On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


My Federalist Reservations about Scottish Independence (Continued) (September 14, 2014)

Much of the intense separatist activity going on in the world right now has made me feel rather cynical. I suppose that I have simply become reflexively suspicious of appeals to turn away from larger associations in the interest of smaller ones—at least when it comes to ethnic or regionalist partisanship. Whereas many are calling for more local governance, more attention to the nearby (and such calls are sometimes, of course, well worth heeding), I have come to instinctively be suspicious that behind such calls, however couched they may be in the rhetoric of freedom and a yearning for independence, lies little more than a desire for gaining economic advantages. Call me a federalist.

It is the Scottish Independence movement that is the primary inspiration for these thoughts (though the violent separatism in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea also come to mind—though I suppose those separatists should be seen as actively trying to join an even larger federal entity). Don’t get me wrong: I know that many people want Scottish independence for purely patriotic reasons. As a medievalist who has worked on the highly militarized Anglo-Scottish borderlands of the late Middle Ages, and who has also spent a lot of time studying various strains of nationalism, I am well versed in the long-standing issues surrounding a Scottish desire for independence. (That same training does raise some questions for me, however. I am sometimes mystified that many commentators skip over the uncomfortable fact that Scotland itself was an empire, whose unity was forged through medieval regimes that were very successful at using violence to make various independent lords and whole regions (eg, Galloway, the Highlands) to submit to central rule. Not that any of that is out of the ordinary: history is written by variously successful military states.)

The more I have read of the Scottish National party and the Independence movement, however, the more I have focused on the rather petty pecuniary motives accompanying (or, if I am feeling even more cynical, I would say fueling) the independence movement. As I have commented on before here and here, I have found rather off-putting the coexistence of the Romantic rhetoric of independence and the pursuit of social justice with an independence movement that keeps highlighting its plan to maximize an independent Scotland’s oil reserves (even as it makes gestures at seeking an environmentalist regime, that insists it can thrive economically while not declaring independence from the UK pound-sterling, and which pledges to remain subject to the British monarchy for what to my mind may well be the very pragmatic reason that the oil-rich Orkney and Shetland islands are personal possessions of the said monarch (though continuing subjection to a traditional monarch also seems to be part of this “independence” push).

I understand that nation-states need to have economic revenue to survive, but certain other promises made by Independence activists in the SNP have reminded me more of United States Tea Party activists than the leftist advocates for social justice recoiling from the conservative ravages of post-Thatcher Great Britain that many Independence activists claim to be. As this Seumas Milne Guardian piece points out, and the SNP has been promising that an Independent Scotland would cut corporate taxes to 3% below the UK to attract business. Rather than an inspiring movement for social justice and freedom from a conservative Westminster, a Scottish National Party that seeks to gain independence votes by promising more tax breaks to corporations seems rather like the pro-business right0wing party currently plaguing my own United States with constant claims that corporate taxes must be lowered to be competitive with the rest of the world. When UK MP (and admittedly partisan) George Galloway describes the SNP’s call for lower corporate taxes as promising a “race to the bottom” in this BBC clip, I am very familiar with this late-capitalist logic, since US corporations have so effectively used lobbyists as to make the call for lower taxes (along with a panoply of tax-dodging strategies that use various foreign shelters to cut domestic tax costs) an ongoing one in American politics.  Salmond’s corporate-friendly Scotland seems an ill fit with Romantic notions of an ancient Scottish people yearning to again be free.

Another source of my annoyance with the rhetoric of the Independence movement has been Salmond’s propensity to refer to “Westminster elites”. Again, this rhetoric reminds me of US Tea Party activists and their description of anyone in the US federal government as Washington elites—even as they lobby to win elections and enter that same rarefied Washington space. I am not alone here. As Simon Schama observes in a memorable tweet, the rhetoric of referring to Westminster elites ignores the fact that 59 Scottish MPs are part of Westminster governance: are “they the enemy too?” Schama inquires.

Much of this reminds me of secessionist rhetoric of a civic sort that I experienced while growing up in Los Angeles. I am from the San Fernando portion of Los Angeles, where there were often grumblings about a need to secede from Los Angeles and create a civic San Fernando Valley. The reasons cited would often include gestures at self-governance and independence, but they always bore within them a purely economic logic: San Fernando Valley separatists would regularly claim that “their” tax dollars were going to fund programs going on elsewhere in the city, and that they would pay less in taxes and be better off financially if the Valley could finally break free of the power-hungry government of a greedy Los Angeles. There was indeed a secessionist referendum in 2001 which failed (see Tom Hogan-Esch and Martin Saiz’s analysis here, as well as Rick Orlov’s Daily News retrospective analysis)– primarily because, unlike in the Scottish Independence referendum, all citizens of the Los Angeles out of which the San Fernando Valley sought to carve an independent space, got to vote on the matter. Whether out of civic love or indeed a desire to keep those tax revenues flowing, more Los Angeles members voted against Valley secession than the 50.7% of Valley residents who sought it out (by the Scottish referendum model, which restricts voting to current residents of Scotland are those Scots working abroad due to military or government service, the Valley would have seceded).

