I suppose we Scots, expats like myself included, should feel gratified by the growing chorus of influential outsiders urging a ‘No’ vote on the independence question on 18th September. To list but two: 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 one hundredth anniversary of World War 1); and the eminent historian Simon Schama who wrote in the 10/11 May edition of the Financial Times under the dramatic headline, “A splendid mess of a union should not be torn asunder”. He went on to lament that “Scotland’s exit from the rich, creative and multicultural unity of Britain would be a catastrophe”.
The hyperbole of Schama’s prose is reflective of an evident paradox in the strategy of the ‘No’ camp, in which the course of history seems to have been reversed. In the past, charges of ‘emotion-over-reason’ have invariably been leveled at the pro-independence cause, which was characterized as being all claymores and Braveheart. Now what we see is a clear contrast between the patient, calm-waters exposition of how an independent Scotland can and should hold its own, and the fever-pitch narratives of the pro-union forces. These range from Chancellor George Osborne’s “sermon on the pound”, to Lord George Robertson’s extraordinary outburst at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC 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 or, as we say in the United States, 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 hearts and minds.
I will not dwell on the matter of economic realities; these have been well rehearsed elsewhere, and it seems self-evident that if 15 new European states since the end of the Cold War [out of the 28 EU states] can survive – and in most cases thrive – as independent states, then Scotland surely can. Rather than the ‘could’ question on independence, I’ll thus focus on the ‘should’. In doing so, I’ll advance three reasons for voting ‘Yes’ in September.
For the first, I turn back to Simon Schama, who offers a litany of achievements by Scots during the 300 years of the Union—in the arts, sciences, philosophy, architecture, politics et al. Quite so – yet his allusion to these achievements surely emphasizes Scotland’s capacity for independence. Another wise man, the Canadian politician and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff, also offered the opinion that Scots should be mightily content with the status quo since so many had found fame and fortune in London. However, we might question the notion that Scots have had to go to London to accomplish such success. We might also question the implication that the considerable Scottish presence in London is somehow linked to Scotland being in the UK and that this presence may end if Scotland becomes independent – it is fatuous to suggest that the ‘north-south traffic’ of people, goods and ideas would suffer in any way in the aftermath of a ‘Yes’ vote.
Secondly, the whole notion of ‘Better Together’ carries the implication that the state of togetherness in the United Kingdom (UK) is all sweetness and light. Surely this is not so. Increasingly, over 40 years of living in the United States, I have had to retreat from the confident view held during my early years of exile that certain fundamental services in the UK were superior to those across the Atlantic – namely education, transportation and [at least for the lower-income stratum] healthcare.
Now, on the basis of regular visits home, it is clear that if the social contract in Britain is not, to use Schama’s language, “torn asunder”, it is perilously frayed. This is due surely, and in no small part, to a process that is as inexorable as it is unwelcome – the shift of power, influence and wealth to London and the Southeast of England, a process that began in the Thatcher years but which has continued unabated, even under two UK Prime Ministers who were Scots! Simply put, London sucks the oxygen out of the rest of the UK. It should be noted that by most economic indicators, Scotland continues to outperform the other parts of the UK, outside the hungry maw of the metropolis; however, this should not blind us to the fact that London exerts a disproportionate and destabilizing influence across the UK.
This leads to the third and most compelling factor that advocates a ‘Yes’ vote. In the preface to the independence blueprint Scotland’s Future, First Minister Alex Salmond writes: “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education.” This reference to compassion leads me back to the matter of the erosion of the social contract. As the son of a nonagenarian mother under excellent care in Scotland, I can testify to the fact that Scotland has a social democratic conscience. This is evidenced most notably by a tax and spend on social services commitment that appears to be lacking in what was recently described as the “madcap capitalist laboratory” of London.
Without dipping too far into the waters of partisan politics, it is not coincidental that Scotland has but one representative of the ruling political party in Westminster. And the gulf in political culture we see between north and south is all the more evident in the disproportionately greater success of the UKIP in recent elections in England, as opposed to that party’s gain of one just miserable seat in Scotland. Do we Scots truly see ourselves as being in sync with a party that – whilst appearing to speak for some 30 percent of England – wishes to turn its back on Europe [Scotland, lest we forget, is the most pro-Europe part of the UK]? Indeed, in looking at the broader European picture, we should consider seriously the implications of voting ‘No’ when we know that David Cameron is committed to a ‘stay or go’ vote on Europe in the next UK Parliament. Do Scots wish to be any part of a political culture of ugly xenophobia as exemplified in the comments of a UKIP MEP who asserted: “How we can possibly be giving one billion pounds a month to Bongo-Bongo Land is completely beyond me”? Do Scots wish to be part of a UK which decides that it no longer wishes to be in the European Union and withdraws from an alliance of 28 states and 508 million citizens?
Taken together, these factors test to the utmost the credibility of a truly ‘United’ kingdom and the notion that Scotland is ‘better’ within it. As one observer – not a Scot, but in fact a resident of Hyderabad, India – recently stated in simple terms in the Financial Times: “The Scots have always been a nation and are now asking for their own state.” That would seem to state the obvious – and the desirable. And, just to square the circle – back to Mr. Bildt, whom I quoted at the outset. He more than any should recall that his own country, Sweden, dissolved a union with Norway in 1905. They now seem to enjoy reasonably cordial relations as independent neighbour states, do they not?
David Speedie is a Senior Fellow and Director of the U.S. Global Engagement Program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the Carnegie Council.