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Is the Idea of Scottish Independence Baffling?

Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said [1] about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:

Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].

I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.

Western policymakers and pundits are normally too enamored of the benefits of partition, secession, and the creation of new states when it applies to states that they don’t like or that they view as intractable problems. Iraq isn’t stable? Maybe we should split it up into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, regardless of what the people living there might want. Sudan suffers from a protracted civil war? Let’s create a new, automatically failed state as part of the “solution.” Ukraine is politically divided and dysfunctional? Maybe we should cut it in half! [2] Over the last few months, advocating for an independent Kurdistan has suddenly become popular again, as if that weren’t potentially very dangerous and explosive for the entire region [3]. But when there is a popular movement to establish a new state peacefully and it affects a Western country that they know well, it suddenly seems mystifying and bizarre. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they ask. Self-determination and national independence are supposed to be what nations somewhere else want. People living in modern Western democracies are supposed to have outgrown that sort of thing.

If anything, I would think that Americans would generally have a better appreciation than most for why people would want to establish an independent state in spite of the very real costs and economic disruptions that could come with it. After all, the promise of independence for Scotland isn’t that the country will definitely be more prosperous or successful (it may not be), but that the people living there will be able to govern it in a way much closer to their preferences than they can now. That can be worth a lot more to people than sticking with a status quo that may be easier and safer in the short term.

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20 Comments To "Is the Idea of Scottish Independence Baffling?"

#1 Comment By JJM On September 15, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

Daniel,

I agree with the thrust of your post here. What about these examples, though? So, we shouldn’t carve up Iraq without taking their wishes into consideration. Okay, but wasn’t South Sudan a plebiscite, much like the coming Scotland vote? Is there ever a circumstance where it’s good to support secession/independence for people who aren’t us? Sometimes federalization instead of independence is the answer (for example, in Ukraine), but the strife in Sudan wasn’t going to be solved by anything short of an internationally recognized border.

#2 Comment By dSquib On September 15, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

JJM, I think these things should be things that take time, movements built by people who live there. DL is referring to cases where some violence or instability flares up and there’s this immediate push to carve the countries up as part of a “solution”. And we’re by definition talking about cases where western powers would be totally involved. I think there was more involvement by the west in South Sudan’s independence than you suggest though I admit I didn’t follow it that closely. That South Sudan is not a wholly organic creation is pretty evident in the name isn’t it?

Personally I don’t see why the US should oppose or support Scottish independence, or Catalan independence or whatever. I say this as a Scot who supports independence. Because whatever side they support, assuming it has any effect, will skew one side over the other. It’s like with support of foreign revolutions or regime change. If it requires the support of the world’s only superpower to happen, it by definition isn’t “ready” to happen and you’re going to be left with a large imbalance and a lot of resentment (even more than usual) on the losing side.

#3 Comment By Acilius On September 15, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

Most Americans have no reason to follow the debate in Scotland, so would probably chalk a “Yes” vote up to the sorts of concerns you list. If you have been looking at what the Scottish National Party are actually proposing to do in event the referendum passes, however, you will be utterly baffled. This putatively independent Scotland would continue to use the pound, subjecting its economy to the control of a central bank in London over which its people would no longer have even the nominal authority suggested by representation in Parliament; it would rely on Her Majesty’s uniformed services as its primary defence force, again with no representation in the government that commands those forces; and would even retain the House of Windsor at the head of state. How exactly such a situation would qualify as “independence” is beyond me. It would be more accurate, assuming that a separation from the UK were in fact to be negotiated on these terms, to say that a yes vote in the referendum constitutes a vote to reduce Scotland to colonial status than to call it a vote for independence.

Of course, there is no reason to assume that the SNP will get their way in those negotiations. They will encounter problems internally, since some regions of Scotland will vote no, and these are likely to rally to the argument that if the UK is divisible, so too is Scotland divisible.

Scarcely less daunting are the external challenges, stemming from the extreme harshness with which the governments of European countries that are home to their own separatist movements are likely to react to a Scottish yes vote. Not only are countries like Spain and Belgium currently locked in political fights with strong separatist movements which their governments urgently wish to discourage, but countries like France and Italy, where separatist movements are dormant, will want to ensure that those movements do not take on new life, and will be willing to make life quite unpleasant for the Scots in order to make a compelling example of them.

Facing the cold reality of life caught between an estranged England and a bitterly hostile European Union, and starting from the absurdly modest initial bargaining position SNP have staked out, post-referendum Scots may find themselves making concessions they cannot now imagine, and which would constrict the national life of a nominally independent Scotland far more tightly than does the present union.

