*The Scottish Referendum: A Desirable Dissolution of the Union of Great Britain

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”:  so William Butler Yeats famously wrote in his much-quoted poem, “The Second Coming”.  Some in Britain, contemplating the prospects of the dissolution of the Union of England, Scotland, and Wales, effected in 1707 and modified in the twentieth-century to accommodate the Unionists in Northern Ireland who resisted the idea of an independent Ireland, are warning of the impending anarchy if a majority of Scots should cast a ballot in favor of independence in Thursday’s referendum.  The beauty of the ballot, which will ask voters, “Should Scotland be an Independent Country”, and then signal their choice with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, resides in its simplicity; and it is precisely this simplicity which is no doubt the envy of many around the world—among others, Palestinians, Kurds, Basques, Kashmiris, Nagas, Texans, even some Californians and, if we may constitute such people as a ‘nation’, the gun-toting fanatics of the National Rifle Association in the US—who would certainly like to weigh in on the question of their independence.  However, the simplicity of the Scottish referendum resides in other considerations, too:  watching developments in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, nor are these the only places where the question of secessionism and new political formations looms large, one admires the Scots for attempting to settle this question through something other than the gun.  Malcolm X might have thought the ballot little better than the bullet, and he doubtless had good reasons to do so in a country where in many places the African American could only cast his ballot at the risk of receiving a bullet in his chest, but in today’s politics too little constructive use is made of the ballot.  The Scottish referendum, if nothing else, gives one hope that American-style electoral democracy, a furious sound show signifying absolutely nothing except the lifelessness of an American politics that has been consumed in equal measure by money and sheer stupidity, is not the last word in electoral politics.

Many are the arguments that have been advanced by both the proponents and detractors of Scottish independence.  Not surprisingly, nearly all the arguments that have been encountered in mainstream media—print, digital, television, social networks—verge on the economic and what might be called the narrowly political.  England’s three major political parties, though here again there is little that any more really distinguishes them from each other, have spoken in one voice in suggesting that the dissolution of the Union will be a major blow to Scotland itself.   It has been argued that bereft of its Union with England, Scotland would experience job loss, the advantages of the British pound, and the flight of capital; as a small nation-state, it is likely to become quite invisible and would be without the benefit of the political and economic security umbrella under which it is presently sheltered.  The advocates of Scottish independence argue quite otherwise, insisting, before anything else, that the Scots must be in a position to decide their own future and political outcomes.  Scotland’s priorities, argue the proponents of independence, are poorly reflected in the constitution of the British government.  There is little appetite in Scotland, for instance, for foreign wars, and a good many people would be only too happy to be rid of the nuclear submarine base.  Scotland has 59 Members of Parliament in Westminster, but only one of those belongs to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Tory party.  On the economic front, the cheerleaders for Scottish independence have argued that Scots are much more hospitable towards the idea of a welfare state than the English, and working-class support for Scottish independence is particularly high.  The notion that revenues from the North Sea oil and natural gas fields would, in the event of independence, be used only for projects to advance the advance of the Scots is often trumpeted as the clinching argument, though it is germane to point out that the 8 billion dollars in North Sea energy revenues that the British government received in 2013 amount to about only about three percent of the Scottish economy.

If there is to be a compelling argument for Scottish independence, it must surely also emanate from the tortuous history of the Union and the brutality with which the Scots were treated by the English for the greater part of two centuries.  To suggest this is by no means to excuse the Scots from the part they played in forging the British empire; indeed, they occupied a disproportionately prominent role in Indian administration.  But it is perhaps a truism that only those who have been brutalized go on to brutalize others, and the first principle for the student of colonialism is to come to the awareness that the English did not practice in their colonies in Asia or Africa anything that they had not first tested out on their subjects in Scotland and Ireland. The story of how Europe underdeveloped its various others, not least in the British Isles and in what is called Eastern Europe—just what was “Eastern Europe” becomes amply clear from the writings of the so-called Enlightenment giants such as Voltaire, for whom “Eastern Europe” was nothing more than the point at where the allegedly savage and animal-like Slavs began to predominate in the population—need not be rehearsed at any great length at this juncture, but a few fragments of this history are essential to convey the enormity of English injustice.  Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, an attempt by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to win the British crown for the Stuarts, Scottish Highland clansmen, who aided in this failed attempt, had to bear the burden of callous retribution.  What the English effected in Scotland was nothing short of ethnic cleansing:  the clan system was destroy

"Last of the Clan", a painting by Thomas Faed,   c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

“Last of the Clan”, a painting by Thomas Faed, c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

ed and in various other ways the English struck at the heart of the Scottish way of life.   The tartan plaid and kilt were banned by the Act of Proscription of 1746-47—in the precise language of the act, which would not allow for any lesser penalties, the offence of wearing Highland clothing would attract “imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence” would make the offender “liable to be transported”.  Highlanders were deprived of the right to own arms, and similarly Gaelic could no longer be taught in schools.  One might easily add to this list of persecutions, but nothing summarizes better what would become the pacification—an ugly word, which describes well how colonial powers acted with utter disregard for human life in their colonies—of the Scots than what is known to historians as the “Highland Clearances” which led to the mass-scale removal of the population of the Highlands, leaving it, wrote the popular historian John Prebble, “void of most, possibly 85-90%, of its people, trees and forests.”

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

In his charming but now little-read book, Two Cheers for Democracy, E. M. Forster, while championing English-style democracy over other forms of government, withheld the third cheer.  The English, he argued, had one insufferable vice:  hypocrisy.  How far this is peculiar to the English rather than a common condition afflicting a good deal of humankind is a question that need not be addressed at the moment.  Taking my cue from Forster, the argument for Scottish independence certainly deserves two cheers.  England, frankly, has not been humbled enough:  its immigration policies continue to be rotten, its visa regimes for citizens of its former colonies are not merely absurdly insulting but draconian, its disdain for the contributions of its own working class to the shaping of a humane society is appalling, and virulent racism is encountered in nearly every aspect of English life.  The nonviolent break-up of Great Britain is a most desirable thing; one hopes that if the referendum for Scottish independence succeeds, it will be eventually be a prelude to even more desirable outcomes, such as the break-up of the United States, which is far too big and powerful for its own good and certainly for the good of the rest of the world.  Secondly, no arguments are too strong for the devolution of power, the decentralization of authority, and autonomy for people who might choose their independence for ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other reasons.  There is, to put it in another language, an optimum size for a nation-state, and a great many nation-states are already far too big to both be governed efficiently and at the same time give all their people equal opportunities for their just advancement in various domains of life.  Nevertheless, there is something to be wary about in the demand for Scottish independence:  nationalism is almost always accompanied by a diminishing capacity for self-reflection.  When the Union dissolves, who will the Scot set himself or herself up against to know better his or her own self?  This is the problem that nationalism has not yet been able to resolve, and there is little to suggest that Scottish independence will yield new wisdom on this old and intractable problem.

The emptying out of the Highlands:  A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773

The emptying out of the Highlands: A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773

 

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