Text from the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

The Kept Kingdom

Independence would be likely to disempower Scots. Staying in the UK offers the chance of remaking it.

Will ye no come back again

In our local pub the other night, I encountered what would have been, until recently, a preposterous thing — an American who had bought a plane ticket and come to Edinburgh solely to volunteer for Yes.

We had just listened to a well-known folk duo close their set with a medley of Scottish songs that are as much cultural hallmarks as they are memorials of quasi-forgotten political grievances. (‘“Will ye no come back again” — that’s what David Cameron will be singing Friday!’) The enthusiasm of the crowd, clapping and mouthing the well-known lyrics, would have made clear to any visitor that there is something distinct about Scotland as a nation. Of course, many of these songs have enjoyed centuries of singalongs, and support for independence has been thin for much of that time. The nature of the current political moment is more clearly seen in the case of the American visitor.

That person was in Scotland to help save social democracy. Having recently been involved in Occupy and long been disenchanted with democracy in America, aiding the Yes campaign was about preserving a model of social justice somewhere in the world — to not let “Scotland become like America,” as the governments in London seemed to want for all of Britain. The writings of Jim Sillars were a particular inspiration.

The current independence debate is an argument mainly about political economy and what democracy can do. It is about culture only in a tangential sense: Culture provides Scotland with the consciousness of a nation, though a stateless one. Statelessness would not matter so much to Scotland if its partners in political union all shared a cohesive political culture. But the sense that Scotland and England have developed quite different political cultures — one embracing market liberalism and the other dedicated to preserving social democracy — has allowed the thought that only Scottish sovereignty can preserve their preferred model of society.

The Yes campaign has taken off with this concept, asserting in inspiring terms both the urgency of social justice and the significance of national sovereignty in realizing the democratic will of the Scottish people. The No campaign has had no comparable inspiration, but has emphasized the risks, which are huge. Still, amid profound discontent with the way that Britain is governed, the Scots can vote to resurrect their kingdom democratically on one hand, or keep things as they are on the other.

But it is a deceptive choice.


John Balliol, with his crown asunder and scepter broken, depicted in 1562.

Toom tabard

The mythologized Wars of Independence have nothing to do with the current debate on independence, except as a background feature that underlines Scotland’s manifest nationhood. In very brief terms, after the Scottish monarchy became vacant, Edward I of England was asked to help settle who was the rightful Scottish king, but used the opportunity to assert his claim that the Scottish king was his feudal vassal. Scottish nobles were initially divided in their position on this, and two wars followed in the subsequent decades. The monarch produced by the initial arbitration was John Balliol. Always viewed as under Edward’s influence, the English king eventually degraded Balliol and stripped him of his office in 1296. Whether for the former reason (as is usually assumed) or the latter, Balliol was called “Toom Tabard” — the empty coat.

To possess the trappings of sovereignty and to actually wield authority are two different things, as Balliol made clear. Moving from the feudal tangle of medieval politics to the postmodern condition of today’s nations crosses over a time of modern history when nation-states seemed clear and significant.

If the Yes campaign is premised on the idea that nations, through democracy, can assert their own social models, then the past few years have not been kind to the concept. Especially in the Eurozone countries, where democratically elected governments have occasionally been toppled at the opaque will of transnational credit markets and supranational central bankers, entire populations seem to be passengers on a ship that can’t be piloted. Though unable to be steered, this form of anti-politics ploughs forward: The Great Recession presented the paradox of austerity as a political choice to which there is allegedly no alternative. Often amid great protest, legislatures in many developed countries have taken the scythe to the welfare state, a form of governance built mainly in the 20th century, when the wills of nations seemed to really matter in shaping national life. As protests in countries like Spain and Greece have most explosively shown, this kind of political settlement has upset a lot of people.

Sovereignty has meant little for countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, or Ireland in terms of the power to build a prosperous society

Rather than dwelling on the unhappiness of Southern Europeans, the Yes campaign has more happily discussed oil-rich Norway as the model for an independent Scotland. Norway became independent in 1905, when nation-states were strong as entities, and is doing well. But with continued use of the pound sterling, even without the Bank of England’s cooperation, as Scotland’s expressed currency preference — and with Scotland’s tight integration with the English market as the underlying reality of its trade relationships — it seems the much better comparison is Ireland. In recent years, what has sovereignty meant to Ireland? Its experience is much more like Spain’s or Greece’s than Norway’s — unable to ensure prosperity against tight strictures and the dominance of larger partners in their shared economic arrangements.

