Is Scotland going to secede from the United Kingdom? We’ll see soon enough. Scotland votes on its independence from the United Kingdom on September 18. But why is independence even an issue, especially if secession is as bad an idea as it is portrayed to be by the British government, the British press and business interests in both England and Scotland?
The Guardian’s report on the upcoming election is typical: “[W] ith big banks and oil companies being pushed off the fence to warn of the pitfalls of a decision to break up the UK…. It prompted me to wonder if Alex Salmond [Scotland’s First Minister and the chief proponent of Scottish independence] hadn’t woken up in a sweat from a dream in which the yes campaign had won and begged them to save him from the consequences.”
Those consequences might include, it has been threatened, the relocation to London of the headquarters of various financial institutions, including The Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyd’s Bank, increased prices on retail goods, and loss of the use of the British pound as the national currency. At the moment, the election in Scotland must be counted as a tossup, although the opposition seems to have gained a small lead, but, if independence could lead to such dire consequences, why is there any doubt about the outcome?
The reason secession is an issue is that, despite the risks, a good portion, if not a majority, of the Scottish people find the idea of independence attractive. Scots like the idea of more liberal economic policies—of more government services and a more expansive safety net—than the Conservatives who dominate the UK parliament can tolerate. The contrast between the current composition of the Scottish parliament and the national parliament is stark. In the Scottish Parliament, the left-wing Scottish Nationalist Party or SNP (which is pushing independence) controls an absolute majority, 65 of the 129 seats.
By contrast, the Scottish Conservatives currently control only 15 seats in the Scottish parliament, and only one of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. Admittedly, the Scottish National Party does not dominate Scotland’s representation at Westminster the way it dominates the Scottish Parliament, but Scotland’s liberal tendencies are reflected in the representatives it does send to London. (41 of Scotland’s current MPs are from the Labour Party, 11 are from the Liberal Democrats, 6 are from the SNP, and, of course, there is that one very lonely Conservative.)
One way of looking at the Scottish independence movement is to see it as a rebellion against a national government controlled by the party of Margaret Thatcher, with its propensity for free-market, pro-austerity, anti-welfare-state economics. The leftist policies of the SNP are featured prominently on the party’s website, which highlights four “Popular Policies” (“Independence,” “The Economy and Jobs”—with an emphasis on the role of the government in helping to create jobs, “Health and Wellbeing”—with increased funding for the Health service and a commitment to “keeping health free,” and “Affordable Housing”).
If these are the kind of policies Scots prefer—and their choices for parliamentary representation suggest that they are, then it’s no wonder many Scots seem to look on the government in London under David Cameron the way Texans view the government in Washington under Barrack Obama—like an occupying power that is preventing them from having the kind of government they want.
Whatever the potential downside, and the British government and the British press are only too willing to point out just how down that side is, the right to live in a society governed by social and economic policies that accord with the prevailing beliefs of the governed may begin to look like a risk worth taking. Whatever the Scots decide, the idea of Scottish independence should not be dismissed, as it was by The Economist, as simply “nuts.”
In fact, the Scots may be on to something. We Americans are long past the point of being inspired by the words that made Barack Obama a national figure (You know, the one about red states and blue states and the United States). We have suffered with political divisiveness too long to really believe that we are truly one nation under God. Texas and Arizona are not really part of the same country as New York and California.
We do not, except in the most abstract sense, have common values, and even when we are prepared to avow adherence to a common abstraction—“freedom” and “liberty” are perfect examples, we don’t mean the same thing at all.
In Blue America, freedom and liberty mean things like the right to choose an abortion (or not), the right to marry the person you love (even if that person is of the same gender as you), the right not to be profiled by the police, the right of every working man or woman to a living wage. In Red America, freedom and liberty mean something else entirely, things like the right to life, the right to carry a gun, the right to be free from government regulation, the right to “keep your hard-earned money.” We may incant the same holy phrases, but we are not singing from the same hymnal.
The political divisions between our two largest states, California and Texas, are illustrative and nearly as stark as the contrast between the Scottish Parliament and the UK’s. Both of California’s senators are Democrats, as are 39 of its 53 House members. Both of Texas’s senators are Republican, as are 26 of its 36 House members. It is hard to think of any domestic policy issue on which these two Congressional delegations could ever agree, and it’s not even clear at this point that they could agree on a matter of foreign policy. (Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, recently dismissed President Obama’s proposed strategy for dealing with ISIS as “unserious.”)
Given the breadth of the political divide, why are we trying to live as one country? Why is each half of the county trying to impose its values—its notion of freedom and liberty—on the other? If California wants strict gun control and Texas wants “open carry” laws, if California wants to promote the Affordable Care Act and Texas wants to repeal it, if California wants to allow abortions and Texas wants to ban them, if California wants to teach evolution in its schools as a fact and Texas as a theory, if, if, if, so many ifs. Why are we trying to save this very unhappy and dysfunctional marriage between the red and the blue? Maybe the time has come to follow the example of Scotland and, at least, consider a two-state solution for the formerly United States.