Scots Must Vote Nae


Ferguson, Niall. 2014. “Scots Must Vote Nae.” New York Times. Copy at


To most Americans, Scotland means golf, whisky and—if they go there—steady drizzle. Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling.

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To most Americans, Scotland means golf, whisky and—if they go there—steady drizzle. Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling.

Yet, this week, a referendum could decide just that. With days remaining before the Scottish electorate votes on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom, the result is too close to call.

Born in Glasgow, but having spent most of my life in England and America, I am rather baffled, too. From the moment in 2012 when a deal was done to hold a referendum on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” the opinion polls have shown a consistent and comfortable lead for the Better Together, or No, campaign. But the past two weeks have seen a surge of support for the pro-independence Yes campaign. What is going on?

Let’s first deal with some common misapprehensions. This is not a belated revolt by England’s last colony. The Welsh were subjugated in medieval times; the Irish slowly conquered from the mid-1500s. But Scotland and England were united as equals.

In one respect even, it was Scotland that acquired England, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. The merger of the two countries’ Parliaments by the Act of Union in 1707 was also consensual, even if the great Scots poet Robert Burns later lamented that the Scottish elite had been “bought and sold for English gold.” To this day, the Scots retained their separate legal and educational systems.

Is this a choice, then, between being Scottish or English? No. It is a choice between being inside or outside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (its full, long-winded name). Like the English and the Welsh, the Scots are British: Indeed, it was James VI who, on becoming James I of England, adopted the appellation “Great Britain” to reconcile his new English subjects to having a Scotsman as king.

The distinction is important to Scots (if no one else). The Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter once played a prisoner of war in a film in which a German prison guard yelled at him, “English swine!” Mr. Baxter, pale with rage, replied, “Scottish swine!”

Scotland regained its own Parliament in 1999, following an earlier referendum on so-called devolution, which significantly increased the country’s autonomy. Since 2007, there has been a Scottish government, which is currently run by the Scottish National Party. So much power has already been devolved to Edinburgh that you may well ask why half of adult Scots feel the need for outright independence.

The economic risks are so glaring that even Paul Krugman and I agree it’s a terrible idea. What currency will Scotland use? The pound? The euro? No one knows. What share of North Sea oil revenues will go to Edinburgh? What about Scotland’s share of Britain’s enormous national debt?

Is this going to be one of those divorces in which one partner claims all the assets and offers the other partner only the liabilities? Whatever the S.N.P. may say, a yes vote on Thursday would have grave economic consequences, and not just for Scotland. Investment has already stalled. Big companies based in Scotland, notably the pensions giant Standard Life, have warned of relocating to England. Jobs would definitely be lost. The recent steep decline in the pound shows that the financial world hates the whole idea.

Yet the economic arguments against independence seem not to be working — and may even be backfiring. I think I know why. Telling a Scot, “You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,” has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial. If you went into a Glasgow pub tonight and said to the average Glaswegian, “If you down that beer, you’ll get your head kicked in,” he would react by draining his glass to the dregs and telling the barman, “Same again.”

So what kind of appeal can be made to stop the Anglo-Scottish divorce? The answer may be an appeal to Scotland’s long history of cosmopolitanism.

The great Scottish philosopher David Hume was contemptuous of what he called the “vulgar motive of national antipathy.” “I am a Citizen of the World,” he wrote in 1764. Hume’s account of the consequences of union with England could scarcely have been more positive: “Public liberty, with internal peace and order, has flourished almost without interruption.” His only complaint was the tendency of the English to treat “with Hatred our just Pretensions to surpass and to govern them.” (At the time, the English had not quite got used to Scottish prime ministers, of which there have been 11, by my count.)

Petty nationalism is just un-Scottish. And today’s Scots should remember the apposite warning of their countryman the economist Adam Smith about politicians who promise “some plausible plan of reformation” in order “to new-model the constitution,” mainly for “their own aggrandizement.” All over Continental Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalism was what ambitious hacks espoused to advance themselves. Scotland was the exception. May it stay that way.

Last updated on 09/16/2014