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This Thursday, there will be a referendum in Scotland to decide whether that country should leave the United Kingdom and become independent. Most Americans are only tuning in now, if it all. As a friend in New York wrote to me: “Since I'm employed by an American television news outlet, I think my official response to the Scotland thing is supposed to be: Huh?!?”
But Scotland is offering the world a way to rethink the nation-state in the 21st century—and for that reason alone, we should all be paying better attention. Unusually, the Scottish referendum has focused on issues of economic and social justice; whether voters opt for independence or not, it will be a model for other European nationalist regions and, I hope, for the United States, too.
The United Kingdom came into existence in the early modern period, when many European countries were undergoing a process of centralization around a strong state. Scotland and England shared the same monarch from 1603; just over century later in 1707, the Acts of Union formally united them under the Parliament at Westminster. In some ways, this was about imposing cultural and political hegemony, violently if necessary. But Scots found much to gain through union, too. There’s a reason we call it the British Empire and not the English Empire: Scottish men and women were among its central builders and beneficiaries. And Scotland was never entirely subsumed. Instead, for example, it retained its own distinctive legal system as well as its own state church.
The nation-state emerged as the dominant form of global political organization over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was always a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it offered political self-determination and a way to move beyond the dominance of empires. On the other hand, nationalism often seemed to fuel violence along lines of ethnicity or religion. Scotland, unlike Ireland, appeared to stand aside from this turbulent history. The Royal Family has vacationed at Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire since 1852; British institutions such as the BBC and the National Health Service knitted the component parts of the UK ever closer.
Still, there were murmurs of interest in a more independent Scotland. The real game-changer was oil, which was first discovered off the Scottish coast in 1969. The Scottish National Party launched the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign, rhetorically challenging the notion that Scotland was too poor to be independent. A proposal to transfer more powers to direct Scottish control, known as “devolution,” failed narrowly in 1979, but the idea persisted. In 1997, a Scottish parliament was established with jurisdiction over a range of mostly local and financial matters. Scotland has consistently voted to the left of England, widening the gap in perspective.
The debate over Scottish independence has hinged on economic concerns: from the practical problem of what currency an independent Scotland will use to larger questions of economic justice and inequality. A recent ad urging a “yes” vote for independence imagines the future of Scotland through the eyes of a baby born on the day of the referendum. Will she grow up in a more equal and optimistic society, or one marred by the greed of a distant elite? The sense that this vote is about the political and economic future of a state, not the apotheosis of a people, is reflected in the voting rules, too: Everyone aged sixteen or older living in Scotland may vote, regardless of national or ethnic identity, while Scottish-born or Scottish-identified people living elsewhere may not vote.
An independent Scotland has the potential to reimagine what a new nation’s priorities should be. It will inevitably be an example for other regions of Europe considering a similar move, such as Catalonia in Spain. Independent Scotland could set a precedent for the 21st century, whereby new states come into existence on the basis not only of historical traditional but also through the desire for a new social contract. This is a profound shift in focus, from the nation as the expression of personal identity to the nation as the structure for a better community.
What if Scotland votes no? I’m hopeful in that case, too. Britain has suffered a grinding recession characterized by sweeping cuts and a dubious austerity policy. In the wake of a no vote, Britain will have the opportunity to revise and reform how it works as a composite state, not only in Scotland but also in Wales and Northern Ireland and perhaps in northern England, too. The debate over independence has invigorated public discourse about core constitutional and economic issues. In the United States, we should pay attention to how the United Kingdom moves forward: It will be a lesson in how a federal state can grapple with large regional inequalities and different visions of economic and social justice.
The Scottish Enlightenment of Adam Smith and David Hume gave us a framework for understanding the modern world. After a century that saw nationalism linked more with pain than triumph, I am hopeful that Scotland is once more helping us dream it all up again.
Mo Moulton, Ph.D., is a history and literature lecturer.
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