SEPT 5, 2014 — Across the pond, the pleated skirts and tartan kilts are all aflutter: Come Sept. 18, Scottish voters will decide whether to sever the 307-year-old union that binds them to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Owing to ancestry, tribalism, grudges or all three, great throngs of Americans see themselves as having stakes in whether the Scots declare their independence from the United Kingdom.
If this isn’t top-of-mind in the time you spend obsessing on politics, you’re missing a bravehearted dispute with evocative themes for all of us whose forebears also debated whether to leave London’s grasp. One distinction: It’s less violent to depart by referendum than by revolution.
We could argue this choice round or square: Granted, declaring our own independence 238 years ago did work out for us upstart colonials. Yet our fledgling nation then took severe umbrage when the divorce-minded Confederate States of America attempted much the same ploy.
Scotland is barely half the size of Illinois, but with fewer than half as many citizens (5.3 million). Nationalists promote independence as an expression of self-interest; unlike Irish republicans who fought for freedom a century ago, the Scots can’t plead brutal oppression.
The case, then, for leaving: An independent Scotland would have more control over its defense, energy and finance policies. North Sea oil revenues would allow the country to pay its way. And Scots tend to be more liberal than the ruling Westminster government in England. More about that in a moment.
The case for staying: Big nations have more resources than small nations do. Scotland could lose membership in the European Union and NATO. Trade barriers could complicate if not stifle its economy. And the costs of running the new government — saddled with its share of London’s debts while also tussling with London over shares of those declining oil revenues — would be enormous.
Pollsters have projected that the so-called Better Together movement will defeat the Scottish National Party’s campaign for independence. But the numbers have tightened, with the nationalists gaining ground. This could tip either way.
Or is that false drama? It’s perilous to generalize, but Scots are shrewd. Wise. The Tribune recently quoted Anne-Lise Ingebretsen, a Western Isles resident who spoke for many Scottish citizens’ practical concerns: “I’m voting no because I think with my head, not with my heart.”
Many Scottish hearts, though, rise to demand yes votes. True, the lure of self-governance animates human hearts everywhere. But the urge can be especially strong in lands long ruled by the crown. In scouring online editions of Scottish newspapers, we’ve seen that passionate yearning: The Scots talk proudly, ambitiously, about striking out on their own. (Revel in the intense but not raucous debate at The Scotsman of Edinburgh’s dedicated Web section, reachable via http://j.mp/scot-uk.)
What we’ve seen less often, though, are frank admissions from the nationalists of how difficult it is to bear the burdens of Western nationhood in the 21st century. Many Scots want a government that would provide more social welfare benefits, that would be free of British government austerity efforts, and that would be rid of nuclear weapons.
To which a gawking outsider wants to murmur: Have you people looked around? The European social welfare model isn’t just unaffordable — it is driving governments close to ruin. And the desire for defense-on-the-cheap leaves many European governments unable to do more than gawk at security threats — a resurgent Russia to the east, the recruiting of militant extremists closer to home.
Unfortunately, too, when big countries have strong feelings, small countries get pushed around. There are precious few Norways blessed with oil riches, well-educated populations and able to all but ignore everyone else. Ask the humbled Greeks, Georgians and Portuguese. Good grief, ask the besieged Ukrainians. The lot of them find themselves at the mercy of decisions made in world capitals.
And not only in matters of war and peace. As a Scottish friend explains: “We won’t be completely independent if we share a currency regulated by the Bank of England. We would have to work within its strictures which will be imposed by a country which has no interest in keeping Scotland happy.”
No matter the outcome, though, keeping Scotland happy won’t be easy. The Scots now have a semi-autonomous government that makes some of their own decisions. Sticking with that limited measure of independence frustrates many Scots. Yet voting for independence and then not being fully independent from the English next door would be its own terrible frustration.
Thus the great risk in this looming referendum: If the Scots vote for independence, will they only leave the United Kingdom less than it is today? Or will they leave Scotland, too, less than it is today?