Scottish Independence: to What End?

Sometimes divorce is the right answer. Even Jesus, whose statement in Matthew 19 that “anyone who divorces his wife… and marries another woman commits adultery” is one of the most emphatic biblical condemnations of divorce, makes an exception for cases of “sexual immorality”: i.e., where the covenant of marriage has been irretrievably broken down due to a party’s unfaithfulness. But divorce still remains a “nuclear option”: it is not something to be done lightly, on the basis of individual advantage or flight of fancy. Although the grass may appear greener on the other side, such wishful thinking does not justify the trauma of separation.

While the analogy of divorce has been applied to the Scottish referendum on independence, it is an indictment of our age that neither divorce nor the possibility that Britain might be rent asunder are considered with due seriousness. As Martin Wolf comments in the Financial Times, the debate over Scottish independence has so far been a paltry affair, with both sides focusing on what are ultimately insignificant details: whether Scotland could keep the pound, what happens to Scottish military regiments, would the average Scot be materially better off.

Can you imagine Thomas Jefferson listing such considerations in the Declaration of Independence? Of course not, and not because there wouldn’t be significant short-term effects. The signers of the American Declaration of Independence would have been keenly aware of the short-term challenges independence would present, not least the prospect of being hanged for treason. But American independence is a useful model of what a legitimate political divorce looks like: a relationship so broken down that it was truly worth the trauma of separation and the death and destruction that it wrought to be “free and independent States”.

A more recent example is the Republic of Ireland, where again a significant portion of the population was willing to endure serious economic and political hardship for the sake of independence, with 2,000 people from both sides losing their lives in the conflict. Although the Irish situation was arguably less clear-cut than the American one, there was still a pretty strong case that the relationship had been strained beyond the point of mending.

But is that what the current campaign for Scottish independence looks like? How many Scots would be willing to die so as to be free of the English (and Welsh and Northern Irish)? Not many, I’d wager. How many people are even committed enough to independence to ignore the short-term economic and political fallout? My sense from the long-term polling data is that it’s certainly less than 30% of the population. To my mind, that looks more like a relationship in need of counseling rather than dissolution.

Maybe as an American (albeit a British resident) I don’t have a right to wade into this debate. But, having grown up in the American South in a family of Scottish descendants, I know a thing or two about regional grievances. And sometimes it helps to have a bit of perspective. So, for what it’s worth:

  • Remember that the political union between Scotland and England came about because the Scottish King James VI became the English King James I. From the outset, this was not a union born of conquest like that with Ireland, whatever disputes came before or after. England and Scotland joined together as political equals, despite their ethnic and cultural differences: an incredible achievement and one unique in modern history.
  • The relationship between the two countries has been incredibly fruitful. England has benefited greatly from ideas and industry of Scots, from David Hume and Adam Smith to James Watt and Alexander Fleming. In many ways the modern system of democratic capitalism is a direct result of the union of these two countries: England developed the idea of the rule of law and parliamentary supremacy, while the Scottish Enlightenment provided the foundations of modern economics. Scotland also has a great literary tradition, from Robbie Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson to J.K. Rowling. And for centuries Scots have fought and died alongside the English, more than once facing down together an existential threat.
  • The English sometimes forget how much their own culture and history is intertwined with Scotland’s, which is a shame because at the moment they don’t seem to realise that they’re one of the parties to this divorce, even if it’s not their decision. The links between these two countries run much deeper than a shared currency.
  • One of these links is the free movement of individuals. Over 800,000 Scots live in England, while 400,000 English, Welsh and Northern Irish live in Scotland. Do the Scots really want to wake up next March to discover that their relatives south of the Tweed no longer share the same passport? Is it right that Scots living in London are ex-patriated by their fellow countrymen without any say in the matter? While these issues might not matter so much on a practical level initially, given an independent Scotland’s plan to be relatively generous with citizenship, what about when future generations can’t be bothered to get the other country’s passport? Inevitably movement between the countries, which has been so fruitful for both, will slow as the populations grow apart. Are the Scots really better off isolated? Are the English (and Welsh and Northern Irish)?
  • Given these considerations (and, admittedly, the short-term practical obstacles as well), what does Scottish independence achieve? Why destroy such a successful union of four great peoples? As Tyler Cowen comments, “For all its flaws, the UK remains one of the very best and most successful countries the world has seen, ever.” The burden of proof is clearly on the Scottish nationalists to make the case for dissolution, and yet the unionists do not seem to be pressing the issue. Are they afraid of the answer?

It is these sorts of fundamental historical, cultural and emotional considerations that are the proper subjects of discussion in any political divorce, not what Scotland’s budget will look like in 5 years’ time. The “Better Together” campaign has made a serious error thus far in seeking to appeal only to homo economicus: people instinctively know that Scottish independence is a more serious question that this, and focusing on individual self-interest is both off-putting and plays into the hands of the nationalists who, on an emotional level, are stuck below 30%.

Nationalism may appear to be all the rage these days, with the rise of nationalistic parties across Europe in the recent European elections, but I don’t think what voters for UKIP or Germany’s AfD are supporting is nationalism per se. Instead, votes for these parties are protests against political inauthenticity: against the un-democratic imposition of a European super-state on peoples who are content in their own national identities.

The same argument applies, but in reverse, to the Scottish vote: are Scots, fundamentally, British or not? I think the answer, after 300 years of political union and an even longer shared history, is yes they are, and that it is attempts to distinguish between Scots and Brits that are inauthentic. (The English who are complacent about Scottish independence should ask themselves the same question: is there any meaning to being British if the term doesn’t include the Scots?) But whatever the answer, Scotland will be doing itself a disservice if it votes in September without considering this question. After all, there’s no going back.

1 Response to “Scottish Independence: to What End?”

  1. Nancy Mc says:

    This is the clearest explanation of this pending decision and its ramifications that I have read. Thank you!

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