The promise of sovereignty is most notably imperiled by the fact that, under any of the proposed currency plans, Scotland would have to rely heavily on England for monetary policymaking — stripping away the key “job creating powers” that are central to the argument for a social-democratic, independent state. Paul Krugman’s political-economic insights into this are touchstones for justified skepticism. Whether in a monetary union that England would dominate, under a “sterlingization” option where Scotland would use the pound sterling without a monetary union, or in creating (eventually) a Scottish currency that would risk greatly disrupting trade relationships if not pegged to the pound, two consequences are clear. First, Scotland would lack the flexibility to make the policies it wants to promote trade, create employment, and bear its sovereign debt; and second, it would have, paradoxically, less control over these things than it does today. The eurozone crisis has shown that, especially for small countries prone to asymmetric economic shocks (as Scotland would be, especially with such a large oil sector), lacking these powers is very dangerous to the people that social democracy would ostensibly help. As Carol Craig has asked, is there anything so special about Scotland that it could avoid these structural problems that have afflicted other nations? To answer yes risks reverting to the perilous aspects of nationalist thinking.

One might propose that, in seven centuries, the circle has somewhat closed on the meaning of independence to European nations: The trappings of sovereignty in the 21st century might mean practically as little as they did in the case of Balliol. A placid European context has provided a safe space for small states in terms of physical security against larger countries. But in the economic terms at the center of the referendum debate, the reality is that sovereignty is a diminished concept amid global market integration — a cloak much emptier than it may seem.

Impossible schemes

History has seen varied attempts to make Scotland prosperous.

Stereotypes do not propose that the Scottish are country of dreamers. The nation has a long history of pragmatic invention, but also some annals of folly, including the establishment of a colony at Darien on the Isthmus of Panama that looms large in the latter. It would be dull to harp on such a well-worn cautionary tale, but it is notable that Scotland undertook the Darien project despite the opposition of the monarch it shared with England, and that English coolness toward the already-risky project helped to doom both the colony and Scotland’s sovereignty.

The wisdom of going a separate way from England requires some kind of reading of what the possibilities for an independent nation truly are. The meaning of sovereignty seemingly has been hemmed in. Against the warnings of research on optimum currency areas and the mantra that “bigger is better,” the estimable Joseph Stiglitz has proposed that “far more important than size is the pursuit of the right policies.” This, against the prospect of permanent austerity, is the dream of the social-democratic Scotland: one that protects the National Health Service and free university education, among other benefits, using what powers Scotland does retain as a small nation to pursue the model that most of its people want. Or, in other words, “no more Tory governments we didn’t vote for.”

No more Tory governments*
(*except the ones that an independent Scotland might elect)

The democratic frustration with Westminster is deep, and rooted in the fact that, by now, Scotland and England seem to have developed quite different political cultures. This provides some logical appeal to the argument that only independence can assure “the right policies.” The Conservatives, who dominate Parliament in London, hold only 15 of the 129 seats in the devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Margaret Thatcher’s axiomatic proclamation that “there is no such thing as society” — which has been the watchword for the transformation of British conservatism as well as much of the Labour Party away from concepts of solidarity — has been received poorly in a small, homogeneous country like Scotland, which is still relatively socially cohesive. The 35-year rollback of the welfare state has not been openly accepted as an inevitability. When the historian Tom Devine proposes “that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey,” he underscores in the Scottish referendum the unusual Scottish capacity to at once be conservative and radical.

Whether Scotland can even choose the “right policies” (social-democratic ones) is a major fault line in the debate. Weighing the appeals and the vulnerabilities of independence is at the heart of what voters are doing now. Whether Scotland would continue to choose the right policies is another, often-neglected aspect, which is shaped by the limited economic tools that Scotland would maintain for itself.

Practically, the ability to choose social democracy will be limited by the future ability of Scotland to control its own currency — meaning, importantly, it will have little ability to devalue its own currency either to boost exports or to reduce its sovereign debt burden. Importantly, the cost of debt is almost certain to be higher for a new country with no established credit (at least in the short term, but perhaps in the long term as well). The costs will likely be very high if Scotland threatens to refuse assuming a share of the UK’s debt as a bargaining chip to win a currency union that England does not want. If Scotland does manage this monetary union, Scottish sovereign debt would be subject to careful controls requested by England, a la the eurozone. And one ineluctable fact of social-democratic welfare states is that, to at least some degree, it is more expensive for governments to have them than not to have them.

Politically, if Scotland seems to maintain a consensus for social democracy on face, close research casts some serious doubt on the depth of the political differences between Scotland and England. Conservative opinions are much more common in Scotland than the unpopularity of the Conservative Party suggests. Support for the Tories seems to be artificially low, perhaps because of a particular disregard that the Thatcher-era Westminster Conservatives held for Scottish opinion.

Germany’s party system is “normal” for a country with electoral institutions like those that currently exist in Scotland: The center-right is a formidable force.

