See a slightly different version here.
I moved to Scotland from the US 10 years ago. Little did I know that I would be helping to decide whether Scotland would secede from the rest of the United Kingdom and become an independent country.
I lived in Canada during one of Quebec’s attempts to break away. It failed, as have other attempts, and the independence momentum seems to have slackened, at least for the moment. At the time, I wondered how many attempts a prospective country gets before it is either successful or it throws in the towel.
The answer, of course, is that it depends upon the political circumstances. But from a philosophical perspective, the answer is as many times as is deemed necessary by the people. This is because self-determination as a principle and a right is an ongoing process rather than a definitive end point. Further, the end points may be chimerical.
On the first point, self-determination can mean many things. For a long time in Scotland it meant having its own legal and educational systems. Then it meant having a parliament which could make some decisions on how its people are governed. If the Scottish National Party (SNP) has its way, self-determination will mean an independent state for the people living in Scotland. If the SNP does not get its way, self-determination will likely mean enhanced tax and spend powers, and maybe a few others things devolved from London. There is also talk of more straightforward federalism. There are degrees of self-determination, and most groupings of people who advocate for this experience something dramatically less than independence. Some might say this is exactly why Scotland should go for it now – this is an opportunity that occurs very rarely. Yet, as we have seen in Canada, this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, while the Yes campaign says this is the only chance Scotland will get, it is quite possible that there would be one or more possibilities in the future if this referendum fails.
In 1998 I wrote in a book: ‘For those who aspire to statehood, they may be seeking a prize with decreasing salience as the twin forces of devolution and integration proceed apace.’ I was referring to the new Scottish Parliament and the expanding European Union which provides another layer of identity and sovereignty, and complicates any attempt to situate absolute political authority. Further, given current flows of resources into Scotland from the rest of the UK, as well as the EU, and given constantly evolving immigration and other political regimes, it is difficult to identify sometimes exactly what being an independent country in Europe means.
But most fundamentally, as someone who was born in a country which broke away from the UK more than 200 years ago, there are two positions of the SNP which I cannot understand. First, it wants to keep the Queen. The Queen is the representation of sovereignty in the UK and head of state of a number of other countries, such as Australia and Canada, and more generally a representation of political and cultural power. Why would the SNP want this? If I were to advocate for independence, I would want full political independence, without any political figureheads from the former regime.
In addition, beyond the question of whether or not it would be good for an independent Scotland to use the Pound, why, as an entity which feels it so important to make such a momentous break from the UK, would it not want to make a clean break? This is the same question with regard to the monarchy. It seems, paradoxically, that Scotland wants to become independent but keep some of the best things about being part of the UK.
I also find it a little strange that I, a US citizen and now dual national of the UK, gets to decide on the fate of more than 5 million people (and indeed the fate of more than 60 million given the potential repercussions on the rest of the UK). I understand why this is the case – and why my Scottish in-laws who live in England are not able to vote.
But it also highlights how this referendum is different from many other attempts at secession. Most have been based on ethnicity and/or some sense of oppression. This referendum is different. It is based on perceived political differences rather than perceived oppression (although this does seep out every once in a while, and the tone of the Yes campaign has changed significantly in the past couple of weeks).
I find this both curious and positive. It is curious because there are equally serious politically cleavages in my country of birth. Indeed, the red state/blue state divide seems to be increasingly apparent. I come from a blue state – Massachusetts – and given what I consider to be the extremely destructive politics which have come out of Texas, I sometimes wish Texas would secede. Yet, I also realize that we are part of something bigger and that I will not always get my own way politically. In the same way, while I am in complete opposition to the policies of the Tories (and was not a particularly big fan of New Labour), I realize that Scotland is part of a bigger political system, and that governments come and go.
It is positive in that the divisions are not as fundamental – even if portrayed otherwise – as one frequently finds in these situations. It is also positive because the more social democratic vision provided by the SNP is one that I find appealing – as does the idea of getting rid of Trident from Scottish soil. So, if Scotland does become independent, I would robustly support this vision and would work to keep the SNP true to its word.
However, I am also aware that even with a perceived balance of political opinion leaning in one direction, the political decisions do not necessarily end up in that direction. In Massachusetts – which was sometimes derisively referred to as the People’s Republic of Massachusetts (and which was the only state not to vote for Nixon in 1972) – people have voted for series of Republican governors and even a Republican Senator, not always to the best effect. In the same way, even though the SNP argues that Scotland has a different political perspective from the rest of the UK, the reality is probably a bit more complicated, and long-term there will be many political divisions which are papered over by the Yes side.
And after the first SNP government, what would we get, given that the SNP’s raison d’etre would have disappeared? What happens when the politics can no longer rely on anti-Thatcherism and anti-Toryism as a touch point? Politics would likely be significantly reconfigured, and the unanswered question is whether, in the end, the politics would be fundamentally different than what we have now. I would hope so, but given so many unanswered questions over key issues of policy, it is hard to know.
The Yes side has a compelling vision, but, given the current state of self-determination in Scotland, with more powers promised, and given the fact that there are still too many unanswered questions – Alex Salmond’s assertions on the currency notwithstanding – it is difficult to see exactly what will be gained by breaking up one of the most successful and powerful countries in the world. If the referendum fails this time, I have no doubt there will be another one if people in Scotland really want this.
And if some of the scare stories the Yes campaign has put forth actually come to pass – such as privatization of the NHS in Scotland – and if the Tories and UK Independence Party get their way and withdraw from, or very significantly undermine, the European Union and other European institutions, like the European Court of Human Rights, my perspective might well be different and I might be a campaigner for Yes. At the moment, though, the ephemeral nature of national politics makes me question whether secession and independence is really all it is cracked up to be.