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.