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Home > Self Determination: International Law & Practice > Normative justifications for liberal nationalism - Margaret Moore

Normative Justifications for Liberal Nationalism:
Justice, Democracy and National Identity

Margaret Moore
[excerpts from 20 page article
in Nations and Nationalism Volume 7 Part 1
January 2001]

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Margaret Moore is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department, University of Waterloo (Canada), where she teaches political philosophy. She is the author of *Foundations of Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 1993) and The Ethics of Nationalism (Oxford University Press, forth­coming). She is the editor of *National Self determination and Secession (Oxford University Press. 1998) - this is an important book and will be essential reading for many in the Tamil diaspora. It contains a collection of articles on the central issues relating to national self determination and secession. Moore has also written articles in such journals as Review of Politics, The Monist and Political Studies on liberal nationalism, citizenship and the principle of national self-determination.

"...The problem in nationally divided societies is that the different groups have different political identities, and, in cases where the identities are mutually exclusive (not nested), these groups see themselves as forming distinct political communities. In this situation, the options available to represent these distinct identities are very limited, because any solution at the state level is inclined to be biased in favour of one kind of identity over another. That is to say, if the minority group seeks to be self-governing, or to secede from the larger state, increased representation at the centre will not be satisfactory. The problem in this case is that the group does not identify with the centre, or want to be part of that political community...One conclusion that can be drawn is that, in some cases, secession/partition of the two communities, where that option is available, is the best outcome overall. .."

"There are many different kinds of arguments that are intended to justify the view that national identity should be given institutional recognition by the state and the international state-system...

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many writers assumed a close relationship between national independence and democracy. The basis of this assumption seemed to be an association between the ideas of national and democratic sovereignty, internal and external self-determination. This is evident in Ernest Renan's (1887) definition of the nation as 'un plebiscite de tous les fours', which suggests the consensual and democratic basis of national communities. In seeming support of this view, many nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century nationalists were committed to democratic governance. The potential for divergence between nationalism and democracy was not evident, as nationalists/democrats (often the same people) organised to fight the anti-democratic states of Russia, Austria and Turkey.

In J.S.Mill's discussion 'On nationality' in *Considerations on Representative Government, he argues that democracy can only flourish where 'the boundaries of government coincide in the main with those of nationality' (Mill 1993: 394). His argument in support of this contention is based on an analysis of the necessary conditions for a flourishing democracy: 'Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the workings of representative institutions cannot exist' (ibid.: 392)...

Here, I argue in favour of the mutually supporting relationship that Mill points to between national identity and democracy.

The strong version of this argument, as put forward by Michael Lind, holds that far from being a threat to democracy, nationalism - the correspondence of cultural nation and state - is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for democracy in most places today' (Lind 1994: 94). Lind supports his claim by listing the various linguistically and culturally divided societies in which democracy has not worked well: Cyprus, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are all examples of failed multinational states; and he explores the precarious nature of the three 'successes': Canada, Belgium and Switzerland...

The weaker version of this argument, which I advance in this article, claims that democracy may be possible in multinational states, usually by ensuring inclusive power-sharing or consociational arrangements, or by forging an overarching political identity. However. I argue that a shared national identity is sometimes important to a well-functioning democracy, because the relations of trust engendered by a shared national identity facilitate vertical dialogue between representative and constituent, and participation in political institutions...

"Nineteen ninety eight is the 50th year of Sri Lanka's independence from British rule. It is perhaps, an appropriate occasion to ask a simple question:

Q. Why is it that in Sri Lanka, for five long decades since 'independence', we have always had a Sinhala Buddhist as the executive head of government?

... During the past 50 years and more, ethnic identity has in fact determined the way in which both the Sinhala people and the Tamil people have exercised their political right of universal franchise. In this period, no Tamil has ever been elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese has ever been elected to a predominantly Tamil electorate - apart, that is, from multi member constituencies. The political reality is that the practice of 'democracy' within the confines of an unitary state has led to rule by a permanent Sinhala majority. A Tamil 'however much he may try' cannot become the executive head of government in Sri Lanka." - Nadesan Satyendra in 'A Simple Question', May 1998

....One of the most pressing problems in societies with severe divisions and this may be true of ethnic, linguistic, religious, national or ideological divisions is the problems that they pose for normal electoral (democratic) politics. The majority-vote rule that confers legitimacy in democratic regimes may function as a mechanism of exclusion. Moreover, I will argue, attempts to construct different democratic arrangements (beyond simple majority vote) to take into account the divisions in the state are extremely fragile or problematic.

