The paradox at the heart of Scotland’s independence debate

01 October, 2014

To observers outside Scotland, particularly those living in former British colonies, the result of the recent referendum on independence from the United Kingdom was briefly puzzling. To members and supporters of other campaigns for national self-determination—in Catalonia, Kashmir and Tibet among other places—it must have come as something of a disappointment.

However, a little history is enough to make it clear that Scottish voters—or the 55 percent of them who voted “No” to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”—were not voting for subjection or slavery. There has never been a plausible case for comparing Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom with that of a colony of the erstwhile British empire. To their credit, pro-independence campaigners seldom tried made the argument in those terms.

They could not have got away with doing so if they had tried. Scotland’s incorporation into a political union with the rest of Britain had been the product of negotiation, not conquest. The subsequent history of the Union would throw up few cases of Scots oppressed by the English comparable to what the Scots and English together did in Asia and Africa (the Scots famously did very well out of British colonialism). Twentieth-century champions of Scottish independence saw that the history of Scotland in the Union simply would not yield the sort of grievance that could sustain a separatist movement of the familiar sort.

In the relative non-violence and civility of its movement for self-determination, the campaign for Scottish independence has been quietly impressive. But few general lessons can be drawn from this or any other fact about Scotland. Other separatist movements have resentments that are deeper, and involve precisely those passionate questions that Scottish nationalism has made such a point of disowning. But then, the Scottish nationalists didn’t need to go there. After all, there are no English soldiers patrolling the streets of Edinburgh, no attempt toincentivise migration from Kent in order to change the ethnic composition of Glasgow, no systematic attempt by the Church of England to destroy the Scottish Presbyterian Church or the Gaelic language. Hence the paradox: there is unlikely to be strong enough support for secession from a country willing to allow a referendum on the question.

The movement for Scottish independence has looked instead to a different set of resentments. The nerve of their case has been the unfairness of Scotland’s relatively social democratic electorate being subjected to the economic and social policies of successive governments dominated by mostly English politicians representing their relatively conservative constituency.

The positive case for separation invoked the possibility of building a more robust welfare state, funded in good part by the dwindling, but still significant, reserves of oil in the North Sea. This, they said, was only possible when Scotland’s social democratic centre of gravity was no longer subject to distortion from the conservatism of voters in the south-east of England.

The resentments of Scottish nationalists are not imaginary, and their vision of an independent Scotland has much to commend it. But it has not been in the interest of the “Yes” campaign to draw attention to just how much of their case rests on a severely optimistic assessment of their chances of realising that vision. The rest of the United Kingdom would drive a hard bargain during post-independence negotiations. And what chance did a small country (Scotland’s population is around the size of Ahmedabad’s) have of resisting global economic trends that do not favour fiscally extravagant states?

Nor has it been in the interest of nationalists to reveal the extent to which the campaign for independence contains factions with deeply opposed political outlooks. The Scottish National Party, who had been at the centre of the campaign, takes a quite different line on everything from the monarchy to defence to corporation tax when compared with the Scottish Greens and other left-wing parties in the Yes campaign. A coalition of royalists and republicans, NATO enthusiasts and pacifists, nationalists and internationalists needed to keep a great deal off the table to keep the peace even within its own ranks.

This is not to mention the dangerous uncertainty about just how much more oil the North Sea has left. An independent Scotland that ran out of oil would have little with which to pay for its social democracy. Attempts to point to these uncomfortable questions tended to provoke defensive responses from the campaign: these were, they repeatedly said, disagreements to be resolved once independence has been won.

To be sure, it is not absurd to defer these questions for debate within an independent Scotland where that debate would not be merely academic. If one takes the right to self-determination seriously, then that right is not conditional on its bearers meeting impossible standards of consensus and foresight. But when the difficult questions are put, one either needs to answer them or offer a convincing reason why something else is more important. The Yes campaign, for all its success in igniting debate and coming much closer to victory than any pollster could have predicted at this time last year, failed to do either.

If the Scottish people had a stronger sense of their cultural distinctness, if they hated the English more, if they were more left-wing, perhaps they would not have been as susceptible to the Unionists’ appeals to anxieties about what sacrifices independence would entail. Economic considerations are not everything, certainly not to your ordinary voter, and such decisions are never completely rational. But it seems that Scotland has done too well out of the Union, its culture too much a product of a modern history shared with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for romanticism to trump a hard-headed estimation of the costs and benefits of independence. The Scots, say the defeated campaign and their international supporters, chose fear over hope. Yes they did, one might well reply, and they chose wisely.

The “London elites” who were the subject of so much resentment during the referendum seemed appropriately chastened in the week leading up to it, after polls seemed to suggest that a Yes verdict was possible. The result does not give them the right to complacency—after all, the referendum has revealed that 45 percent of the Scottish electorate want to secede. The days since the referendum have seen a panoply of questions raised about the British constitution. These questions, now ignited, are likely to burn dully in the background of party politics for the next decade. What new powers will the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh be given? Will there have to be an English parliament with similar powers? Will the UK have to devise a federal structure for itself?

The Union has managed to justify its existence so far, just about, but it is only a small electoral swing away from dissolution the next time the question is put to the Scottish electorate. If the Union has survived, it was because enough Scots thought they were better off within it. This is a good reason to have voted no, but it is a fragile one. But it points to one of the few general insights to be gleaned from the affair, a commonplace one, but worth repeating. Political integrity is no country’s birthright; when secessionists are banging at the gates asking to be let out, the thing to do is to make it worth their while to stay. This means compromise, concession and self-abasement, or it means the permanent threat of violence. The British have chosen the former, and they too choose wisely.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.