Hillsdale, Michigan: While Americans are gearing up for fireworks, automobile sales, and burnt hot dogs, the Scots are debating whether to declare their independence from the United Kingdom.   It took Americans one revolutionary war to gain autonomy from the British government and then a civil war to arrive at the proper arrangements between member states and the national whole.  But the Scots, who gave us democracy, enlightenment, whisky, golf, and blue grass have figured out a much easier route to independence from and relationship with the U.K. — hold a referendum.

American journalists and pundits don’t seem to be very interested in the upcoming vote or what it might mean for larger constellations of political power except when world leaders comment.  A few weeks ago President Obama told reporters in Brussels that he hoped the U.K. would remain “strong, robust and united.”  Hilary Clinton also felt obligated to opine when asked by BBC reporters: “I would hate to have you lose Scotland. I hope that it doesn’t happen but I don’t have a vote in Scotland.”  Meanwhile, Pope Francis has left plenty of room for his many interpreters by comparing the situation in Scotland to independence efforts in Italy and Spain: “You have to study each case individually. Scotland, La Padania [northern Italy], Catalonia. There will be cases that are just and others that are unjust, but the secession of a nation without a history of forced unity has to be handled with tweezers and analysed case by case.” Our American Lost Causers must be wondering where all that perpetual union ideology came from if a nation can simply opt out of an over three-hundred year old agreement simply by going to the ballot box.

Sorting out the relations between a nation like the United Kingdom and member nations like Scotland is of course a tricky business and if the state governments of the U.S. could bandy about the word “nation” instead of “state,” perhaps they might get more favorable attention from the nation’s governors in Washington, D.C., and even more respect from their own residents. The U.K. has already devolved powers from London to Edinburgh (and Belfast and Cardiff) but some Scots want enough control of local affairs to consider going it alone (but still within the European Union, ironically). After having spent several weeks in Ireland and Scotland I am still trying to wrap my mind around the complexities of British identity. In Northern Ireland, the unionists of course think that Scottish independence is silly since independence for Belfast would mean being absorbed into the Irish republic, the forerunner perhaps of Scottish independence. But in Scotland, union seems to be resented by a nation of roughly five million people (compared to England’s 53 million) who feel like many conservatives in the U.S. do, namely, that all the important matters of national life are being determined by distant governors in a centralizing and consolidating national capital. For anyone interested in following arguments for and against Scottish independence — from an expressly Protestant outlook — I recommend this debate. But those believers not on the Protestant side of the Christian aisle should also be aware that among Christians in Scotland, Roman Catholics favor independence more than any other communion. (“A study last month, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found 38% of Roman Catholics would vote yes, compared with 31% for members of the Protestant Church of Scotland.”)

The timing for independence, however, may be the major obstacle to convincing a majority of the Scots to vote yes. When the American freedom fighters declared independence they did not have to worry about the staggering levels of bureaucracy and finance that now go with being a nation-state. If you won the war for independence, you could establish a modest republic that allowed the limited functions of government to play out at the local level (and struggle to pay your war debts). But if Scotland declares independence this year, it will have to reckon with its membership in the E.U.,social services for the nation’s poor, what to do about its military, and even whether to continue its — count ’em — 26 universities. One professor from Edinburgh with whom I chatted believed that Scotland would have to consolidate its academic institutions if it declared independence since a nation of only 5 million could not sustain that many universities. Beyond the mere maintenance of universities, scientists at Scottish universities fear what will happen to research funding if Scotland goes it alone:

Citing their combined extensive experience and their “profound commitment” to Scotland, they said they have “grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly competitive area of biomedical research.”

The letter concluded: “We contend that Scotland’s research interests will be much better served by remaining within the common research area called the United Kingdom.”
As evidence, they said Scotland’s universities had won 13 per cent (£257 million) of UK research funding last year despite having only 8.4 per cent of the population.
This accounted for a third of Edinburgh University’s research funding, while the Scottish Funding Council provided only £21 million of the £121 million raised by Dundee University for medical research.

The remaining £100 million came mainly from UK Research Councils, charities based in England and the EU, the letter said.

Americans may be amused by the Scottish debates, but the situation should have some resonance among FroPo’s since part of the point of the Porch is to assert the importance of localism and to live like place is important. For that reason, some of us may be rooting for the Scottish National Party as it tries to rally votes for independence. But it also raises the question of the hardship that will inevitably come to the Scots if they declare independence. (SNP’s projection about oil revenues may be a tad rosy.) For instance, if I had to vote for Michigan’s independence from the U.S. I’d be tempted to cast an affirmative ballot. But I would do that more from my heart than from a head that knows whether this state would be better off managing its own affairs (and paying for them). Given the state of Detroit and the auto companies’ recent dependence on Washington’s helping hand, I’m not confident that Michiganders could do any better than the feds. Then again, if devoluion of federal government included relocating federal agencies around the country rather than having so many federal employees in Washington, I might vote no. Just imagine if Detroit could become the home of Health and Human Services and its 76,000 employees and $961 billion budget.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I think Scotland (and Ireland before it) is the perfect example of why being governed by a far away Parliament is bad news. The Parliament in London will always make policy to advantage England especially the south of England (hence the North of England’s dissatisfaction with Westminster). This disadvantages Scotland – they have had little economic growth in the last 20 years while the UK as a whole has experienced ^% – 2% growth. Their best and brightest are strip mined and leave to go to southern English jobs (there is a saying in Scotland – the best road in Scotland leads south – reflecting that strip mining). They are the most underpopulated country in Europe ( barring Sweden which has all that unpleasant arctic space). Their demographics are suicidal.

