My Take: Scottish Independence – Romance and Reason


A friend of mine in St Andrews who owns a legendary bar in the town (as well as being a legend himself), and who is supporting independence, voiced what I regard as a very honourable position on Scotland’s right to self-determination, even though I disagree with it:

How come every single other country in the world can contemplate self government and somehow succeed. And yet when Scotland contemplates doing the same thing it’s regarded as a threat to world order and the general collapse of everything?

This was my response (which I hope people on both sides of this debate might see as equally honourable):

So why not self government for St Andrews, or Orkney or Glasgow? I don’t see ‘the nation’ as offering anything attractive here as a unit of governance. Why do we have to choose ‘the nation’ as some panacea for how we order our societies? If anything, cities are the future. The cities of England and Scotland are cosmopolitan and liberal, they’re hubs of innovation and artistic creativity. Why do Alex Salmond and his party want to return to a mode of association (the nation) which came of age in the nineteenth century and which has caused more horror in the twentieth century than any other ideology? To see how little nationalism offers in our modern world, one need only observe what’s happening in Ukraine right now, or witness the daily bloodshed in Gaza and the West Bank that are the bloody fruits of Theodor Herzl’s late nineteenth century vision to create a nation state for his people in historic Palestine.

To my mind, the case for the UK has always been primarily a practical answer to the question of how to find an optimal form of governance which delivers the greatest benefit to the greatest number. The UK isn’t perfect as I’ve argued previously, but the current settlement does deliver benefits to the greatest number of people, while guaranteeing individual and minority rights which could be threatened by populist demagogues of the left or the right.  Only when our current arrangements are compared to the opaque idea of self-determination do some in Scotland think they are somehow missing out on something or being cheated. But this is a false choice and a false perspective.

What is the added value of  ‘independence’ (whatever that word could mean for a country like Scotland attached to a larger neighbour ten times its economic size) compared to the existing devolution settlement and the tax raising powers that are coming? What powers are left that Scotland doesn’t have control of? Principally, foreign policy and defence. Apart from the United States, the UK is the only other country able to project power anywhere around the globe and that is a distinct benefit in what is currently a very uncertain world. That influence benefits everyone on this island, but it doesn’t interfere with how Scotland is governed by people who live in Scotland.

The independence campaign is a classic heart v head dilemma for many Scots. But the ‘heart’ element of the debate is all about the attachment of many independence supporters to this dangerous Woodrow Wilson mythology about self-determination.

It’s an illusion, and a dangerous and emotive one.  England and Scotland are too tightly integrated. There are too many family ties, and my family is a prime example of that. My Glasgow relatives from Bishopbriggs are spread out all over the UK. What does anyone gain by creating a sovereign border between England and Scotland (which will require passport checks because of Alex Salmond’s professed aim of having a more liberal immigration policy than rUK)? What does this offer anyone operating in the real world over and beyond what Scotland already has through devolution? What happens to the farmers who have livestock and land on both sides of the border, and the people who live in England and work over the border, and the patients who travel to hospitals on either side of the border based on clinical need (approximately 8 ambulance journeys per day going to/from English and Scottish hospitals)? How does this help anyone? I’d be more open minded about the independence leap of faith if anyone could tell me, firstly, what the added value is (i.e. what do we gain?),  and then could actually come up with a credible plan to mitigate the obvious risks.

The inability of anyone to say what the added value of independence is and then to honestly explain to the Scottish people what the risks and opportunities are has been quite breathtaking. I don’t believe in world government, nor do I believe in every man for himself. To most of us those political extremes of Kant’s world state and Hobbes’ state of nature would be quite scary arrangements for a government without a convincing rationale. Where we choose to draw our bubbles of sovereignty between local, regional, national, and European governance ought to be based on logical and optimal arrangements which improve the lives of enough people, and which ensure that nothing gets worse for anyone else. Put simply, independence needs to tick more boxes than the status quo. When someone explains to me how an independent Scotland would tick even one box more than those which are currently ticked now then I’m willing to listen. But after two years of this campaign, I think we would have heard it by now.

Image courtesy of conner395


About David Miles

David Miles is a former Carnegie Scholar and has a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He teaches international relations and US foreign policy in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He has worked for leading businesses in the UK and Germany including Santander, Lloyds TSB and more recently SAP. Apart from writing for and editing Global Politics, his writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, Carnegie Ethics Online, Huff Post and the Scotsman. His interests include American political history, US foreign policy, modern German history, American and German constitutional history, the politics of the European Union, peace and conflict studies, and the politics of the Middle East. When not doing research or teaching, he enjoys good single malts and the charms of the Old Course. He lives in St Andrews, Scotland.

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6 years ago I voted No in #indyref with the belief that Scotland would be stronger in the UK. Since then we’ve seen the UK trash its international reputation, and Scotland be ignored time & time again. We can do better than this. #NoToYes

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