The Divide Over Independence: Explaining Preferences for Secession in an Advanced Open Economy

We evaluate the extent to which individual preferences for secession are affected by anticipated trade, fiscal, and employment shocks following independence. We draw from an original survey conducted in Catalonia before the 2017 regional election, which followed a suspended declaration of independence. We show that material interest informs preference for and against secession, complementing existing scholarship that emphasizes ethnic identity considerations. Holding identity constant, respondents working in export-oriented sectors with strong trade ties with Spain systematically oppose independence. Secession supporters are disproportionally high-skilled. The effect of education is not mediated by expectations of postindependence factor returns. Instead, it confounds knowledge of the institutional design of interterritorial transfers. Our data suggest that highly knowledgeable respondents support independence as a bargaining strategy to obtain concessions from the central government. The material basis of secessionist and unionist demands opens the door to transactional politics in an otherwise hardly resolvable conflict type.