute the demos. However, most people in Scotland, by contrast, believe that only people living north of the border should be allowed to vote as these people—perhaps alongside Scots living in the diaspora—constitute the ethnos and hence have a right to self-determination. As will come to be obvious, these two worldviews, both based on solid arguments, do not combine.

This book is about this conflict between the ethnos and the demos, and about the problems that are raised when solutions to ethnic and national issues and conflicts are sought through referendums. Our main focus is to

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