Scottish Independence and the Future of the European Nation State


The Scottish Borders from the Roof of the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (May, 2014)
On 18 September 2014, the day of the Scottish Referendum on Independence, Paddy Ashdown (former leader of the Liberal Democrats, then the UK's third largest party) tweeted "A yes in Scotland will mark the beginning of the end of the classic European nation state." Knowing the LibDems were at least in his day a party of liberal progressivism, I had to wonder if this wasn't an endorsement of the Yes (independence) campaign.  As political scientist Graeme Robertson has pointed out eloquently, it was the No campaign that attracted stereotypical nationalists; the Yes campaign became (unexpectedly) a pro-democracy campaign of political progressives.

To some extent this case is special.  Scotland has maintained its own system of laws for the entire period of the treaty of union, despite not having a legislature to write new ones from 1707-1999.  The UK is particularly pathological for a country of its size in how centralised its political power and infrastructure investment are.  But the fact that every nation is special in its own way doesn't mean that there aren't general problems with Nation States, and that these couldn't be identified and addressed.

The idea of a nation state that is meant among other things to have hard borders & a complete monopoly of military power within them was invented in 1648 in Europe to reduce war, and it has.  But there are still wars, and one of the central features of those wars is those hard borders.  There's no question that geographic contiguity is important for a state.  It's necessary not only for defence but for efficient gathering of revenue and distribution of services and utilities.  The fact the state of Michigan doesn't enforce laws about geographic contiguity on cities is part of the reason that the City of Detroit is bankrupt.

But leaving borders in the exact location that the most recent colonial power or military conquest left them can't be the most effective way to maintain peace or encourage progressive governance.  If border regions were allowed to vote on which country they wanted to be in, then surely borders could be rationalised, and even more importantly, there'd be strong motivation to maintain good governance and services even in far-flung places.  What would keep border regions from flipping frequently, playing "mommy-daddy" on both sides?  Simple:  All the costs of the referendum, the changeover of utilities, infrastructure and governance should be borne entirely by taxation on the region changing sides. 

The Scots elected a party that willingly paid the cost of their referendum, and 45% of the 85% of Scots that turned up to vote (97% registered to vote, both exceptional numbers in modern European elections) were willing to pay the further estimated £1,500,000,000 to establish their own country.  If another half a million of them had felt that way, they could have found out what the real cost was. Slovakia must already have some kind of an estimate on that, but I saw no coverage in the British press or on Twitter analysing the costs and benefits of the Czech & Slovak peaceful, amicable divorce.  One pro-union professor in Edinburgh I discussed this with was seriously affronted by the suggestion there could be any relevancy between the two situations.  While certainly it would be easy to find differences, it couldn't be that hard to find similarities in what it takes to restore an old capital, establish new utilities, run a smaller, more uniform economy, and so forth.
Dolly, the first cloned sheep, now in the museum's hall of Scottish Technology (May, 2014)

Scotland achieved the Enlightenment well before England, and my legal-alien, native-speaking academic experience of living in both places is that the Scots are still more pro-science, socialist and progressive.  I suppose that this is no surprise.  Science is a tool that generates novelty.  London has for some time been and will for the foreseeable future be the largest and most powerful city in the British Isles, and therefore its conservativeness will probably always be higher as it seeks to retain that power.  If the Scots are still willing, then either within or outwith the framework of the somewhat extra-national sovereign union of nations that is the UK, they can still work on paying the costs and exploring the benefits of creating a new way to establish the meaning and location of borders.  A process of learning we all may benefit from.
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