The Essential Question of Scottish Independence

Today, more than four million Scots will go to the polls to decide whether their country will become independent from the United Kingdom. After more than three centuries of union, a few years of campaigning may divide Scotland from the rest of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

A yes vote would be cataclysmic. It is also unlikely. Just about every poll has shown a lead, albeit a slight one, for the no side. Something in the region of 46-48% yes and 52-54% no is probably a reasonable expectation. Getting out the vote may be a moot point, given the atmosphere around the campaign and the near-universal understanding that this election matters.

If we’ve learned one thing from the campaign, it’s that even in jaded western democracies, if people are provided genuine power — not mediated through representatives or bureaucracies — over substantial and comprehensible decisions, they will vote.

Despite the consistency of the polls, how the Scottish people will vote is still a matter of some concern, particularly in Westminster. There have been suggestions that David Cameron could face calls to resign if Scotland votes yes, and that his premiership and reputation have already been irreparably damaged by presiding over a near-split in the union. This is quite unfair on Cameron. He is not the cause of the Scottish independence movement, but has merely had the misfortune to be Prime Minister of a center-right government that is unpopular north of the border.

But it is the question of the decision, rather than the conclusions we can draw from the campaign or the recriminations from the result, that is more important for today. The polling gives us a good (although not perfect, considering the lack of past comparisons) sense of the probable outcome. But how should the Scots vote?

It’s not for any of us outside to lecture one way or another — on the importance of a stable currency or the empowerment of self-determination. However, there are some points that can lead us toward ways to answer the referendum question.

First, it is very difficult to conceive of a situation whereby Scotland will be economically better off as an independent country. Not impossible, but difficult and unlikely. Between the issue of the currency, dependence on the fluctuations of oil prices for the treasury, uncertainty over its trade relations, and the likely movement of many large corporations, an independent Scotland will need excellent policies, leadership, and fortunate external circumstances. None of those can be ruled out, but the necessity of a combination makes them unlikely. If nothing else, we can be quite sure that an independent Scotland will have a less stable economy than Scotland would within the UK.

Second, independence doesn’t need to be about improving the Scottish economy. Frankly, it shouldn’t be. The people of a geographic region who want to be independent have usually drawn that desire from their common identity and solidarity. This may be why the constant lectures from various wise and learned professors, economists, policymakers, and even celebrities have failed to convince around two million Scots. These people are probably right on their own terms, but they are fighting on the wrong ground.

Scotland has a history, it has laws, a parliament, a language and an accent (or a range of them), it has a football league and national teams. These elements, and much more, make up the Scottish identity and their sense of nationhood. This is more than many other states had at their independence. And many other states, when they chose to become independent, could not have expected a brighter economic future on their own. In 1776, cutting adrift from the trade and power networks of the British Empire was probably an economically irrational choice for the American colonies (the inhabitants of which were likely just as divided as Scots are today). The Americans did it anyway, due to a variety of factors that included a growing sense of solidarity among themselves and antipathy towards their rulers from far away. They, like the Scots, still had some affinities with England, Wales, and Ireland, but preferred the bonds between themselves to those with their erstwhile countrymen.

There is a sense in which at least some Scots seem to view the parliament at Westminster as a foreign power intervening in their affairs, and while there are huge differences in degree from the American case, the essential point remains the same: independence isn’t necessarily a choice based on calculable and rational economic factors, and for people who believe in national self-determination, this is good. Life and nationhood are about more than account books. At the same time, privileging non-economic factors imposes costs.

The question every Scot will have to answer today is whether the incalculable value of independence is a greater good than the calculable and tangible costs of cutting adrift from the UK.