Locating Secession in a Liberal Democratic Theory: An Analysis through the lens of Harry Beran Part-1


 Harry Beran provides political philosophy’s first ‘liberal’ theory of secession.1 His theory is commonly attributed to the ‘Associative Group Theories’ with the likes of Wellman.In the ideal theory, the liberality of a state is determined by the voluntary relationship it shares with its subjects. Beran places weight on this voluntary relationship to develop his ‘Withdrawal of Consent Theory’ where the legitimacy of the state is determined by the explicit consent of its members.He argues that ‘National Self-Determination’ cannot subsume the ideals of secession as national unity can be questioned on grounds more than the heterogenous composition of the state.4 Therefore, he developed his theory based on Personal Self-Determination. 

Based on this theory, secession is justified if a numerical majority in a territorially concentrated group withdraw their consent from the state, subject to moral and political considerations.5 He locates his consent theory in liberalism by invoking Locke and Schick’s understanding of the revocability of consent in a membership contract.He refuses to allow secession on mere ‘moral grounds’ which would entail either oppression or a determination of a nation’s identity. To this end, he reasons that right of individual autonomy is wide enough to encompass desires for a distinct authority backed by adequate political action.7

Moving away from ideal theory, he is cognizant of the practical implications of the consent theory. Therefore, he proposes six conditions for permitting secessions: (i) When the seceding group is not sufficiently large (ii) It does not permit recursive secession (iii) It exploits territorially dispersed minorities incapable of further secession (iv) It could potentially form an enclave (v) It occupies an area which is culturally, economically and militarily essential to the state and (vi) if it occupies highly disproportionate economic resources of the territory. It is pertinent to note that for Beran, the last three conditions are not insuperable barriers as they can be negotiated to allow secession.8

Throughout this paper, I will question and counter-argue the criticisms against Beran’s placing of secession in the liberal democratic framework. In Section I, I establish the different interpretations of Lockean Right to revolution by two schools of thought. Section II provides a counter-argument to X’s claim against Beran’s theory through the concept of interrelated rights in Liberal philosophy. Section III analyses and critiques Alan Buchanan’s argument against ‘Primary Right Theorists’ on the basis of Territorial Integrity. Section IV offers my own criticisms against Beran’s theory which I have tried to counter-argue using Beran’s understanding of liberal theory. Section V offers limitations to Beran’s framework which I was unable to argue against. 

SECTION I: Secession in Liberalism – Different Interpretations of Liberalism

Political Philosophers have used the Lockean understanding of revolution to establish the right to secession. They argue that if there are conditions for a right to revolution against an illegitimate and unjust government, it analogously provides the right for secession against a tyrannical government in circumstances where the right to revolution would be ineffective, unlikely or against liberal principles. However, there are two ways in which this understanding of a right to revolution has been interpreted by philosophers. The ‘Remedial Right Theorists’ believe that the Lockean theory must be interpreted to provide for a right to secession when the government has been unjust to its subjects. Consequently, in both revolution and secession, this right is understood as the right of persons to defend themselves against political authority that has become illegitimate due to neglect of citizens’ needs. Therefore, this is a remedy of last resort.9  

The second major interpretation of the Lockean revolution is by the ‘Primary Right Theorists’. They interpret the right of revolution to provide the possibility of ‘revocability’ of consent in a social contract against a government. This allows for the revocation of consent from a government irrespective of its legitimacy. The right to individual autonomy and choice can therefore trump the collective interest of the sovereign state to maintain its territorial integrity and unity. Therefore, the Primary Right Theorists developed the ‘Withdrawal of Consent Theory’ where the right to secession is possible when subjects revoke their consent from the government irrespective of its legitimacy.10 

SECTION II: Argument from Interrelated Rights

Michael Freeman argues that the classic version of liberalism was not situated in the value of individual autonomy but in a moral system of interrelated rights and obligations.11 In this conception of liberalism, although individual autonomy remains an important value which can trump collective interest but could only be protected within a regulated system of rights. Hence, an individual’s autonomy could and must be regulated in a system of rights where it would be subjected to the rights of others. Therefore, in their conception, the classic liberal view would not hold individual autonomy to be foundational but consider it to be an important value that society would protect. This provides for a refusal of Beran’s presumption for secession in liberal thought for Freeman.12 I do not find this criticism to be valid for two reasons.

