Irreconcilable Differences

On Monday, three days before the Scottish referendum on independence from the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned the residents of Scotland that “independence would not be a trial separation” and that, if they vote for independence, “there’s no going back from this, no rerun.”

Apparently, it didn’t take long for Cameron to realize that this was probably not the best approach to take. (Perhaps somebody had brought him that day’s New York Times, in which historian Niall Ferguson published an op-ed piece entitled “Scots Must Vote Nae,” whose title must have brought some comfort to Cameron but whose text contained this bit of wisdom: “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.’”)

By Tuesday, however, Cameron had abandoned the stick and was offering carrots (or something more like carats). Cameron, along with the leaders of the Labour and Liberal parties, promised that, if the Scots vote no on Thursday, the UK would grant “extensive new powers” to the Scottish parliament.

The “Vow,” which appeared in the form of a letter to The Daily Record, was immediately dismissed by the leader of the Scotland Yes movement, Alex Salmond, as a “last-minute desperate offer of nothing.”

Still, Salmond may be hedging his bets. Responding to Mr. Cameron’s threats on Monday, Salmond issued a statement that “the next time [Cameron] comes to Scotland it will not be to love-bomb or engage in desperate last-minute scaremongering…. It will be to engage in serious post-referendum talks.”

Serious post-referendum talks, it is worth noting, could take place whether the Scots vote “yes” (and the British have to negotiate the terms of independence) or “no” (and the British have to make good on their “vow” of “extensive new powers”).

Given that a good deal of the impetus for Scottish independence seems to be rooted in a concern about preservation of social welfare policies (of which the Conservatives in Parliament are not perhaps the most trusted supporters), and, in particular, on concern about cuts by the UK Parliament to the budget of the National Health Service, the inclusion in the “Vow” of a specific commitment that the Scottish Parliament will have “the final say on how much is spent on the NHS” suggests that the “Vow” may be more than a “last-minute desperate offer of nothing.”

And so it appears that the last best hope of the UK to deflect Scotland’s move toward independence comes down to the promise of what, in American terms, would be considered greater states’ rights.

In a recent post (“Scotland, Maybe”), I posited that, given the seemingly insurmountable divide between the red states and the blue states in this country, perhaps we, too, might consider a divorce. If a “devolution” of power from London to Glasgow can arguably solve Scotland’s problems, why couldn’t we Yanks solve our problems with a greater states’ rights agenda? Unfortunately, we can’t because the issues that divide us are different from the issues that divide Britain and Scotland.

The disputes that are driving a wedge between Scotland and Britain are focused on economic issues and economic ideology. (It is telling that Scots in favor of independence express concerns about issues like cuts to the National Health Service, and also talk a great deal about things like free university tuition.) It’s not that difficult to have one part of a country adopt more liberal (or more conservative) economic policies than another.

Even we have managed that successfully. Some states have high taxes, some low. Some states spend a lot of money on welfare programs, on health care, on education, and the like; some don’t. Some states have adopted a relatively high minimum wage; some have adopted “right to work” laws. While this can create vigorous economic competition among the states—think of the recent frenzied bidding war for the location of a new Tesla plant, it isn’t driving us apart.

In this country, however, the divisions go deeper than economics or, at least, wider, and encompass a number of moral issues—most prominently, abortion, but other issues, like marriage equality, too—on which one side (the conservative side, as it happens) is unwilling to co-exist with the other side. Blue states can live with the fact that many red states refuse, on principle, to expand Medicaid, and red states, despite the endless attempts to “repeal Obamacare,” can live with the fact that other states are embracing the Affordable Care Act.

But so-called pro-lifers are never going to accept abortion as a legitimate choice anywhere. In this sense, abortion, as an issue in the twenty-first century, is like slavery in the nineteenth. We could have been—we were at our founding—a country in part of which slavery was legal and, indeed, acceptable, but, as Abraham Lincoln asked: “Can we, as a nation, continue, together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?” Too many Americans ultimately recognized slavery for the great evil that it is, and the union could not hold.

For many Americans—and huge numbers of them live in the red states, abortion is just as immoral, just as evil, just as intolerable as slavery, and it is hard to imagine the opponents of abortion reconciling themselves to living in an America where, if only in some states, the “murder” of “innocent children” by means of abortion is a lawful act. One can see conservatives living, to use another of Lincoln’s phrases, in a “house divided” on many economic and cultural issues. Let California have high taxes. Let New York have gun control. Let Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana. We don’t like it, but that’s them, that’s there.

But abortion is different. To its opponents, abortion is a sin, immoral, an abomination, an offense to God that cannot be tolerated anywhere in our union any more than slavery could, ultimately, be tolerated anywhere in our union. And that is why, even if the “devolution” of power to Scotland can avert a crisis in the United Kingdom, there will probably never be a states’ rights solution to the abiding division between the red states and the blue states. We don’t need a war between the states to resolve this irresolvable problem. We simply need to recognize that the problem is irresolvable and do what people do when they discover that they have irreconcilable differences.

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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