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 did the other one, and the independence momentum has since slackened. 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.
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.
Otherwise it 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. So usually self-determination means something dramatically less than independence. Some might say this is exactly why Scotland should go for it now, since this opportunity occurs very rarely. Yet as we have seen in Canada, this is not necessarily the case.
What is nationhood these days anyway?
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, and the fact that European integration complicates any notion of absolute political authority, not to mention our identities. Combine other factors such as the flows of resources into Scotland from both the UK and the EU, and constantly evolving immigration, and it becomes difficult to identify exactly what being an independent country in Europe means.
But most fundamentally, as someone who was born in the US, 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. 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 would it not want to make a clean break with a new currency? It seems paradoxical 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 five million people (and indeed the fate of more than 60m 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.
An unusual secession
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 debate has gotten more rancorous recently).
I find this both curious and positive. It is curious because there are equally serious politically cleavages in my country of birth. The red state/blue state divide seems to be increasingly apparent. I come from a blue state—Massachusetts. Given what I consider to be the extremely destructive politics which have come out of Texas, I sometimes wish it would secede. Yet I also realize that we are part of something bigger and 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.
I say that having an independence referendum based on political differences is positive because the divisions are not as fundamental as one frequently finds in these situations, even if they are sometimes portrayed as otherwise. It is also positive because the more social democratic vision provided by the SNP is one that I find appealing—as is the idea of getting rid of Trident from Scottish soil. If Scotland does become independent, I would robustly support this vision and work to keep the SNP true to its word.
What is Scottish politics really about?
Having said that, I am also aware that political choices do not always end up in the direction that you would expect. Massachusetts was sometimes derisively referred to as the People’s Republic of Massachusetts (and was the only state not to vote for Nixon in 1972), but the people have voted for series of Republican governors and even a Republican Senator over the years. So 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.
After the first SNP government, what would we get, given that the party’s raison d’etre would have disappeared? What happens when the politics can no longer rely on anti-Thatcherism and anti-Toryism as a touchstone? 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.
The Yes side has a compelling vision. But given the current state of self-determination in Scotland, with more powers promised, and given that there are still too many unanswered questions, 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, no doubt there will be another one if people in Scotland really want one.
And I might change my mind in future if some of the scare stories the Yes campaign has put forth actually come to pass—such as privatization of the NHS in Scotland—or if the Tories and UK Independence Party get their way and the UK withdraws from, or significantly undermines, the EU and other European institutions like the European Court of Human Rights. In those circumstances I could even become a campaigner for Yes. At the moment, though, the ephemeral nature of national politics makes me question whether secession and independence are really all they are cracked up to be.