In just under two months, voters in Scotland will decide whether they’d like to remain a part of the UK or become an independent country. To say this is an old problem is quite the understatement: The vote is taking place in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn, a major Scottish victory in the Wars of Independence against England. The question is both a tough political-economic issue and an emotional, historically pregnant referendum on national identity. But as a recent piece in The New York Times shows, the push for independence is also one of those bizarre issues which seems to attract people incapable of marshaling convincing evidence in its favor (not unlike the case against Justice Ginsburg’s retirement). This latest example comes from the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson, whose effort to muster a convincing array of pro-independence arguments ends in something like poignant exhaustion.
I mean that sincerely. In general, there are good reasons to adopt a presumptive stance in favor of calls for national self-determination. This does not imply automatic support for something as radical as the creation of a new country—there are a range of more limited steps—but a national referendum on independence represents a serious demand, and it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. (For those interested, an excellent overview of these issues is available in On Nationality, by the Oxford political theorist David Miller.)
When it comes to Scotland, however, the case for independence consistently fails to convince. Ascherson gamely advances the familiar arguments: Scotland can survive economically because of its oil reserves (“Scotland could survive and prosper and be a stable democracy on its own, given wise management of its North Sea oil wealth”). Scotland’s current fiscal arrangement with England is an affront to its autonomy (“The situation in which a Scottish government’s revenue comes as a block grant from London is irresponsible. The Edinburgh Parliament should be allowed to set and raise its own taxes”). Scotland is more left-wing than England, and should not have to submit to Conservative governments it would never have elected on its own (“The Scots are solidly anti-Tory, returning just one Conservative M.P. to Westminster in the last three general elections, yet they are outweighed by southern English voters and regularly have to endure Conservative governments.”). And this submission to Conservative governments, as well as (arguably) New Labour, means that Scots—who support a generous welfare state—have to endure big cuts in public services (“In Britain, it’s not only Conservative-led governments but ‘New Labour’ ones as well that now seem committed to Thatcherite economics, to the steady privatization of health, education and welfare. Most Scots hate this.”)
Scottish independence, then, is portrayed as a left-wing cause: a way for a liberal electorate to determine its own fate, free from the influence of distant, unresponsive conservatives. But is this the whole story? Consider, for instance, the (correct) point that Scotland is more left-wing than England. The flip-side of this situation, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft has noted, is that the Labour Party—and by extension, the English left in general—is more or less dependent on the Scottish vote. As Wheatcroft wrote in 2012: “Labour only won a majority of English seats at three general elections in the twentieth century—1945, 1966, and 1997—and need their Scottish rotten boroughs now more than ever to have any chance of forming a government.” So a possible victory for the Scottish left would mean a guaranteed disaster for the English left. If pulling Scotland’s bloc out of Parliament is a left-wing victory, it is a very costly one indeed.
That’s not even to mention the strange insistence that oil revenues will provide the foundation of Scottish economic independence. Even if the promised revenues materialize, is it really in anyone’s long-term interests to expand oil drilling and the burning of fossil fuels? Appealing to Scotland’s left-wing principles is downright odd when you realize that the motto of its newly independent economy will be “Drill, baby, drill!”
That, of course, is a best-case scenario—in which an independent Scotland actually does become economically stable on the basis of its oil reserves. But if that doesn’t happen (and the outlook is grim), Scotland’s now-maligned economic union with England may be looked upon with nostalgic longing. Again, as Wheatcroft noted in 2012, under the “block grant” arrangement attacked by Ascherson, “Scotland enjoys something like £ 1.16 per head of public spending for every £ 1 in England. You don’t have to be an economist or an accountant to see that Scotland is a burden for England.” (More up-to-date numbers are available here, but the trend remains the same—see Table 9.2, page 115.) In the case of economic crisis, it’s not clear what Scotland’s best response would be. In large part, its options would depend on its post-independence currency system. Some think it could end up adopting the Euro, in which case one’s advice can only be “beware.” Stumbling Eurozone countries—think Greece—have been subjected to a fiscal discipline (one might even call it a punishment) that would make Margaret Thatcher blush.
With these serious downsides and huge risks, it’s no surprise that independence is consistently behind in the polls. As Ascherson concedes: “At this moment, a majority for independence looks unlikely.” But even if this vote fails, his optimism is undaunted. “The campaign has already taught me that if we don’t make it with this third referendum, there will be a fourth. It’s time to rejoin the world on our own terms.” That’s a noble sentiment, and an argument worth taking seriously—but no country joins the world solely on its own terms, and no country acts without consequences for its friends, political allies, and former compatriots. If Scottish independence is to succeed in convincing skeptics, it must start taking those sobering lessons of nationalism more seriously.