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

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

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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.

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Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English and Middle Scots literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

5 thoughts on “My Increasing Ambivalence about Scottish Independence (September 10, 2014)

  1. Pingback: My Federalist Reservations about Scottish Independence (Continued) (September 14, 2014) | Terri-Stories

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