For good or ill, when Scottish-born actor Sean Connery speaks, people still listen. And Mr. Connery recently spoke out, urging residents of his place of birth (he fled for tax reasons many years ago) to vote for independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on the question this coming September. That referendum, put forward by the Scottish National Party, asks simply “should Scotland be an independent country?”
American conservatives in particular long have been supporters of greater local self-governance. Secession is the source of our own United States; the War for Independence was, in essence, a war of secession from the British Empire. And, despite some internal disagreements as to the validity of Southern secession leading up to the Civil War, conservatives in general recognize the importance of administrative decentralization and, even more important, the organic integrity of local communities. Thus, even in debates over the Civil War, the focus among conservatives tends to be on whether a series of issues outweighed the proper emphasis on local control. Was slavery so morally wrong as to demand a national solution? Was Southern secession in accordance with, or a violation of the logic of the American Constitution? The point is that, for most conservatives, despite the clear immorality of slavery, there are questions worth considering that arise from the moral claim to local self-government. My own favorite argument when debating defenders of Southern secession concerns the nationalist overreaching of the Fugitive Slave Laws.
Given the moral dilemmas of this historical example, Scottish independence, because it involves no deep-set moral or constitutional issues (London has agreed to abide by the results) should be a “no brainer” for conservatives. Or should it? Conservatives value things besides local self-government, after all. We also value things like economic freedom. In this light, it is not unimportant that the party seeking independence, the Scottish National Party, is socialist. Indeed, a primary reason for the referendum is that party’s anger over the rather mild reforms to welfare policy being instituted under British Prime Minister David Cameron. The Scottish Nationalists do not want any cuts or new requirements for welfare spending. And, in a socialist country like Great Britain, that really is saying something.
Until the Obama Presidency began its push to make over the United States into a true social democracy, it was well established that Great Britain was a far more regulated country than our own. In some ways, sadly, we now have surpassed the Brits. It is, for example, a longer, harder slog through government paperwork to form a business in the United States now than in Britain, and it is getting harder as Obamacare solidifies like a rancid shell over our economic lives. Scotland, flush with North Sea oil money (and wanting to be flush with a greater share of it) sees no reason to slow down in the regulation of business and trade.
This gets at a longstanding debate among conservatives and, in particular, libertarians. There is a rich libertarian literature concerning the evils of local socialism. Anyone who has been to New York City, or San Francisco, let alone smaller, wackier places like Berkeley, knows how intrusive the left can be on local life. When I lived in Ithaca, New York all the way back in the late 1980’s that “progressive” college town already had decided that those who failed to recycle properly should be fined (which means potentially thrown in jail) for their heinous immoral acts.
Nonetheless, most conservatives recognize that a) Ithacans, Berkeleyites and others deserve what they get if they refuse to stand up for their liberties; b) people are more likely to stand up for their liberties in local communities where they can see what is at stake and who is to blame; and c) the federal government makes such local tyranny more likely and sustainable by taking care of more necessary issues of physical, social, and economic infrastructure—issues that might crowd out some of the nanny state were they left to local governments to deal with.
Would Scotland move even further left if independent of Great Britain? Perhaps. Should that concern conservatives elsewhere? Perhaps, but not to any great degree. After all, we in the U.S. have our own battle to fight. And Scots who feel they are being over-regulated or over-taxed may choose the “Sean Connery” option if they are multi-millionaires, or if they are up to emigrating on their own (and if they can find a country that allows immigration from groups that do not fit any politically correct category). Moreover, it remains best that people fight their own battles for ordered liberty.
But here is where the real problem with Scottish “independence” rears its head. Aside from opposing any moderation of its socialism, the major reason the Scottish National Party wants out of the United Kingdom is that there is some chance that the UK will leave the European Union. Britain will have its own referendum on its continued membership in that bureaucratic body in 2017, and the Scottish Nationalists fear Britain just may leave.
Most Americans have been relatively oblivious to the revolution in governance taking place over the last several decades in Europe under the auspices of the European Union. That body, which still cannot win sufficient national referenda to establish itself as a full and proper government of a United States of Europe, nonetheless exerts great power over nations and even individuals within its membership. Whether doling out subsidies or establishing and defending new rights (some of dubious origin and value) for racial minorities, religious minorities, women, children, and homosexuals, the EU, through its various treaties and courts, has usurped much of the formerly sovereign power of national governments. In particular, it has provided the grounds and means for a variety of activists and others dissatisfied with the political compromises being made within various countries to sue their governments.
Whatever one thinks of the new “rights” being accorded various groups under EU law, they certainly are not concerned with meeting local conditions. Such rights instead are aimed at instantiating universal notions of human equality and autonomy. As such, the EU (an exceedingly top-down set of institutions insulated from public scrutiny and approval or disapproval) has gained significant governing power throughout Europe.
Given all this, is Scottish Independence a step toward greater local self-government, or a step away from that worthy goal? Perhaps both. Certainly, one of the things making possible the increasing devolution of power in countries like the UK, Belgium, and perhaps even Spain, is confidence among peoples in regions of small population, territory, and clout, that “the EU will take care of” various concerns, from military defense to international trade policy. But is the remaining local freedom meaningful?
Here we come to the real problem faced in this era of perforated sovereignty, in which some areas of responsibility are being moved upward to international bodies and some are being moved to smaller, more local groups. I have failed to mention, so far, a central motivating force behind the Scottish independence movement: the desire to form a full, separate, distinctively Scottish political association. The same motivations lie behind demands for greater local autonomy throughout Europe.
Communal identity, particularly when rooted in history, in ethnic ties, and in religious affiliations, is a natural part of the human character, too often overlooked or even attacked by the demands of nationalism. Thus, it is in principle a good thing for ethnic, religious, and other groups to gain greater control over their common destinies. But there is a real danger that “independence” within the EU orbit would reduce these communal bonds to mere tribal clubbishness, a kind of excuse not to bother addressing the outside world (“let the EU handle that”). There also is a danger of the “Disney-fication” of ethnicity, with local groups simply hanging on to their customs (many of them, perhaps, less than rooted in actual practice) as a kind of play acting to be used for tourists, for their own amusement and self-esteem, and as weapons in a battle for subsidies and other special treatment from centers of political power.
When too much of the hard work of self-government is taken care of by a vast, distant bureaucratic structure, it may be too easy for culture to become a pastime instead of a way of life. Scotland may become a useful, if potentially tragic, example of what happens when “independence” for a people means something less than responsibility for its destiny.
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