The Scottish Independence Question: A View from America

"What we see now is a clear contrast between the patient, calm-waters exposition of how an independent Scotland can and should hold its own—economically and politically—and the fever-pitch narrative of the pro-union forces."

I suppose Scots, expats such as myself included, should feel gratified by the growing chorus of influential outsiders weighing in on the looming vote on Scottish independence. Most of these are urging a “No” vote on September 18. Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, sees the prospect of Scots’ independence as a possible beginning of “Balkanisation of Europe” (a particularly evocative phrase in the year marking the 100th anniversary of World War One); and the historian Simon Schama, writing in the Financial Times under the evocative headline, “A splendid mess of a union should not be torn asunder”, goes on to lament that “Scotland’s exit from the rich, creative and multicultural unity of Britain would be a catastrophe”.

Such hyperbole is reflective of a paradox in the strategy of the “No” camp, one that has seen the course of history reversed. In the past, charges of “emotion-over-reason” have traditionally been leveled at the nationalist cause, which was characterized as being all Braveheart and claymores. What we see now is a clear contrast between the patient, calm-waters exposition of how an independent Scotland can and should hold its own—economically and politically—and the fever-pitch narrative of the pro-union forces. These have ranged from UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s “sermon on the pound”, to Lord George Robertson’s extraordinary presentation at the Brookings Institution in April, in which he compared a vote for an independent Scotland to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Then there was the warning from the outgoing European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland might have “great difficulty” in securing EU membership (Really? Slovenia, Estonia and Bulgaria, but not Scotland!?) Throw into the mix the eleventh-hour blandishments from Prime Minister Cameron—commitment to further devolution in the event of a ‘No’ vote, including concessions on tax collection—and what we see from the “No” campaign is an odd blend of cajoling and bullying, of carrots and sticks. This is an odd approach, because these are tactics on which Scots tend to push back, and which seem unlikely to win their hearts and minds.

More recently, James Gallagher weighed in on the side of the “Better Together” campaign in these columns (“Scotland’s Nationalist Folly”, National Interest, June 26). Regrettably, he begins by taking an ad hominem swipe at the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond—“a self-confident, popular and utterly disingenuous rogue”. Setting aside the question as to whether self-confidence and popularity are disqualifiers for high political office, there is the clear implication that the First Minister is some kind of tactical, flag-waving opportunist. This is unfair and untrue: as the Scottish poet and scholar, Robert Crawford, recounts in his magisterial new book, “Bannockburns”, Salmond, as a student at the University of St. Andrews in the 1970s, was steeped in, and greatly influenced by, a tradition of pluralist nationalism that was born in the St. Andrews of the 1930s, in conscious opposition to growing European fascism. As Crawford concludes: “[Salmond] has gone on to champion in the twenty-first century a pluralist version of Scottish independence.” A final point, and an obvious one: this is not your run-of-the-mill election; it is a historic moment for Scotland, one in which the people of Scotland [yes, English, or residents of any origin may vote; I may not] are voting for a nation to have its country, not for an individual. Scotia longa, Salmond brevis.

Next, Gallagher makes the astonishingly inaccurate claim that “Back in January 2012, the British prime minister, David Cameron, worried by the growing dominance of the SNP, announced that he wanted Scotland to be given the choice between continued membership in the United Kingdom and full independence”. As one reads this, it is as if it were Cameron’s idea to hold the vote on independence! Moreover, what Gallagher does not include in this counterfactual account is that Salmond and the SNP proposed that a third option be on the table, the so-called “Devo Max” option, which would grant much deeper devolved powers to Edinburgh, especially in the area of taxation. Cameron—presumably confident of a favorable outcome—refused.

I will not dwell on the “economic viability” debate. Gallagher accuses Salmond and the Scottish government of a roseate presentation of a post-independence economy (a politician putting the best possible spin on economic forecasting—surely not, would never happen here!). But it seems self-evident that if fifteen new European states added after the end of the Cold War can survive as independent states, then Scotland surely can. Indeed, the “No” forces have of late switched their ground from arguing this question. Rather than the “could’ question on independence, I’ll focus on the “should”, and advance three reasons for voting “Yes” in September.

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