I breathed a sigh of relief when Scotland voted Thursday to stay in the United Kingdom. It was partly nostalgia, I suppose, for the storied history of Great Britain as a bastion of liberty and mother of parliaments and all that sort of thing. But it was also because it has never been quite clear what the advocates of Scottish independence were seeking independence from. When America declared its independence from Britain, we wrote a little document laying out the causes which impelled us to the separation. The Scottish “Yes” campaign just seemed to run Braveheart on an endless loop. Mel Gibson has a lot to answer for.
This petty nationalism was ultimately rejected, but the real question is how things got this far. What would we think if 45% of the voters of one of our states wanted to secede from the union? Well, all right—what would we think if they voted for secession today?
The point is that something has gone wrong when nearly half of Scots decide they no longer want any political association with their brethren to the south.
It helps to ask what it is Scotland got out of the Union in the first place. When the Scots first joined Britain in 1707, the most important provisions of the Acts of Union were a customs union and access to England’s colonial markets. The Scots were signing up to be part of a world power on the rise, and that would prove an enormous benefit to a small and relatively poor nation with an inhospitable climate. Eventually, Scottish engineers and entrepreneurs would be in the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. (You may have heard of a Scotsman by the name of James Watt.) Scots also poured out by the thousands to settle and manage the far-flung corners of the British Empire, from Australia to India to North America.
For Scotland, the Union opened up a world of opportunity.
So why the push for independence today?
After World War II, Britain became a power in decline. Exhausted by the war, then enervated by its post-war experiment with socialism, Britain dissolved its empire. It made a choice to become smaller, less important, less dynamic. Thanks to the influence of the political left, British patriotism came to be viewed as an embarrassing relic.
But when a country is on the decline, this decreases the incentive for its regions to stay together and view themselves as partners in a common enterprise. What, after all, is the common enterprise of contemporary Britain? Feeling superior about the NHS?
When growth, trade, and leadership in the world no longer draw the country together, then people begin to focus on what drives them apart: who’s getting how big a share of the welfare spending, or the fantasy that North Sea oil could provide a generous slush fund for ambitious Scottish politicians to play with.
So you get to the point where an American-born Australian actor puts on a kilt and makes a movie, and suddenly everyone in Scotland is thinking about some 700-year-old grievance against Edward Longshanks, and 45% of the population turns out for independence.
There are some lessons here for America. No, for various reasons, I don’t think any US state is likely to want to go its own way. (Keep an eye on those Lone Star fellas, though.) But this is a warning about what happens when a nation loses its sense of a common ambition, of leadership in the world, of exceptionalism. When a country chooses decline, it rapidly becomes diminished—if not territorially, then in many other ways.