Let us take, as an example, a state with two main groups: A, which is the largest (or majority) group; and B, which is the minority group. In a case where these different national communities consistently vote for nationally aligned parties (A vote for the party of As and Bs for the party of Bs), then elections proceed like a census, and the minority group is consistently excluded from power and the majority group consistently holds the reins of power.

Moreover, because the governing party only needs to retain the support of the majority As and any attempt to attract Bs to the party is likely to result in a loss of As support (because these are two mutually antagonistic communities), there is little prospect of changing that alignment. There may be some movement at elections, of course but not of the desired kind - that is, not across national lines. Frequently, a change in electoral support results if group A has two parties competing for the votes of As and group B, while a minority, only fields one candidate (in a first-past-the-post system), then a representative of group B may get a seat, even though Bs are a minority in that riding.

"...The question is not even whether Sinhala rule was oppressive (though, in fact it was). If the question was 'oppressive Sinhala rule', the answer would be benevolent Sinhala rule. There may have been some who regarded British rule as benevolent, but this did not prevent the struggle for freedom from alien rule. It is as a free people, that the togetherness of the Tamil people rooted in an ancient heritage and a rich language will find vibrant expression. It is as a free people that they will be able to nurture the growth of their children and their children's children to the fullness of their potential. The bottom line is that the struggle of the Tamil people is about their democratic right to rule themselves - and it is this right that they seek to protect. If democracy means the rule of the people, by the people and for people, then equally, no one people may rule another..." - Nadesan Satyendra in 'Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam: Getting to Yes', May 2000

The problem with this situation has nothing to do with preference-satisfaction, or with the minority Bs being upset because 'they don't get what they want'. The problem is the permanent exclusion of one segment of the population from a role in making rules that govern the state in which they live.

In this situation, the basic conditions for responsible democracy are not met. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville (1961: 212) argued that, in a well­functioning democracy, the outvoted minority will respect the majority decision in the expectation that, at some later time, they will be part of a winning coalition and will require minority compliance. The reverse would also seem to hold true - though Tocqueville did not spell this out that a majority will tend to refrain from upsetting the minority because they antici­pate that they will be in need of majority self-restraint when they are converted to minority status (Holmes 1993: 30, 44-5). This dynamic does not occur in a state in which different national communities consistently vote for nationally aligned parties there is no outlet for minority disaffection; there is no moderating influence on minority demands; and no mechanisms, at least internal to the democratic system, to prevent the majority from oppressing the minority.

This cycle of majority domination and minority exclusion is, of course, a disaster from a representation standpoint. On the majority-rule system of democracy, the legitimate representatives of community B are permanently excluded from a share of governing. Moreover, in this kind of divided society, there is so little trust between As and Bs that the members of the minority community are extremely reluctant to address their problems and concerns to representatives of the government of the day, for these are themselves As, and are almost exclusively elected by As (and know that re-election depends on the support of As). Vertical dialogue between the minority community and the governing majority is therefore almost non­existent...

This result poses difficulties for the most persuasive intrinsic and instrumental justificatory arguments for democratic institutions. Instrumental defences tend to argue in terms of the good consequences of democratic governance. The most persuasive of these argue that democracy is the form of government most likely to respect human rights, rules of justice, and allow people some measure of control or autonomy over their own lives. In this context, however, minorities have no influence on the government; they are alienated from the political process; and there is no restraint on majority oppression. It is disturbing also for one of the most persuasive intrinsic justifications of autonomy, namely the argument that democracy is intrinsically fair, and that at its heart is a neutral procedure that allows all individuals to have an equal effect in determining outcomes. Viewed in one way, of course, this defence still holds true: each person has a vote and the procedure (narrowly considered) treats each voter in the same way. But, in these circumstances, the majority rule for deciding 'winner' and 'loser' is not a neutral rule for arriving at collective decisions in the face of competing claims, for everyone knows who is in the majority and who is in the minority...

....This does not mean, of course, that there are no mechanisms available to try to treat national identities fairly. Complex power-sharing arrangements may be helpful in such situations, especially if these are accompanied by substantial self-government. Power-sharing is a possible solution to the problem of minority exclusion, especially in non-nationally divided societies, although one that is very difficult to achieve: notable failures include Lebanon and Cyprus, although in the case of Lebanon the power-sharing regime did last for thirty-two years (and so could be considered a success).

