Scotland ducks a bullet

Burns would have voted “Yes” on Scottish independence. But Hume and Adam Smith would have voted “No.”

I’m going to go out on a limb – based on exit polls – and call the Scottish independence referendum for the “No” side. That seems to me like the right call for the Scots to have made.

Gordon Brown’s speech – in effect, defending the Union in the name of the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume and Adam Smith – reminds me how queasy nationalism makes me, even when it’s not explicitly racist.

Self-determination is a just demand for oppressed nations, but take away the oppression and the case gets pretty weak. And yes, that argues against the American Revolution, except insofar as it was republican and anti-aristocratic rather than merely separatist. (After all, part of what the colonists wanted was a free hand against the Native Americans.)

Brown made a strong case that independence would be a practical disaster for Scotland. What he didn’t say is that it would also help cement David Cameron’s Tories in office. So I’m glad the referendum failed: assuming that is, that it did fail.

Still, we Reality-Basers are so relentlessly fair-minded that we astonish ourselves.

So here, with a blistering dissent, is Robert Burns, given voice by Steeleye Span:

And here’s Alistair McDonald, with more traditional interpretation.


For those who have not chosen to waste perfectly useful neuronal connections learning British history, the background of Burns’s satire is as follows: After the Stuart succession to the English throne had united the crowns in 1603, there remained strong resistance – at first, more on the English than on the Scottish side – against uniting the two kingdoms and creating a common citizenship and a single Parliament. So they remained two kingdoms under one king, with the possibility that sometime in the future the English and the Scots might again have different kings, and resume their centuries-long history of constant border raiding and occasional war.

Perfecting the union became a central point of royal policy after the Revolution of 1688, with the constant threat of a Jacobite Scotland concentrating minds wonderfully on both sides of the border. But the Scottish Parliament was unalterably opposed, and managed to stymie all such moves until the Darien fiasco of 1707, when a hare-brained scheme to make Scotland a colonial power in Central America crashed and burned, leaving the Scottish state bankrupt. At that point the English government offered a bailout on the condition of full Union, and the proposal duly passed.

Thus the force of Burns’s complaint that the Scots had been “bought and sold for English gold.” Still, given the actual political history of independent Scotland (pretty much the court of the Borgias with claymores instead of stilettos), it seems unfair of Burns to write as if all of the rogues were on one side of the question.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “Scotland ducks a bullet”

  1. Twice this week has Steeleye Span (specifically the Parcel of Rogues album) come in front of my eyes. I'm off to go have a listen to a long put aside favorite.

  2. I agree with Mark, but most importantly, agree with his link to a great folk-rock group, Steel Eye Span!

  3. The local news said that they were voting on whether Scotland would remain a part of Great Britain. No worries there, now or in the future, eh?

    The United Kingdom, on the other hand…

  4. Claymores rather than stilettos? David Rizzio, secretary to and suspected lover of Mary Queen of Scots, was stabbed 56 times in the ourse of his murder by Darnley's friends in 1566. A year later, Darnley was assassinated by a bomb. The Scots were more inventive as well as more direct than the Borgias.

    If the accusations of adultery were true, Rizzio may have been the biological father to James VI and I, making the Stuart dynasty part-Italian. However, the Papacy did not SFIK allege James was illegitimate when he came to the throne, as it had (disastrously for English Catholics) in the case of Elizabeth. James’ claim depended on his mother not his father, so maybe it wouldn't have mattered. If Elizabeth was Ms Smeaton-Boleyn, she had no claim.

  5. Some notes:

    First, I'm not terribly surprised at the result. Rather, I'm amazed that the vote for independence got even in shouting distance of the 50% mark. I do think that this is indicative of dissatisfaction with the Cameron government rather than a deep desire for independence. Even more surprising is that the "yes" campaign could have actually succeeded if they had made a plan for independence rather than making things up as they went along. I'm pretty sure that a lot of voters were (justifiably) scared by the idea that the Scottish government did not really have a strategy in the case of success and might have looked like the dog who actually caught the car it was chasing.

    There were a number of unsolved problems where it was pretty clear to me that the "yes" campaign hadn't thought them through. For example, one is that tuition at Scottish universities is free – as long as you're resident in Scotland, but not if you're from the rest of the UK. This is to prevent people from coming to Scotland just in order to not pay the thousands of pounds that English universities charge. But EU citizens from outside to the UK have to get the same treatment as Scottish residents as a matter of EU law: Had "yes" won and Scotland become an independent country in the EU, that would have opened up the floodgates from south of the border.

    A second example is university funding. As you may or may not know, my husband and I were working at a Scottish university until last year, so I've had some first-hand experience with that. And our department was struggling with making contingency plans for research funding in the case of independence. In the worst case, EPSRC funding might have dried up completely, and that would have thrown all Scottish universities into disarray (to put it mildly). Not a problem that cannot possibly be solved, but where you really, really didn't want the uncertainty that we had. These as just two examples of the many things that the Salmond government apparently hadn't thought through and were they were flying by the seat of their pants.

    Second, it looks as though most of the Scots will get what they actually wanted: Devo max. Cameron had refused to allow that as an option on the ballot, but then had to promise increased devolution regardless to stop the bleeding. It seems pretty clear now that devo max would have won in a landslide and that a great many voters on both the "yes" and the "no" side would have preferred that option. Even better, it looks as though the rest of the UK may now also benefit from a decentralization of the current government. This looks like the best possible actual result to me.

    Third, Labour needs to take a good, hard look at how they're protecting their left flank. The "yes" and the "no" vote broke down largely along income lines, and that happened because the SNP was able to establish a presence to the left of Labour, and didn't even have to break much of a sweat doing that (of course, it helps that the SNP is normally a center-left party, unlike many other nationalist movements). For example, the SNP outright denounced the unpopular bedroom tax, while Labour kept being mealy-mouthed about. In the 2015 general election, the SNP will not compete with them south of the border, but Labour needs to worry about losing low-income voters to far-left parties (such as Respect) or UKIP.

    Fourth, David Cameron seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place now. He had to offer more devolution, but that's very unpopular in his own party and with his voters, too. But if he were to renege on that promise, he'd essentially be throwing the next general election. My guess is that he's going to offer his party an answer to the West Lothian question – that not only would pacify a great many conservatives, it would be a good idea in and of itself, if part and parcel of a decent devolution/federalism deal.

  6. "Self-determination is a just demand for oppressed nations, but take away the oppression and the case gets pretty weak. And yes, that argues against the American Revolution, except insofar as it was republican and anti-aristocratic rather than merely separatist. (After all, part of what the colonists wanted was a free hand against the Native Americans.)"

    Gerald Horne (The counter revolution of 1776) argues that the major push was the concern of both southern slaveholders and northern merchants & financiers that Britain was going all squishy on slavery, the concern being stimulated by both British in the W.Indies and the Somersett v. Lewis case of 1772 in which slavery on British soil was ruled illegal. I don't have the chops to make an informed judgment of this, but found the case compelling.

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