Firstly, although the foundation of Beran’s consent theory is individual autonomy he does not locate his theory on just one value. He is cognizant of the system of interrelated rights that would be impacted due to secession and for the same, he develops several conditions which would justify a secession. In an illustration, B is a territory where X and Y are spread throughout the region. In C, Y remains a majority and wishes to secede. This secession now would be subjected to several conditions. Condition (i) ensures that the seceding group is large enough to assume the responsibilities of an independent state. This ensures that the right of the seceding people to continue as a free political association would remain protected (Annex 1). Moreover, Beran also allows for recursive secession in the case now in territory D, X wants to secede (Annex 2). This along with Condition (iv) protects the rights of dispersed minorities in the territory C. Furthermore, there still remains a veto form of right with the citizens of territory B to stop C’s secession. This can be furthered by providing an understanding of conditions (v) and (vi) where the right to secession can be overridden by genuine moral and practical considerations. Beran also provides for the right of the territory E to veto the joining of C if they do not wish to federate (Annex 3). Hence, this theorisation becomes compatible with J.S. Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’13 where one has the autonomy and liberty to undertake decisions without harming another individual’s liberty. Through this example, I have used Beran’s theory to explain how his secession theory works in a system of interrelated rights.

The second reason why I think Freeman’s view is invalid is based on moral grounds. Liberalism provides for no moral right to be permissibly overridden regardless of the social benefit that might achieve (here the right of C to secede).14 Hence, liberal thought provides for an inviolable status to rights.15 Therefore, having established the importance and inviolability of individual rights under liberalism, I argue that X does not provide sufficient grounds for the right of individual autonomy to be overridden. He provides that the right of secession should only be on the grounds of social justice. Therefore, for him, the right of individual autonomy to secede could be exercised only when there has been some form of injustice against Y. However, even in a system of interrelated rights, the right of individual autonomy to act as a trump against other moral and political considerations would still remain.16 This leads to the conclusion that the individual right to autonomy remains inviolable, thus allowing for the secession of territory C even in a system of interrelated rights, subject to conditions laid down above. 

The aforementioned understanding of liberalism helps me segue into the next criticism offered against Beran’s theory. X has argued that there could be no reason for C to separate from B if B is a ‘just liberal state’.17 This is because, in X’s perception, a liberal state becomes ‘just’ if it offers protections to the various liberties that X and Y enjoy. It is pertinent to question whether liberalism grants individual autonomy to human beings as a natural and inherent right or something that a liberal state ought to protect which can override the exercise of certain individual rights. This becomes important because if Liberalism only protects the latter then a democratically elected government which is just in its actions would never provide a right to secede rooted in liberalism. I argue that this understanding of liberalism is incompatible with the classic liberal framework. As Locke would argue, these rights are ‘inherent’ to the essence of humanity and the state’s existence is not a prerequisite for the same.18 A similar understanding can therefore be extended to the overriding ability of these rights against a just liberal state. Thus, I conclude to affirm that due to the presence of inviolable natural rights which exist regardless of the state, the presence of a ‘just liberal state’ does not override Y’s ability to exercise the right of individual autonomy in seceding from the territory B. 


 1Harry Beran, ‘A Liberal Theory of Secession’ (1984) 32(1) Political Studies 21. 

 2Christopher Heath Wellman, A Theory of secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination (Cambridge University Press 2005); Allen Buchanan, ‘The International Institutional Dimension of Secession’ in Percy B. Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 228. 

 3 Beran (n 1) 24. 

 4 ibid 22-23.

 5 ibid 29.

 6 ibid 25.

 7 ibid 27-31.

 8 ibid 30-31.

9 Allen Buchanan, ‘The International Institutional Dimension of Secession’ in Percy B.Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 229.

 10 Beran (n 1) 25. 

 11Michael Freeman, ‘The Priority of Function over Structure’ in Percy B. Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 21.

 12 Michael (n 11) 21-22. 

 13 J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Dover Publications 2003); Allen Buchanan, ‘The International Institutional Dimension of Secession’ in Percy B. Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 247; Christopher Wellman, ‘A Defense of Secession and Self-Determination’ (1994) 24(2) Philosophy & Public Affairs 142, 163. 

 14 Hillel Steiner, ‘Territorial Justice’ in Percy B. Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 64. 

 15 Ronald Dworkin, ‘Is there a right to pornography?’ (1981) 1 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 177; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford University Press 1974); John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press 1972). 

 16 Ronald Dworkin, ‘Is there a right to pornography?’ (1981) 1 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 177. 

 17 I emphasize on the word ‘just’ used here as states can be liberal without being just. See more: Keith Dowding, ‘Secession and isolation’ in Percy B. Lehning (ed), Theories of Secession (Routledge 2015) 72.

 18 John Locke, ‘Two Treatises of Government’, in Peter Laslett (ed), Locke: Two Treaties of Government (Cambridge University Press 1967) 364.

Nidhi Agrawal
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