As someone proud to say I grew up in Los Angeles, I was extremely glad that the San Fernando Valley secession effort failed.  I have always been proud of the Valley and all the other parts of Los Angeles—and I am glad that what I thought were the rather ignoble motives of lowering tax bills and increasing a business-friendly environment free of the meddling hands of Greater Los Angeles did not win out over the desire for a bigger, more varied place to call home. I suppose that another, not very insignificant background to my federalist reaction against this separatist drive has been my sense that the major experiment in separatism in this country was also one that traded in Romantic visions of independence and freedom but which was rooted primarily in economic motives—namely, the rise of the Confederate States of America. I don’t mean to be polemical here– and I don’t want to compare a brutal regime focused on maintaining slavery with a Scottish Independence movement seeking to carve out its own economic independence. I know this is a rather extreme example and is not really very comparable to the Scottish case (after all, the United Kingdom involved the fusing of two independent kingdom-states in 1707, and so this is not a dissolution of an originary bond as it was in the case of the Confederacy)— but I find it interesting to realize how strongly the American experience in separatism leads me to be suspicious of various attempts to break away from larger associations into smaller communities that are held to be more closely aligned to one’s self-interest. The more I have read about the Scottish Independence referendum, the more I have looked beyond all those Romantic notions of national pride and independence—and more towards the pro-corporate bottom line fueling much of this separatist fervor. Indeed, I am not surprised that, with its emphasis on exploiting oil reserves and lowering corporate tax rates, the Scottish Independence movement has attracted the attention of secessionist interests in Texas, as this Joshua Fechter San Antonio Express-News article relates.  But maybe I’ve just become an inveterate federalist.


My Increasing Ambivalence about Scottish Independence (September 10, 2014)

As the momentous September 18 vote on Scottish Independence draws nearer, I have become increasingly perplexed by how ambivalent the case for each side of this very polarized debate seems. I should note from the very beginning that I have (as far as I know) no ethnic or political stake in this event: I am an American citizen who adds neither “English” nor “Scottish” (nor indeed “British”) plus a hyphen before “American.” However, not only as a medievalist who has done quite a bit of work on both Middle English and Middle Scots literature, and who has spent quite a bit of professional time studying the fraught history of the border between the kingdoms and empires of England and Scotland (and, yes, I use “empires” in the plural advisedly), but also as a critic who has taken up intersections of nationalism and imperialism as a major subject-area of my research, I have been paying particular attention to this issue. Indeed, this issue was the subject of the very first entry for this blog.

            Firstly, I have been unsettled by the combination of both nationalist and pragmatist discourses in arguments for Independence. Surely any major political movement will involve a coalition of agendas, and it does not seem shocking that some of those seeking independence are doing so primarily out of a sense of nationalist pride—a sense that their own proud “nation,” Scotland, made a gross mistake in hitching itself to England’s (and its insular conquests’) destiny by creating Great Britain in 1707, and that Scotland should willingly choose to leave what UK Prime Minister just recently called the United Kingdom’s http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/10/uk-scotland-independence-cameron-idUKKBN0H50FV20140910 “family of nations”—while others are pursuing more pragmatic agendas (namely, the argument that Scotland, which is alleged to hold some 90% of potential British oil reserves, would be doing better financially if its natural resources were restricted only to Scotland as an independent economic nation). Nationalist separatism seems never far away from aggressive capitalism, as the fervent arguments for creating Scotland seem always to be shadowed by the confidence that oil resources legally belong to Scottish people and that the advanced technologies of the modern world can fund a retreat into a more exclusive Scottish nation-state (and all this talk of oil exploitation, it should be mentioned, sits rather uncomfortably alongside the insistence, in the draft Scottish Constitution, that an independent Scotland will work towards a greener world and towards climate change—see sections 31.3b and 32b).

