Scottish Independence: Tell Me How This Ends

September 18, 2014

In the words of David Petraeus shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003: Tell me how this ends. Scotland, you may be aware, is voting on the question of independence from the UK today. The polls show a tight race, with all of the passion on the pro-independence side. When the votes are tallied early Friday morning, the results may well end the political connection between Scotland and England that has been in existence since 1707.

Yet the unanswered questions about how an independent Scotland might actually function are innumerable. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which drives the independence movement, has invested a level of detailed planning in the post-independence aftermath that makes the U.S. post-war scheme for Iraq in 2003 look like the Schlieffen plan.

Among the problems: how will Scotland pay for the vast welfare state that currently subsists on wealth transfers from England to the north? How will its presumed anti-nuclear stance square with membership in NATO? What will its currency be, considering that the Westminster government has said it won’t want the Scots on the pound anymore? SNP answers to these questions are characterized by wild optimism and thoroughgoing vagueness. Better to be free of the Westminster yoke now, and work out the details of a more perfect social democracy later.

No less a true friend of social democracy than Paul Krugman thinks that independence from the UK is a terrible idea:

Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine.

Krugman’s reasonable point is that, in order to have the sort of wildly irresponsible welfare state that the left-leaning Scots desire (not his way of putting it, naturally) a country has to be able to print its own cash. But Scotland will likely either be dependent on the British pound—which the SNP says it plans to keep regardless of Westminster’s preference—or on the Euro. Which means that when cash gets tight, they won’t be able to debase their own currency, leading either to continued dependency on London—or on the Germans.

Yet, despite all this, the Scots might still vote for independence today. The causes are many. On the level of the last few decades of politics, it is the case that Scotland’s politics have drifted substantially to the left of those of England, and many in Scotland regard the broader British political class, embodied by men like Tony Blair and David Cameron, as American poodles and slick friends of rapacious capitalism. In the common telling of the story, it all went wrong with Thatcher, without whose brutal economic "reforms" Scotland would still today be a thriving industrial and manufacturing hub.

Never mind pointing out that, even if Margaret Thatcher had never been born, no industrial or manufacturing hub in Europe could have competed with the labor cost dynamics created by a globalized economy, or that, without Thatcher, the functional British economy that today subsidizes the Scottish welfare state would not be nearly as successful. It’s pointless, because of the emotional, populist character of the independence movement, and its atavistic attachment to a much more powerful force than reason: nationalism.

In Scotland’s case, the nationalism in question is left-wing. For decades, the European social democratic consensus, the existence of which has been made possible by American defense spending, has moved away from nationalism, which—for reasons to do with some unfortunate events in the middle of the 20th century, principally involving the Germans—the European ruling class finds distasteful. According to this consensus, the future of sovereignty lies with international institutions, not ethnic identities.

The rhetoric of the pro-independence Scots does not necessarily clash with any of these assertions, but the success of their movement does raise the question of whether or not all this passion simply comes from an uncomplicated desire to be more like Sweden. And of course it doesn’t: Such a desire mingles with a desire to not be subject to someone else—the English.

In this way, the left-nationalism of the Scots is like any other nationalism. It defines itself by what it is not. The eminently rational, thin-blooded, passionless ruling class of the United Kingdom—embodied so perfectly in the wan form of Cameron—has only itself to blame, and not because of Lady Thatcher. It is to blame because, as Britain meant less and less to its own ruling elite, and the Union became a post-patriotic society where un-ironic expressions of love for one’s country were socially unacceptable, a genuine human need of those who lived within the Union went unsatisfied. If Britain no longer stood for, or against, anything, the Scots remembered they could satisfy this need by standing against their old foils, the English.

Some see no downside to the reviving forces of nationalism in Scotland. As the Washington Post puts it this morning:

An independent Scotland would also not trade on a narrow, ethnically driven sense of identity. Immigrants, a key swing vote, may play a vital role in the outcome of the referendum…

Both Scotland and Catalonia's independence movements champion their respective regions' roles in a wider Europe and see their independent states as cosmopolitan and open to immigrants. It's a far cry from the ethnic nationalism that reshaped Europe's map a century ago.

Others are not so bullish, perhaps remembering that ethnic, as opposed to civic, nationalism, has a… checkered history in Europe. Niall Ferguson—a pro-Union Scot, as it turns out—is troubled:

The reality is that, as an independent country, Scotland would be far more likely to revert to its pre-1707 bad habits than to morph magically into "Scandland". For this debate on independence has opened some old rifts and created some new ones, too.

Many No voters I met complained of an atmosphere of intimidation. I tried to organise a group of pro-Union historians based in Scotland to write a letter backing the No campaign. I was told that, at most, two would be willing to sign. Most disturbing of all were the stories of SNP bigwigs issuing thinly veiled warnings to institutions perceived to be insufficiently Yes-istic. Jim Sillars’s warning to BP and the big banks of a "day of reckoning" is part of a sinister pattern.

This, then, gives us a hint of what Alex Salmond’s brave new Scotland would really be like: a divided and rancorous society with a vindictive style of politics. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it nicely sums up Scotland as it was before the Union.

Scotch history is not a pretty one.

When both Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson think what you are doing is a bad idea, it might be time to pause and reconsider.