    Granted the initial effect of independence would be hard but long term Scotland could revive itself. Otherwise the long term picture under a distant and not so interested in Scotland London government is continued decline.

  2. “if a nation can simply opt out of an over three-hundred year old agreement simply by going to the ballot box”

    Considering nobody asked most of the Scots, who were forced into this “agreement”, why not the ballot box?

    I am rooting for them. It probably will not pass, but it seems that culture will never be the same after all these exciting new possibilities have been aired, and many pointed barbs and jests have been poked at Westminster. Whether or not it passes, a new place has already been created as the next stepping stone for Scotland.

  3. I live in Texas where there is often rhetoric about making the state an independent nation. Though this talk is frivolous, I once made an exercise of determining just what major changes and adjustments would have to occur if such an idea was taken seriously. Several conclusions that I made were: increased taxes, a decline in the refining industry, a strong need for economic protection, and alliances with Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia.

  4. Scotland has a population and a national metropolis of adequate dimensions for a sovereign nation state (see New Zealand, Norway, and Singapore for other examples) and has a per capita income near the British mean. There are a number of frictional and administrative costs which would attend independence, disentangling the financial sector of the two countries foremost among them. They would also have to convey ownership of most of their higher education census and physical plant to Britain.

    The trouble is, Scottish particularlism lacks the diversity of viewpoints you see in Flanders or Catalonia or even (to a small degree) in Quebec. The Scottish National Party is more of a Peronist outfit than an authentically particularist one and critics of Alex Salmond have remarked that his stump talk includes a mess of silliness about Scotland (pop 5 million) playing a role on the world stage. Proof of the unseriousness of the whole venture is the insistence on Salmond’s part in remaining inside the EU, which is a threat to any true local autonomy and his gassing about a currency union with residual Britain, which the British government has made clear will not happen. Proof of the self-centeredness of the venture is the lack of interest in a generalized devolution within Britain as a whole. The North or the Midlands, or the West Country might benefit from devolution as well, but who in Edinburgh remarks on that? Proof of the gauche frivolity of the whole venture is the frequent and continuous denunciation of the United Kingdom Independence Party, who are genuine advocates of greater local control.

    Get some Scottish Nationalists talking, and be prepared for a dose of asininity. The whole movement is sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.

  5. Several conclusions that I made were: increased taxes, a decline in the refining industry, a strong need for economic protection, and alliances with Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia.

    How so? Do you think a Texas military or diplomatic corps will have a higher unit costs than their American counterparts? Why or why not? What would you be trying to achieve with ‘economic protection’? Why would you need an alliance with a very distant country (Russia), a small country also dirt poor (Cuba), and a macroeconomic and microeconomic petrostate basket case (Venezuela)? How could you have come to these conclusions if you were not intoxicated?

  6. There is also the welfare question… Scotland receives more benefits, so I understand (and I live in Scotland and have friends on both sides of the question), and pays less in taxes than the rest of the UK. One friend is leaning towards voting no not only because the SNP is rather immoral, but because they seem to be wanting to get out of their fair share of the debt they and their cronies have created. The “Yes” literature coming through doors talks about how families will be so much better off without England, without discussing at all how this money is supposed to come from so many folks living off welfare. I just moved here, so I am not eligible to vote, but I would probably vote against independence because the campaign is led more by inconsidered devotion to a history of cantankerousness than any thoughtful planning.

    Could it be said that America got away with independence because it was not as tightly connected to the mother country through bureaucracy? That plus the fact that Britain was trying to survive Continental strife…

  7. Scotland is in the fix that it is in precisely because it is in the United Kingdom and the faded empire. If Scotland remains in the United Kingdom, she will continue to be in that fix; however, it appears that the Scots are not going to secede from the EU. That is somewhat like escaping the grasp of Grendel only to find oneself in the clutches of Grendel’s mother!

  8. Great article dgh, and a balanced assessment of some pros and cons. As the question will be on the day, I vote ‘No’. But I secretly want everyone to vote ‘Yes’ anyway.

  9. “A study last month, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found 38% of Roman Catholics would vote yes, compared with 31% for members of the Protestant Church of Scotland.”

    Naturally. The Stuarts and their supporters were Roman Catholic. The Protestant Scots, like the Campbells, were supporters of King George I. Some things never change.

    But analogies to the War of Southern Aggression are foolish. Scotland had a thousand year history as an independent kingdom, or maybe only 700 years, before the Act of Union. It wasn’t exactly conquered… its king became King of England, and things went downhill from there.

    The boundaries of American states were never drawn for independent existence with defensible borders. There are all these straight lines on the map, half the continent drains through New Orleans (which is why the U.S. bought it from France). Texas sought annexation because it couldn’t balance a budget or fend off the Mexican army indefinitely without becoming part of the U.S., not unlike Vermont facing the British in Canada. Secession was always a pipe dream.

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