#4 Comment By dSquib On September 15, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

Will England be estranged? England will become Scotland’s largest trading partner. Which countries have the Queen as head of state? Canada, Australia, New Zealand amongst others. Would you regard them as not really independent? Does HM have any say in the internal matters of these countries?

Non Scottish personnel serving in Scotland will be relocated surely. Scottish troops serving in British regiments will I assume be given the opportunity to serve in a newly created Scottish army. Over time this is not a difficult matter to settle, and Scotland does not have urgent security concerns besides the minor ones created by an activist foreign policy set by Westminster.

The currency is another matter where a temporary currency share will most likely give way to a currency pegged to the pound as with EIRE until 1970.

There are always issues. What I find most generally absurd is apparent belief that there is no precedent for any of this.

#5 Comment By Acilius On September 15, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

“Will England be estranged?” Certainly. Take the question of oil. It was the UK as a whole that acquired title to the North Sea and its oil over the centuries, as it was the UK as a whole that built the oil-extracting infrastructure there. Ought England, Wales, etc yield control of these resources to Scotland cheerfully and without a quarrel? Perhaps they ought! Will they do? Certainly they will not. There will be a fight about that, and fights about national territory make enemies.

“England will become Scotland’s largest trading partner.” Yes, by a long way. And since an independent Scotland could not join the European Union without the consent of every existing member state, including several member states that would be quite happy to starve the population of Scotland to death rather than encourage their own national minorities to move for independence, England would very soon become Scotland’s only trading partner.

“Canada, Australia, New Zealand amongst others. Would you regard them as not really independent?” I wouldn’t regard them as really independent if, in addition to having the Queen’s picture on their postage stamps, they used the pound, had England as far and away their principal trading partner, and were effectively occupied by her majesty’s armed forces.

“Scottish troops serving in British regiments will I assume be given the opportunity to serve in a newly created Scottish army.” That’s quite an assumption- SNP have promised nothing of the kind, and the numbers the Yes campaign throws about when they claim that Scottish tax revenue is disappearing into a black hole south of the border include the entire defence budget as a loss to Scotland.

“Over time this is not a difficult matter to settle,” Well, over a sufficiently long period of time, all matters are easily settled. Wait til the sun burns out, and there may even be peace in the former Yugoslavia. But things were in fact quite peaceful in the former Yugoslavia before 1989, come to think of it- I recall people there in the 1980s assuring me with great confidence that there could never be another war in Yugoslavia, since everyone wore clothing imported from Italy and the USA.

“Scotland does not have urgent security concerns besides the minor ones created by an activist foreign policy set by Westminster.” Who’s to say that England’s foreign policy will become less activist if Scotland breaks away, or that the consequences of these policies will weigh any less heavily on a satellite of England than they now weigh on a component of the UK? On the contrary, I would expect a permanently Tory-dominated England to become an even more zealous henchman in Washington’s international adventures than the multiparty UK is now, and the Crown Dominion of Scotland to be a soft target for the opponents of those adventures.

“What I find most generally absurd is apparent belief that there is no precedent for any of this.” Well, what precedent is there for a sizeable share of a population demanding a drastic political change that will in every way reduce its ability to influence its destiny?

If real independence were on offer, with a Scottish currency, a Scottish military establishment, a democratically elected Scottish head of state, etc, all right. That would be worth debating. But this referendum is preposterous. The only explanation for this campaign being waged on these terms is that SNP want, not for the referendum to pass, but for it to fail. If that happens, they’ll have kept both their election promise of a referendum and their cushy jobs under the UK system.

#6 Comment By Brian Miller On September 15, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

Did the UK as a whole build the infrastructure, or was it largely private corporations (English and foreign?)

Will England have the resources ex-independence to be as activist as its insane elites want to be? Maybe…maybe not. Can one run an entire economy solely on financial manipulation and gambling?

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 15, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Acilius:

You raise real concerns, and raise them well, but they aren’t really relevant to the issue at hand, which is whether Americans (including Americans of Scottish ancestry) find the drive for Scottish independence to be, as Ferguson claims and Mr. Larison disputes, “baffling.” As you say yourself note, most Americans, including those of Scottish descent, have no clue about the issues you raise.

In the first instance, at the very least, the simple, “level one,” desire for national self determination and independence, is not at all “baffling.” The very real problems that you refer to that might come to pass if the Yes vote wins are not in contradiction to that at least superficial appeal of voting Yes (which you yourself seem to admit), and are not widely known outside the UK, and thus are not what Ferguson can possibly have had in mind.