            I am perfectly aware that there are a multitude of reasons for those seeking Independence, and that not all can be reduced to a pragmatic marriage of nationalism and pragmatism—however, whenever I listen to debates or read articles about the desire for independence, all seems to be reducible to these twin energies. There are, of course, other key rationales for independence, such as the argument that an overwhelming majority of Scots voted against Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies and so Scotland has suffered more acutely than other areas as the United Kingdom has become more and more conservative, with Labour having swung to the right in the apparently un-Scottish neoliberal world created by the Iron Lady. (For an excellent presentation of this argument, see Owen Jones’s article here). However, such an argument raises deep concerns—including a rather arbitrary take on whose suffering matters enough to bring about separation, since no one advocating Independence in Scotland seems to be suggesting inviting non-neoliberal leftists in England, Cornwall, Wales, and Northern Ireland who are presumably equally disappointed in the post-Thatcher UK are invited to become part of Scotland: the move is that of a nationalist-separatist voting bloc, which in some ways can be seen as using a kind of bullying tactic, stating that if its demographic majority does not dictate policy then it will depart the union. As Paul Krugman argues in this analysis (which is largely devoted to undermining confident assertions that Scotland would do well if it chose to yoke its destiny to the pound), the desire to imagine a nation that was more tailored to one’s own biases is tempting, with liberals on either coast of the USA often entertaining fantasies about how much more enlightened a United States without its (previously Confederate) South would be. Such logic, of course, cuts both ways, and the shrill cries to take back “our” country made by Tea Party extremists in the post-Obama United States reveal, to my ears, how ugly the logic that voting patterns must reflect one’s own region’s (or class’s or religion’s) wishes can be (and, indeed, the US Civil War mentioned by Krugman weaves a most bloody example of such an extreme into my own nation-state’s history).

            I also remain a bit mystified by how many of those seeking Scottish Independence seek nevertheless to preserve other key affiliations—namely, to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth, to keep the British pound as the primary currency unit, and to remain a member of (or rejoin) the European Union. As I argued earlier, the desire to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth involves more than just nostalgia and traditionalism: the evidently oil-rich territories of the Orkney and Shetland Islands became part of Scotland as personal possessions of King James III in 1475, and so, if Scotland were to remove itself from subjection to Queen Elizabeth or her heir as the head of state, then it would presumably lose its claim to these territories. Keeping the British pound also seems to bear within it both pragmatic and nostalgic impulses: while some Scots clearly want to keep the thriving pound merely to ensure that the new nation-state would have a valuable currency, others seem merely to want to continue with the status quo (On the currency issue, see Esther Webber’s overview of the debate, this UK-drafted study of the issues surrounding any currency union, these articles on Bank of England resistance to pro-Independence plans to keep the pound, this pro-independence assessment of currency issues, and another Krugman analysis here). It seems hard not to see some sense in Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s assessment that a currency union would be “incompatible” with Scotland’s assertion of sovereign independence —certainly financial dependency on UK banking undermines any claim for independence.

            The clear desire of many, if not most Scots seeking independence to remain in the European Union also leaves me perplexed. While I understand that this is in no way incompatible with national independence in the way that, it seems to me, retaining the pound-sterling definitely, and the British monarchy probably is—after all, the European Union is an association of independent nation-states—I am also a bit mystified by the simultaneous linkage of going it “alone” jostles alongside arguments for retaining the benefits of European Union membership. Again, I know this is not incompatible with national identity—after all, many nations belong to larger associations, such as the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—but the clear focus on profitability and relative prestige within the European Union ties the nationalist fervor of much of the independence movement with what seems a primarily calculating, capitalist decision about European Union membership. Independence, again, is merely relative—a recalibration of a financial community’s place in a lucrative multinational organization.

            With all of this having been said, Scotland has since the Middle Ages had a unique sense of community, and it would be folly to think that somehow one could ever separate the fraught emptions of patriotism with the practical interests and calculations of an advanced economy. Again, I have no ethnic or political horse in this race, and so I write this as an outside, if professionally interested, observer. The process of devolution has brought much autonomy to Scotland, ranging from administrative independence in such areas as education to, as I have written of here, independence as a competing “nation” in the World Cup (which makes me think of the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom’s Olympics teams as another factor that many might be considering)—but evidently, devolution has not brought enough for many. I suppose what makes me feel most ambivalent about all this is that the intense desire for separation, which has been admirably done entirely through reasoned debate in the United Kingdom, is normally worked out more violently elsewhere—whether it be in the shelling going on now in eastern Ukraine, or the bombings and raids currently wracking Syria and Iraq. Does separatism, however urbane, breed more separatism? Will a Scottish breakaway intensify the fragmentation that seems to be contagious in today’s world? I know that a desire for independence can come from a dual sense of local self-respect and of a need to redress past injustices in a non-violent way—but separatist instincts seem most often to come from ethnonational zeal…and I don’t think the world needs more of that. Localism can shade as easily into parochialism as into humble pride in one’s proximate environment—and the gesture of throwing up one’s hands and erecting exclusive national walls seems to me to risk taking us further from the cosmopolitan world that I wish we were all seeking to generate.