The Scottish Independence Vote

"A majority of Scots want to live in a center-left society, while a majority of English want to live in a center-right society." Why that may be a bigger problem for the United Kingdom than regional splits are for the United States.

This man is a Scottish-American. So am I. Any questions? (Reuters)

We all have our tribal loyalties and identities, usually starting with our family. For me, after my family, they would be:

  • tribal identity as an American, based on the years outside the country that sharpened my sense of being from and of the United States;
  • tribal loyalty as part of the Atlantic family, as I near the 40th anniversary of my first article for the magazine (a profile of the then-presidential aspirant Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, of Texas);
  • tribal identity as a Californian, through years of living on the other side of the country; and 
  • identity as a Scot, my mother's Mackenzie lineage being the largest single part of my motley background. (Plus, Neanderthal pride.)

Thus I've followed news of the upcoming referendum on independence for Scotland with a combination of "damned right!" romanticism on behalf of the plucky Scots and practical-minded questions about what would happen if the vote went through.

In our travels across the country this past year, my wife Deb and I have met a surprisingly large sample of vacationing or expatriated Scots. Most of them have said that (a) they didn't expect the measure to pass, but (b) they secretly hoped it would.

Here is a message today from Daniel Clinkman, an American who has been living in Scotland. He makes the case that the right-brain/left-brain split in sentiment about the vote—romanticism versus practicality—is not as clear as I have thought:

I'm an American who returned this year from seven years living in the UK, six of those years in Scotland. While I am personally pro-independence, my friends are about equally split between nationalists and unionists, and I see the merits of both sides. I think, though, that the nationalist position is unfairly portrayed in the American media, and I'd like to offer some thoughts on that.

I think it is fair to say that, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, the results of the the 2010 general election and the 2011 Scottish election show that the majority of Scots want something different from the majority of English. This has been a trend that began in the 1970s and opened wider and wider over the subsequent decades. A majority of Scots want to live in a center-left society, while a majority of English want to live in a center-right society. 

In a federal state this would not be a problem. The domestic policies, discord over which forms the backbone of the nationalist movement, would be the responsibility of the constituent countries of the UK, and Scots could run their internal affairs without hindrance. But the UK is not a federal state, it is a unitary state with sovereignty and legislative authority resting in the Crown-in-Parliament. The authority of the Holyrood parliament is tenuous and could be curtailed or rescinded at any time, without judicial review.

The best case scenario would be devo-max or the federalization of the UK, but Westminster would not allow either to be on the referendum ballot. The prospect of full scale constitutional reform is not even under consideration outside of a few Lib Dem committee meetings. Scots have been put in a position where the status quo is unacceptable to them, and in which viable alternatives - devo-max and federalization - have been expressly refused as options. It is often said that, if devo-max were on the ballot, it would win. It isn't on the ballot, because Westminster knew that and hoped that by denying a third choice, Scots would choose the status quo. Is that manipulation the kind of government you would want to live under?

Foreign rulers, adopting native garb (Reuters)

[In other exchanges] you have mentioned that Scottish nationalism is both emotional and rational. I agree.

On the rational side, Scots are concerned about the science of politics. In the meetings I attended when I lived in Edinburgh, there was great interest in the location of sovereignty and of legislative authority, as well as in the mechanics of governance. There is genuine interest in how to rationalize Scottish governance and make it better. You never hear this in the accounts of Scottish nationalism, which usually emphasize the emotional.

But emotion is also a strength. Scots are proud people and desire to control their own affairs, which they can't under a unitary state with parliamentary sovereignty. Such pride and desire for self-sufficiency is admirable. The combination of emotional and rational thinking gives Scottish nationalism strength and durability.

You mentioned that that rationalism on political science needs to be contrasted with rational approaches to scale, currency, military, etc. I don't really see how the nationalist approach is irrational on those issues. One nationalist advocacy group, Nordic Horizons, is devoted to how Scotland can adopt Scandinavian models of governance, the Scandinavian countries being of similar population size and scale to Scotland. On the currency, I imagine that Scotland will continue to use the UK pound temporarily, after which it will probably restore the Scottish pound, which it would make sense to peg to the UK pound and gradually ween off of. On the military, Scotland will not need a large military force. Its greatest need will be for a navy or coast guard to secure its territorial waters. This will be expensive to set up but it is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.

A lot of this gets misconstrued in the press. Last night I got into a lengthy twitter back and forth with [another writer], who was asking lots of skeptical questions about independence and accusing nationalists of not having considered them. I directed him to the Scottish government's white paper on independence, which addressed all of his concerns, which he then dismissed as having not taken up thirty seconds of thought. That's a false aspersion on Scots nationalists, and is an example of the same kind of condescension to Scots that has alienated that country from the UK. He is not alone in this - he enjoys the good company of much of the British press and many North Americans too.

So that's my take on the matter. I am not Scottish, but the country became my home for many years and I am passionately in favor of what is best for Scotland's people, whatever they decide. I think that the activism and thought given to this by Scots of both nationalist and unionist persuasions is very different from the stereotype of the emotional, skiving Scot put out by the Better Together campaign and its sympathizers in the press.

I'm not intending to host an extended exchange on the pluses and minuses of the vote, which are being thrashed out thoroughly by those with a voice in the matter. But I am watching with fascination.