As an aside, while I, to repeat, find your presentation of the case for voting No to be very well done, I would note that, once again, not one positive thing appears among your list. It seems that reasons FOR Scotsmen remaining in the UK, rather than reasons for them not leaving it (or, as you would perhaps have it, for not leaving it in this way), are rather thin on the ground. And the case for the No vote is always framed in terms of “you’ll be sorry, you’ll have it even worse without us,” rather than pointing to anything good that Scotsmen have now.

#8 Comment By dSquib On September 15, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

Acilius, England could object to “handing over” North Sea oil rights on those grounds. In practical terms, what exactly are they going to do about it and to what end? England and Scotland will be trading partners by necessity, regardless of hostility.

“And since an independent Scotland could not join the European Union without the consent of every existing member state, including several member states that would be quite happy to starve the population of Scotland to death rather than encourage their own national minorities to move for independence, England would very soon become Scotland’s only trading partner.”

This is frankly a bit hysterical. “Starve to death”? Which countries wish to discourage Scottish independence? Spain, Belgium? Others might, but care much less. Is this all of the EU? Which country in the world has only one trading partner? Why is it you think this endless parade of horribles will occur here where they haven’t before?

In any case the EU is not the only option. Scotland could more easily join the EFTA. [4]

More generally, what’s currently “on offer” is not everything. Whatever the SNP currently propose, much of it will be irrelevant in 10 years. Scotland will have new elections and a new political process to settle existing issues.

“Who’s to say that England’s foreign policy will become less activist if Scotland breaks away”

I don’t. Although given Labour’s foreign policy I’m not sure how relevant permanent Tory rule would be, though that is itself another fantasy. [5]

“or that the consequences of these policies will weigh any less heavily on a satellite of England than they now weigh on a component of the UK?”

Scotland is currently a de facto satellite of England. Again, I say these threats are extremely minor now and will continue to be, and even less so. If they were 100% more serious, they would still be incredibly minor, if I were to indulge your hypothetical. Also, terrorists are by definition not deterred by military power, see for example 9/11 and thereafter.

#9 Comment By AnotherBeliever On September 15, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

“This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.”

This pretty much sums it up. It’s pretty rich to hear some of the loudest democracy pumpers argue against Scottish independence. There are arguments to be made against secession and ethnic self determination and the introduction of democracy without strong institutions and a sense of civil society. But these arguments don’t usually occur to the people always carrying on about our “values,” at least not until the potential consequences happen quite close to home.

#10 Comment By Richard Malcolm On September 15, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed.

Naturally. Unfortunately, the ones doing the governing of Scotland will be in Brussels – indeed, even more than now, since Scotland will almost certainly be forced to go on the Euro.

Which is why, generally speaking, secessionism in any EU country strikes me as making relatively little sense, unless there’s an explicit disavowal of EU membership.

#11 Comment By Richard Malcolm On September 15, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

Acilius,

It was the UK as a whole that acquired title to the North Sea and its oil over the centuries, as it was the UK as a whole that built the oil-extracting infrastructure there. Ought England, Wales, etc yield control of these resources to Scotland cheerfully and without a quarrel?

Actually, the one problem most observers overlook is that many of those oil fields are near the Shetland Islands. And there’s evidence that the Shetlanders – who are not particularly Scottish – would rather remain part of the UK (they’ve strongly opposed devolution over the decades). If they do, many of those oil fields will go with them.

#12 Comment By Winston On September 16, 2014 @ 12:41 am

[6]

Scotland Wants Independence From London’s Entitlement and Neglect

The upcoming vote on Scottish independence is about self-determination—and acknowledging that London only loves London.

#13 Comment By Winston On September 16, 2014 @ 12:43 am

Once Ireland left, it was only a matter of time that Scotland would to.

#14 Comment By Winston On September 16, 2014 @ 12:46 am

North Sea oil is in decline. let Scotland have it.This has been known for a while. The reason UK has been behind every US intervention in an oil producing country and why it fought to keep Falklands is because it know North Sea oil is in decline.

[7]
Scotland bets on North Sea oil, even as the wells start to run dry

#15 Comment By johnny On September 16, 2014 @ 3:17 am

Everyone is an armchair expert these days and knows best for the fate of a nation when they are not accountable for it.

McCain was ironically quoted regarding Scotland that he does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries.

#16 Comment By SackTheJuggler On September 16, 2014 @ 4:32 am

The status quo might not be easier, even in the short term. The level of devolved power now being promised by the three major Westminster parties is being offered without the consent of the rest of the people in the UK. The 10 million people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already enjoy some form of devolution. England, with 53 million people, does not. If the Labour Party wins the 2015 general election, it is only likely to do so with the help of Scottish MPs. How long would the English be willing to accept MPs from a virtually fully devolved Scotland voting on matters that only affect England?