Donald Horowitz, among others, has complained that the problem with Lijphart's famous system of consociational (power-sharing) democracy is that it only works in moderately divided societies, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and, to some extent, Canada (Horowitz 1985: 568-76). In seriously divided societies, there is insufficient trust between the two communities even to permit power-sharing. In nationally divided societies, there may be particular problems attached to the level at which power-sharing takes place, and also to the boundaries of the power-sharing unit. By this, I mean that power-sharing may be adequate in ethnically or religiously divided societies, where disputes are mainly connected to the kinds of symbols with which the state is identified, but in a nationally divided society, where the national groups are strongly mobilised in favour of collective self­government, mere inclusion in the centre is insufficient, and must be accompanied by some form of devolved power in a federation or other kind of autonomy arrangement.

In some cases, even this is insufficient. This may be because the relations between the two groups are so bad, and the identities are so mutually antagonistic, that any kind of political arrangement within the state is unthinkable for the minority...

"...A meaningful negotiating process will need to address the question of working out a legal framework for two free and independent peoples to co-exist - a legal framework where they may pool their sovereignty in certain agreed areas, so that they may co-exist in peace. The demand for Tamil Eelam is not negotiable. But an independent Tamil Eelam will negotiate...A meaningful negotiating process will need to telescope two stages in the Singer continuum - independence and beyond independence. Yes, beyond independence. - Nadesan Satyendra in the Singer Error, March 2001

...The problem in nationally divided societies is that the different groups have different political identities, and, in cases where the identities are mutually exclusive (not nested), these groups see themselves as forming distinct political communities. In this situation, the options available to represent these distinct identities are very limited, because any solution at the state level is inclined to be biased in favour of one kind of identity over another. That is to say, if the minority group seeks to be self-governing, or to secede from the larger state, increased representation at the centre will not be satisfactory. The problem in this case is that the group does not identify with the centre, or want to be part of that political community. Of course, from the point of view of marginalised national groups, increased representation may be better than the status quo even if only because it provides a forum in which minority representatives can press the case for what they really want, which is often some form of collective self-government...


This article has argued that there is some validity to contemporary normative defences of nationalism. First, the essay considered the argument that liberal values, and especially the value of social justice, will best be promoted in states whose members share a common national identity. In its strong form, this argument is vulnerable to counter-instances. A weaker version, which claims that, in states divided in terms of national identities, social justice may be precarious over the long term, is more plausible. The second part of the essay argued that there is a close relationship between democracy and national identity. This is commonly accepted, and indeed is almost always supported by reference to J. S. Mill's rather quick argument in Considerations on Representative Government. This section tries to spell out precisely how a common national identity is needed both for representative institutions to function properly and for widespread participation on the part of ordinary citizens.

What are the implications of this analysis for the ethics of secession?

One conclusion that can be drawn, especially from the discussion of nationally divided societies .. is that, in some cases, secession/partition of the two communities, where that option is available, is the best outcome overall.

In cases where a state has two groups with competing, mutually antagonistic national identities, where people consistently, in opinion polls and, most crucially, elections, vote for nationally aligned parties, then the representatives of these groups are not co-operating on the practice of deliberation that is important to democratic governance. Institutional design to ensure moderate elites and power-sharing government may result in very little participation on the part of ordinary citizens.

There may, of course, be reasons why secession is not a practical option: the groups may overlap on the same territory; or their identities may not be incompatible and some form of recognition within the existing state may be the best outcome. However, in some cases, it follows that recognising national identity and rights to self-determination may be necessary to secure the basic conditions for a well-functioning (that is, responsible, representative and participatory) democracy."


1.Mill, John Stuart.1993. Utilitarianism. On Liberty, Considerations of Representative Government, London: Everyman
2.Lind, Michael, 1994 'In defense of Liberal Nationalism', Foreign Affairs, 23:87-99
3. de Tocqueville, Alexis, 1961. Democratie en Amerique, Paris: Gallimard Press
4. Holmes, Stephen. 1993. 'Tocqueville and Democracy' in David Copp, Jean Hampton and John E.Roemer (eds), The Idea of Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
5. Horowitz, Donald L. 1991. A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering for a Divided Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

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