Scotland

Yesterday I made Scottish shortbread. I don’t know precisely how Scottish this recipe is, and even if it’s as French as french fries, this is usually about as close as I get to what one might even loosely call “Scottish affairs.” I don’t even have any scotch whisky at present; I enjoy it, certainly, but y’know, austerity and “times being what they are,” etc. Nothing against Scotland, but as a distinct entity (rather than a share of Britain) it’s a bit out of my wheelhouse. Usually.

This year, however, has been a departure from usually, thanks to the approaching referendum on Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom.

I have been absolutely fascinated by this campaign. Despite having never been to Scotland, having no personal connections to Scotland, or any direct stake in the outcome of the vote, let alone a vote of my own. I suppose there are a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s exciting: Re-drawing a map! Splitting a 300-year-old union! Political realignment and international repercussions! “And in English, too,” in the words of The Stranger.

I also feel strong sympathies with elements of the Yes (i.e. pro-independence) campaign. Mixed in among plenty of other motivations, enthusiasm for secession has drawn overtly and significantly on the prospect of what we might call a political “new-borders solution.” Should anyone unfamiliar with British politics read this, very briefly, national government in the UK has mostly alternated between the Conservative Party and Labour Party through the past 100 years or so, but in recent decades support for Conservatives has essentially vanished from Scotland. Like, not even Republicans in California but Republicans in Berkeley, as a comparison. As the Conservative Party currently controls the British parliament despite having negligible support from Scotland, many Scots have asked “why should we remain chained to a polity of significantly different values and beliefs which keeps overruling us in a united winner-take-all government?”

This, I should point out, is a simplification; there are all kinds of caveats and complications just within party politics, never mind the independence campaign as a whole.

That said, this view is definitely a real part of the Yes campaign, and I sympathize with it. I get tired of sharing a government with right-wing voters who regularly overrule my preferences, too. We don’t have quite the same mechanics as the UK, though some times a “winner-takes-all” result can happen anyway. I am certainly not insensitive to the appeal of a “new-borders solution.” (Perhaps you may remember 10 years ago seeing one of various re-drawn maps of North America with the “blue states” appended to Canada…?) Of course, there are various problems here, even from a liberal perspective…

Some critics say “tut, sir, petty nationalism! Hardly progressive!” There’s a point, here, though there are also good counterarguments. For one thing, if nationalism isn’t your motivation, I’m not sure that it’s wrong in this context to make common cause with it in pursuit of an outcome you both desire for different reasons. For another, there’s the curious fact that while Scotland is flirting with breaking up with the rest of the UK, it seems consistently more enthusiastic toward the European Union than the rest of the British electorate. With the threat of a referendum on Britain (with or without Scotland) leaving the EU, there’s a plausible case to be made that Scottish voters are effectively choosing between membership in one small supernational union and membership in another much larger and more diverse supernational union. In this context, it seems difficult to stick the charge of “nationalism!” to a preference for the latter union.

My own personal sticking point on independence—for the absolutely nothing that my opinion on this matter is worth!—is related to the currency question that has dogged the Yes campaign for most of the summer. This, too, can get very complicated. For me, the summary version comes down to concerns about how a declaration of independent nationhood fits with the Yes campaign’s official determination to keep the British pound as its currency. I suppose that I just question the seriousness of purpose, here. I’m trying hard to avoid the temptation of lecturing, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s a very big deal to declare a new independent nation, or even to re-found an old one after three centuries of union. Given my political sympathies I think it could well be a worthwhile exercise for Scotland… but I have qualms about the wisdom of commencing that exercise without being ready and determined to take on the consequences. And I’m not sure that such determination is compatible with clinging to the currency of the nation you’re leaving. Basically, the Yes campaign seems to be arguing that the promise of an independent Scotland going its own way is worth the wrenching disruptions of becoming a separate nation… except that disruption of business-as-usual absolutely must be avoided.

Again, I don’t have a vote, no one has any obligation to consider my opinion here.

In the meantime, that opinion remains mixed as the countdown to September 18 proceeds. After thinking “well, maybe it’s for the best if this thing fizzles” for a few weeks, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps I’m simply being too fastidious. Determining precisely where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good is always hard, especially for me. Experience has forced me to recognize that sometimes my instincts are off, too. This is one of many lessons that the ongoing national trauma of “Obamacare” has been teaching, I think; throughout the years of debating and kvetching and intentional sabotage and accidental mismanagement, I have frequently suspected that this reform was too compromised… and yet, at this point I am happily surprised to find more good than harm emerging as the trend. I have similar views on the minimum wage, as for many years I had on any kind of relatively blunt instrument of downward redistribution… but lately, between 1) evidence that a higher minimum wage may not really do much harm at all, and 2) evidence that in any event this is the solution that people are able and willing to grasp… here, too, I wonder if maybe I should just quit wringing my hands and start applauding.

Maybe that’s the case with Scottish independence, too, or maybe it would be if I had any grounds for butting in. I don’t know.

I do feel like there is one solid, relevant comment I can make (and I’m sorry it’s all the way down here at the end, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter). In the wake of sudden and unexpected surging Yes campaign support, an item by Will Hutton appeared last night at The Guardian calling for a “Federal Britain, like the federal US” as a last-ditch alternative. Setting aside “it feels suspiciously late to trot this out now, doesn’t it” criticism, I really want to say, based on my first-hand experience with the federal US: don’t overestimate the brilliance of federalism. It certainly has its advantages, and very will might in theory produce a better UK for Scotland and everyone.

But it’s certainly no magic solution to problems of regional political divergence generally, let alone a cure for what Hutton himself identifies as “predator capitalism, massive inequality and a society organised to benefit the top 1%.” These things can fester and ferment quite happily in a federal system. Trust me.

As you were, then.

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