On Jan. 16, 1707, the Scottish Parliament voted 110 to 69 in favor of the treaty of unification with England, and Scotland ceased to be an independent nation. The leader of the anti-unionist party in Scotland, Andrew Fletcher, was later asked why he departed Scotland following the vote. “It is only fit for the slaves who sold it,” he said. For Fletcher and the anti-unionists, Scotland’s reduced status was as much a moral and cultural tragedy as an economic and political farce.
Today, Sept. 18, the people of Scotland will take part in a referendum to determine whether Scotland regains its status as an independent and sovereign nation. They would be well-served by voting “yes.”
Three arguments have been presented in favor of a “no” vote by the pro-union pundits:
first, that the anti-unionists have failed to provide a detailed plan for an independent Scotland; second, that an independent Scotland is not economically viable; third, that as Prime Minister David Cameron remarked Sept. 10, Scotland and England — along with Wales and Northern Ireland — form a “family of nations.”
The first argument can be dismissed out of hand. The entire purpose of negotiations between the Scottish and English Parliaments following a presumed “yes” vote is to plan the details of separation.
The second argument is frequently trumpeted as the death knell of the independence movement. Indeed, unification was undertaken in 1707 to solidify the economic bonds between Scotland and England. Yet Scotland’s impoverished condition in 1707 was the product of an English naval blockade restricting Scotland’s access to global markets. Modern Scotland is blessed with several strong national industries, including energy production, tourism and financial services, and would be free to participate on the global stage.
Further, those making this argument have their priorities backward. Economics serves morality; morality is not the handmaiden of economics. Had the American colonists not listened to their moral sense, America would not be the independent and prosperous nation it is today.
Finally, that Scotland and England constitute a “family of nations” seems a poor reason to vote “no.” Scotland (along with Wales and Northern Ireland) has historically been the abused younger sibling of its domineering elder, England. If the English truly regarded Scotland as a family member, wouldn’t they wish for the Scots to go their own way?
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, it is a monument to democracy and to the British Parliament. Democracy is founded on the proposition that the people are sovereign, that the government and the law serve their interests. Democracy implies that the people determine which state apparatus best suits their needs.
Whether the Scots vote “yes” or “no” to independence, the British Parliament has reaffirmed both the value and form of democratic governance.
Should the union survive, it will nevertheless be weakened by this referendum. A “no” vote will lead to greater devolution. Polls show that the vote will be close, establishing strong precedent for another referendum in the future. Cameron may not want to go down in history as the prime minister who lost the union, but Britain has shown its instability to the world whether he likes it or not.
A free and independent Scotland would be better placed to answer the political and cultural dreams of the Scottish people. The current political arrangement of Great Britain does not serve the Scottish people and arguably never has. Come tomorrow’s poll, hopefully the Scots might say of the days of union as they once said of the days of Bannockburn,
“Those days are past now
And in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now
And be the nation again.”
Gordon R. Shannon is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of philosophy, originally from Edinburgh.