Professor Niall Ferguson’s article originally appeared in the New York Times on the 15th of September, far be it for me to disagree with an eminent historian but this doesn’t tally with my experience of the referendum process. For clarity the original text appears in black and my comments in red.
GLASGOW — TO most Americans, Scotland means golf, whisky and — if they go there — steady drizzle. Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling. (Given their independent, pioneering spirit I would have thought many Americans would view the opportunity to discuss self-determination democratically and without bloodshed as a positive and eminently understandable)
Yet, this week, a referendum could decide just that. With days remaining before the Scottish electorate votes on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom, the result is too close to call.
Born in Glasgow, but having spent most of my life in England and America, I am rather baffled, too. From the moment in 2012 when a deal was done to hold a referendum on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” the opinion polls have shown a consistent and comfortable lead for the Better Together, or No, campaign. But the past two weeks have seen a surge of support for the pro-independence Yes campaign. What is going on? (There has been a groundswell of engagement on both sides of the debate among people who have no interest in politics, or maybe more accurately politicians, and who involve themselves in the process through a multitude of sources. I would be willing to bet that numbers voting both ways will be significantly higher than before this process took place and hopefully whichever way the vote goes these people will stay engaged in a political process where they feel they can have an influence for the better)
Let’s first deal with some common misapprehensions. This is not a belated revolt by England’s last colony. The Welsh were subjugated in medieval times; the Irish slowly conquered from the mid-1500s. But Scotland and England were united as equals. (It is simply not possible for a nation a tenth the size of the other to be equal – and nor would it be fair and equitable for the larger party for that to be the case)
In one respect even, it was Scotland that acquired England, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. The merger of the two countries’ Parliaments by the Act of Union in 1707 was also consensual, (There are many who would disagree with this assessment – but arguments either way have little relevance to today’s debate where whichever decision holds sway it will be the democratic will of the people and not a monarch ruling by divine right or parliaments with a voting franchise of at best 3%) even if the great Scots poet Robert Burns later lamented that the Scottish elite had been “bought and sold for English gold.” To this day, the Scots retained their separate legal and educational systems.
Is this a choice, then, between being Scottish or English? (I’m not aware that anyone on either side has presented this as an argument) No. It is a choice between being inside or outside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (its full, long-winded name). Like the English and the Welsh, the Scots are British: Indeed, it was James VI who, on becoming James I of England, adopted the appellation “Great Britain” to reconcile his new English subjects to having a Scotsman as king.
The distinction is important to Scots (if no one else). The Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter once played a prisoner of war in a film in which a German prison guard yelled at him, “English swine!” Mr. Baxter, pale with rage, replied, “Scottish swine!” (Stanley Baxter hasn’t appeared in a film for over 50 years)
Scotland regained its own Parliament in 1999, following an earlier referendum on so-called devolution (why so-called?), which significantly increased the country’s autonomy. Since 2007, there has been a Scottish government, which is currently run by the Scottish National Party. So much power has already been devolved to Edinburgh that you may well ask why half of adult Scots feel the need for outright independence. (Given that a No vote is expected to entail the transfer of further powers and that support for Devo Max was considerably higher than that for independence prior to the question being set, there are likely to be significantly more than half of adult Scots who feel that not enough powers have been devolved to Edinburgh)
The economic risks are so glaring that even Paul Krugman and I agree it’s a terrible idea (I could present a counter argument from Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and also point out that Professor Ferguson wrote an article less than a year ago entitled “Why Paul Krugman should never be taken seriously again”). What currency will Scotland use? The pound? The euro? No one knows. What share of North Sea oil revenues will go to Edinburgh? What about Scotland’s share of Britain’s enormous national debt? (Respectively the pound [or maybe the smackeroonie if you’re a Kevin Bridges fan!], a geographically proportionate share, and a share proportionate to our population. Undoubtedly there are uncertainties but there are uncertainties either way – What powers will we get? No one knows. Who will form the government in 8 months time? Will we withdraw from the EU? Voters on both sides have to weigh up the risks and rewards)
Is this going to be one of those divorces in which one partner claims all the assets and offers the other partner only the liabilities? (I’m not aware of a divorce where that was ever the case!) Whatever the S.N.P. may say, a yes vote on Thursday would have grave economic consequences, and not just for Scotland. Investment has already stalled (Clydesdale Bank have recently relocated their headquarters to Glasgow, oil investment has increased, inward investment in Scotland is among the highest in the UK and at its highest level for 16 years). Big companies based in Scotland, notably the pensions giant Standard Life, have warned of relocating to (setting up regulated companies in) England. Jobs would definitely be lost (nobody has confirmed a single job loss. There will always be gains and losses in the jobs market and any new Scottish administration will require to use their new powers to bring higher employment levels to Scotland, as will those in charge in the event of a No vote). The recent steep decline in the pound shows that the financial world hates the whole idea. (Markets abhor uncertainty as it is difficult to price. It’s also incredibly difficult to isolate one factor in the rise or fall of as complex a mechanism as a currency. In addition it’s also worth noting that while the pound has fallen over the last month against the US dollar it has risen against other major currencies like the euro and the yen)
Yet the economic arguments against independence seem not to be working — and may even be backfiring. I think I know why. Telling a Scot, “You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,” has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial. If you went into a Glasgow pub tonight and said to the average Glaswegian, “If you down that beer, you’ll get your head kicked in,” he would react by draining his glass to the dregs and telling the barman, “Same again.” (The average Scot is a good deal more sophisticated than this – people on both sides are not simply taking a position based on “Well if David Cameron / Alex Salmond said it then I’m doing the opposite)
So what kind of appeal can be made to stop the Anglo-Scottish divorce? The answer may be an appeal to Scotland’s long history of cosmopolitanism.
The great Scottish philosopher David Hume was contemptuous of what he called the “vulgar motive of national antipathy.” (Hume also wrote “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”) “I am a Citizen of the World,” he wrote in 1764. Hume’s account of the consequences of union with England could scarcely have been more positive: “Public liberty, with internal peace and order, has flourished almost without interruption.” (and will continue to flourish whether the vote is No or Yes) His only complaint was the tendency of the English to treat “with Hatred our just Pretensions to surpass and to govern them.” (At the time, the English had not quite got used to Scottish prime ministers, of which there have been 11, by my count.)
Petty nationalism is just un-Scottish (There is very little petty nationalism and it arises with a small minority on both sides from Yes voters who cling to national stereotypes and won’t be swayed to the No voters who will vote No because…well just because in their own words “Rule Britannia”. These people are not representative of either side). And today’s Scots should remember the apposite warning of their countryman the economist Adam Smith about politicians who promise “some plausible plan of reformation” in order “to new-model the constitution,” mainly for “their own aggrandizement.” (This warning could be raised over promises made by both sides, especially in light of the signed vow put forward by the 3 main Westminster party leaders. Scottish people have enough healthy cynicism to see through the short-termist agendas of politicians on both sides to make a decision based on what they believe is best for their families, communities and generations to come) All over Continental Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalism was what ambitious hacks espoused to advance themselves. Scotland was the exception. May it stay that way.