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.

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