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.

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