Scottish Referendum Raises Questions About Nationhood

Separatists from Wales to Spain are waiting to see if the Scots will secede from the United Kingdom.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond speaks with tennis player Andy Murray, September 17, 2012
Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond speaks with tennis player Andy Murray, September 17, 2012 (Scottish Government)

The polls are closed but that doesn’t mean an end to the Scottish referendum in the news. Even by tomorrow night, there will be plenty more to say (and repeat) on the issue which, either way, will change the United Kingdom — either destroying it or keeping it together with new expectations of devolution among its constituent countries.

All eyes, it seems, both north, south and abroad, are watching with some dog in the race, either culturally (in the case of the millions of Scots descendants who still claim to be Scottish) or politically. Politicians in Madrid, for example, are no doubt observing with particular interest and wondering how this will all knock on for Spain’s own issues with the Catalans and the Basques.

Opinions on the matter are as divided in England as they are in Scotland, not just including the Scots living south of the border who have been unable to vote (like Andy Murray, who tweeted his support for independence) but also among the English. Some Conservatives see it as a wonderful opportunity to reduce the voters of the opposition; Scotland was for years a Labour bastion until many Scots felt underwhelmed and even outright betrayed by the policies of New Labour. With a reduced leftist population in a rump United Kingdom, the right-wing Conservatives and United Kingdom Independence Party would gain a larger relative portion of the vote. You’d think David Cameron would be pleased about that at least but credit where it is due — he does seem to genuinely want the union to continue despite the potential opportunities for his own party.

Meanwhile some Englanders feel they’re burdened by the Scots, whose net contribution to the British government has largely been thought of as in the red. Having a referendum on the matter south of the border was even suggested by some wags, so that “England” could tell “Scotland” that it wasn’t going to subsidize it any more. Others are a little more optimistic, even in England, welcoming the idea of an independent Scotland as a step forward in self-determination and the beginning of a potentially new partnership which suits both parties better.

In the past, I’ve been fairly dismissive of the independence movement as a hangover of eighteenth-century romanticized nationalism built on dreams and shortbread. But despite trying to ignore it, the referendum has proved interesting and thought-provoking, with arguments from all sides providing something to mull over, even if it’s not founded on the economic “safe bet.”

The possibilities of an independent Scotland straining terribly to establish replacement institutions to those lost in secession are, from what I can tell, very high but the philosophical argument about which the “yes” campaign at least seems to employ, is a worthy one — should a “nation” not be given full sovereignty in the form of a state? It’s a question many people don’t even wish to consider 2014, considering the idea of the nation station to be an anachronism when institutions like the European Union seem to be bringing multiple nations into ever-closer state-like entities.

It is worth thinking how things got to this point. The Acts of Union of 1707 were a relatively peaceful amalgamation of the crowns of England and Scotland, not universally enjoyed but accepted without significant enough opposition or anything like the conflicts which had occurred between the two countries in their past.

That is indeed another important point: the United Kingdom is exactly that, not a nation but a state consisting of multiple nations. England itself is the successor state of multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms unified part by part over a number of years, as are Scotland and Wales. The Scots, a people originally of Irish descent, are relative latecomers to the story of settlement in Britain while the Welsh, a group of original Britons, continue as a part of the United Kingdom with arguably less desire for independence, Plaid Cymru accepted.

Cardiff is another city whose politicos will be observing with interest, as either way Scotland votes, the Welsh Assembly will likely be bolstered in their desires for devolution and more powers, perhaps even toward Welsh independence.

Likewise Northern Ireland, a special case in its own right, could demand more funding and powers based on a threat to leave the union. But whether the majority of Northern Irish, still largely Protestant and pro-Unionist, would take the line is another matter. Even in Northern England, the call for regional government has been made and strengthened by the Scottish referendum.