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Scottish Independence: A view from America

Things are different in America - still. Despite all the togetherness of the internet and super-easy air travel, you can even today be surprised (for good or ill) at what's going across the Atlantic. This blog, borrowing its title from the legendary Alistair Cooke, aims to keep you in the picture about things you might not otherwise know.

David Speedie

With the Scottish independence referendum quickly approaching, and campaigns for both sides well underway, the Commonwealth Games has brought brand Scotland to the world stage.

David Speedie, a senior fellow and Director of the US global engagement programme at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, takes a look at how the independence battle looks from America.

I suppose we Scots, expats like myself included, should feel gratified by the growing chorus of influential outsiders urging a ‘No’ vote on the independence question on 18 September. To list but two: Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, sees the prospect of Scots independence as a possible beginning of “Balkanisation of Europe” (a particularly evocative phrase in the year marking the one hundredth anniversary of World War 1); and the eminent historian Simon Schama wrote in the 10/11 May edition of the Financial Times under the evocative headline, “A splendid mess of a union should not be torn asunder”, goes on to lament that “Scotland’s exit from the rich, creative and multicultural unity of Britain would be a catastrophe”.

The hyperbole of Schama’s prose is reflective of in increasingly evident paradox in the strategy of the ‘No’ camp which has seen the course of history reversed. In the past, charges of ‘emotion-over-reason’ have invariably been leveled at the pro-independence cause, which was characterized as being all claymores and Braveheart. Now what we appear to see is a clear contrast between the patient, calm-waters exposition of how an independent Scotland can and should hold its own – economically and politically – and the fever-pitch narratives of the pro-union forces; these range from Chancellor George Osborne’s “sermon on the pound”, to Lord George Robertson’s extraordinary outburst at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC in April, in which he compared a vote for an independent Scotland to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Then there was the warning from the outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that an independent Scotland might have “great difficulty” in securing EU membership [really? Slovenia, Estonia and Bulgaria, but not Scotland!?] Throw into the mix the eleventh-hour blandishments from Prime Minister Cameron – commitment to further devolution in the event of a ‘No’ vote, including concessions on tax collection – and what we see from the ‘No’ campaign is an odd blend of cajoling and bullying or, as we say in the United States, carrots and sticks. This is an odd approach because these are tactics on which Scots tend to push back, and which seem unlikely to win hearts and minds.

I will not dwell on the matter of economic realities; these have been well rehearsed elsewhere, and it seems self-evident that if 15 new European states since the end of the Cold War [out of the 28 EU states] can survive – and in most cases thrive – as independent states, then Scotland surely can. Rather than the ‘could’ question on independence, I’ll focus on the ‘should’, and advance three reasons for voting ‘Yes’ in September.

For the first, I turn back to Simon Schama, who offers a litany of achievements by Scots during the 300 years of the Union—in the arts, sciences, philosophy, architecture, politics et al. Quite so – yet his allusion to these achievements surely emphasizes Scotland’s capacity for independence. Another wise man, the Canadian politician and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff, also offered the opinion that Scots should be mightily content with the status quo since so many had found fame and fortune in London. However, we might question firstly why Scots should have to go to London to accomplish such? We might also question the implication that Scots would somehow desist from going to London should Scotland become independent – it is fatuous to suspect that ‘north-south traffic’ of people, goods and ideas would suffer in any way from a ‘Yes’ vote.

Secondly, the whole notion of ‘Better Together’ carries the implication that the state of togetherness in the United Kingdom (UK) is all sweetness and light. Surely this is not so. Increasingly, over 40 years of living in the United States, I have had to retreat from the confident assertion of early years of exile that certain fundamental services in the UK were superior to those across the Atlantic – namely education, transportation and [at least for the lower-income stratum] healthcare.

Now, on the basis of regular visits home, it is clear that if the social contract in Britain is not, to use Schama’s language, “torn asunder”, it is perilously frayed. This is due surely, and in no small part, to a process that is as inexorable as it is distasteful—the shift of power, influence and wealth to London and the Southeast of England, a process that began in the Thatcher years but has continued unabated, even under two UK Prime Ministers who were Scots! Simply put, London sucks the oxygen out of the rest of the UK. It is significant to note that by most economic indicators, Scotland outperforms the rest of the UK outside the hungry maw of the metropolis.

This leads to the third and most compelling factor that would advocate a ‘Yes’ vote. In the preface to the compendious report on independence, Scotland’s Future, First Minister Alex Salmond writes: “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education.” This reference to compassion leads me back to the matter of the erosion of the social contract: as the son of a nonagenarian mother under excellent care in Scotland, I can testify to the fact that Scotland has a social democratic conscience, a tax and spend on social services commitment that is far from the mentality of what was recently and famously described as the “madcap capitalist laboratory” of London.

Without dipping too far into the waters of partisan politics, it is not coincidental that Scotland has but one representative of the ruling political party in Westminster. And the schism of political culture we see between north and south is all the more evident in the disproportionately greater success of the UKIP in recent elections in England as opposed to the gain of one miserable seat in Scotland: do we Scots truly see ourselves as being in sync with a party that speaks for some 30 per cent of England in wishing to turn its back on Europe [Scotland, lest we forget, is the most pro-Europe part of the UK]? Indeed, in looking at the broader European picture, we should consider seriously the implications of voting ‘No’ when we know that David Cameron is committed to a ‘stay or go’ vote on Europe in the next Parliament. Do Scots wish to be any part of a political culture of ugly xenophobia, as exemplified in the comments of a UKIP MEP who asserted: “How we can possibly be giving one billion pounds a month to Bongo-Bongo Land is completely beyond me”? Do Scots wish to be part of such a UK which decides that it no longer wishes to be in the European Union and withdraws from an alliance of 28 states and 508 million citizens?

Taken together, these factors test to the utmost the credibility of a truly ‘United’ kingdom and the notion that Scotland is ‘better’ within it. Indeed, as one observer—not a Scot, but in fact a resident of Hyderabad, India—recently stated in simple terms in the Financial Times: “The Scots have always been a nation and are now asking for their own state.” That would seem to state the obvious – and the desirable. And, just to square the circle – back to Mr. Bildt, whom I quoted at the outset. He more than any should recall that his own country, Sweden, dissolved a union with Norway in 1905. They seem to enjoy reasonably cordial relations as independent neighbour states now, do they not?

The views expressed in this article are Speedie's own and not those of the Carnegie Council.