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 16, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

I am a mild advocate for democracy. Having seen how it’s call has been subverted to anything but.

I even would have opposed our own revolution as utterly foolish. A break would happened eventually over time and would have fostered far more democracy and I think even better economic opportunity for me. We got lucky that Britain underestimated the matter and mishandled occupation. But it was hardly necessary.

Independence is in the modern world is almost a fad as is democracy. Is independence necessary and if so why and consequence should be the over riding issues. Scotts have no9t lost any Scottishness as a consequence, the Welsh are still Welsh, The Irish, that’s the Irish. The Irish are not anymore Irish.

Places in which such independence begs independence are those whose cultural, religious practices are in such conflict that strife is of consequence, such as in the Sudan. And such independence is not foisted on them but seized naturally just breaks. The ME is partly in conflict due to national identity and purpose being foisted on them, the same can be said of Africa – there’s a test case of interference and manipulation in which people’s were pitted one against another to survive. It is a horror story of socialization. A look at the nation state development from colonial Africa would be instructive — though Scottish hands may have been part and parcel to that the colonial endeavor.

Considering our native American territories (nations). Independence was not really independence, but what exists is fairly complex. It might be instructive to look at those treaties. Despite the reality that the Scotts have not been subjected to as extreme segregationist policies as our own native Americans.

I remember in the 1990’s after Tiananmen. There was a sense that democracy as a spirit was calling. It was this unstoppable diaspora making its rounds throughout the globe. I think our giving it a push might have been unhelpful. But I have come to realize that democracy is not the answer for everyone. In fact, the less industrialized a country is the less effective is democracy. I visited Scotland, beautiful country and friendly people, in my view. I wish I had taken off my shoes and actually drank of the society. But I was fighting to hold on to my own anger and my car rental really put a spoiler on what was otherwise a wonderful trip. I am not sure the factories in Scotland would not have suffered economic downturn regardless of Great Britain. On the foreign policy front, Great Britain was all too happy to avenge the take down of the flight in Lockerbie. This my own inexperienced observations.

But again, I am not sure “Long Live Scotland'” is going to have any more meaning as an independent state.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 16, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

I think the case for independence is due to some bad management from London may be a bit exaggerated.

I read the citylab article and it is long on rhetoric and short on data. The one scenario they posit is about Londoners getting priced out and moving elsewhere. The only problem with that observation is that it reflects a dynamic occurring all throughout industrial society.

The wealthy garnering more and more wealth for themselves while pricing more and more people out opportunity to access it. With the contentions that it’s the survival of the fittest being used to defend it or technological ignorance. I am not convinced that the wealthy in London are targeting Scotland as opposed to anyone who might draw from their own corner of the wealth.

#19 Comment By Reinhold On September 16, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

As an American and as a leftist, apparently I’m supposed to ‘support’ national self-determination and anti-British sentiment, but something in, of all places, the Economist struck me: “Scottish nationalists….appropriate the economic pain of working-class Scots and, ignoring the fact that millions of English, Northern Irish and Welsh felt the same way, fashion from it a reason to reject the British state.” Point being that the Scots could have worked to unite the ENTIRE working class of the UK against the British state instead of appealing to petty tribalism and easy anti-British scapegoating, and then very likely giving the Scottish working class more of what the UK has been giving it.

#20 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 16, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

Reinhold:

But isn’t that just more of the same? Rather than pointing to anything good about the current arrangement for Scotts, instead the Economist says, “Well, you have it no worse than the other two non English statelets plus a large area of England itself.” Forgive me, but I hardly see that as a ringing endorsement of the UK government or the status quo! OK, it didn’t “pick” on the Scots, qua Scotts, for discriminatory ethno centric reasons, rather, the central government sold the entire working class, which happen to cluster in all three statelets but also in large parts of England too, down the river. Therefore, the Scots should stay in the Union? How does that follow?

Also, it seems to me that the Economist, of all media, is shedding some crocodile tears. Yeah, I bet it is real worried that the withdrawal of Scotland will hurt the working classes in what is left of Britain, and in Scotland too! That, the fate of the working class, has always been the main concern of the Economist, after all! /sarcasm.

How about, instead, a new Scottish polity will at least give the working class in Scotland a chance to influence and decide the policy of a regime closer to home, not so beholden to “the City,” not so tied to the Big Banks, to the multinationals, to the USA, and so forth? What basis is there for the prediction that, once the “easy” anti English “scapegoating” is done and the “petty tribalism” indulged, ie once the Yes vote wins (if it wins), that the new Scotts government will stick it to the Scotts working class? How does the Economist know that this will happen? It doesn’t. And would probably applaud it if it did anyway!