Political science thus offers some unsettling insights for the social-democratic dream. The strongest evidence for the existence of a social-democratic consensus in Scotland is the current Scottish party system — something that is very likely in for tremendous change in the decades after a Yes vote. Arguably, the best thing that could happen to conservatism in Scotland would be to allow the Scottish Conservatives to reshape themselves without the pall of Thatcher. The removal of the nationalist/unionist cleavage in Scottish society would put an end to the present party system, where the two biggest parties are a center-left party that is unionist and a nationalist party that is center-left, where the third parties are a liberal party and a center-right party, and where a green party finds a bit of purchase.

Depending on the electoral institutions of an independent Scotland, over time, the party system is very likely to revert to a much more “normal” one where there are two main center-left and center-right parties, with more marginal liberal, green, and far-right parties. How the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Labour Party can both survive as their own entities in the long run after independence is difficult to see. In such a scenario, conservative government will come to Scotland, too, and the constraints on financing the Scottish welfare state will play a part in their campaigns and policies. Voting Yes would banish the Westminster enemy, but it would open up the social-democratic dream of many Yes campaigners to attack from within.

How no

It is easy to sympathize with the Yes activists. Their nationalism is not ugly. Their main concerns, about social justice and the vitality of democracy in Scotland, are extremely valid. All they want is a more vibrant democracy and a more fair society. Who wouldn’t? Their campaign has been uplifting, even to skeptics.

The main problem with the Yes campaign is not that it lacks valid grievances, but rather that proposing sovereignty as the solution to them is extremely risky and likely disappointing: It resurrects a concept of a powerful national self-determination that was at home in the 19th or 20th centuries but seems out of step with the fact that many small states, especially, are struggling to shape fair and prosperous societies amid the power of global capital. Counterintuitively, independence would likely be disempowering. One could say this is no worse than the current situation. That claim, however, demands a perspective that excessively underplays the economic risks of disunion — a perspective the Yes campaign has pushed as hopeful reality against unionist “scaremongering.”

The No campaign, composed of multiple parties that have heretofore held no shared vision for the United Kingdom, has predictably utterly lacked any inspiring element, focusing instead on risks. It is only in recent weeks, when the Yes campaign has surged, that it has become clearer just what kind of meaningful change staying in the union could bring.


Britain isn’t cool, you know.
It’s really not that great.
It’s not a proper country;
It doesn’t even have a patron saint.
It’s just an economic union
That’s past its sell-by date.

Scotland — which has a patron saint, and where all the trappings of a self-identifying nation have been simmering at the surface for centuries — distracts from the real source of democratic decrepitude in the United Kingdom: The dominance of London in national affairs. The centralization and unitary nature of the British state, and its orientation around London and its economy and political culture, have become more problematic in a country that seems increasingly pluralistic. A single national Parliament that doles out power to ancient nations is unable to manage deep differences in society or merge together divergent political cultures.

The United Kingdom is a modern democracy within the trappings of an early modern, barely post-feudal state. This has produced a distinct political system highly reliant on unwritten norms, which in the wake of the independence campaign seems not quaint but dangerously outdated and politically perilous. Federalism, an uncontroversial part of the political landscape in countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada, is a major departure from the core constitutional concepts of the United Kingdom, a state premised on the supremacy of a single parliament and the (formal) sovereignty of a hereditary monarch.

With more powers to Scotland looking like a certain outcome of a No vote, the complacency of Westminster on matters of constitutional change may finally be broken. Another perilous pattern — by which Westminster only provides the amount of devolution the supreme parliament is comfortable with, rather than starting the process from below, with what the UK’s constituent peoples demand — also looks to be broken amid the panic of the Westminster parties. Scottish Parliament currently does not even have the power of an American state legislature, something which should change and looks like it most likely will. The aftermath of the referendum has the opportunity to open the political system to demands for change in the way that Britain is governed, as the regions of England also begin speaking out for more autonomy.

It is worth asking, as some have, whether the independence movement promises to transform Scottish politics to something more democratic, or whether it merely offers in the long run a downsized version of Westminster governance. Politics, no matter where they are conducted, are likely to disappoint. But there are myriad midpoints between acquiescing to a distant elite and granting Scotland the ability to make all its own mistakes. In this sense, the No vote is not necessarily a vote for a Westminster status quo that everybody resents, but rather it may be the start of Scotland and the other peoples of the United Kingdom getting something they deserve: The chance to dramatically reform their own political system without being forced to take tremendous risks.

Scotland deserves an imaginative political system that re-creates the governance of this ancient country in a modern mold.

Independence is likely, on balance, to be disempowering to the Scots: Against the hopes of many Yes voters, Scotland’s powers to institute the social model that is the alleged consensus of Scottish voters will likely be diminished. Of course, the status quo is a difficult basis for a campaign, which has bedeviled the No side. (You will not see Americans buying a ticket to campaign for the union.) With the tremendous risks of independence in mind, it is worth imagining how Scotland may transform itself in the future, without resorting to the trappings of sovereignty left behind by previous centuries.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Mike Slaven’s story.