The Moral Tragedy of Scottish Independence

The Moral Tragedy of Scottish Independence

To misquote Winston Churchill, this is not the end of the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end. The United Kingdom might have days to live. The polls in advance of the Sept. 18 Scottish independence referendum show a neck and neck contest. After a collapse in the "No" vote over the last month, the "Yes" to independence campaign’s momentum was only halted days ago after sterling tumbled on news of their temporary lead in the polls.

We could weigh the merits of the policy arguments, but the death of a state goes beyond policy; fundamentally, it is a question of justice. Scotland is free to leave the union if it wants to. However, to recognize the justice of Scotland’s right to choose its own future is simultaneously to recognize the injustice that all other British citizens have no democratic voice in the future of their own state.

These two claims on the justice of the referendum and, consequently, of its possible result in the death of the United Kingdom, are incompatible. That is what invests in the potential of a Yes vote a profoundly tragic quality: If you celebrate the sound of Scotland’s freedom to choose its own future, consider for a moment the leaden silence of what it feels like — the anxiety, the anonymity, the anger — to be a British citizen outside Scotland, trapped between accepting the justice of the claim that Scotland should have the referendum and, by that very acceptance, the injustice of having no voice in the future of your own country.

First, to have no voice feels culturally unjust. Not just for many of those among the 830,000 people born in Scotland who now live elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and thus can’t vote), but for many British citizens who feel that Scotland is inseparably intertwined with their broader cultural identity. Both my grandfather’s name (Simpson) and my grandmother’s maiden name (McDougall) are Scottish. My family can trace some of our Scottish ancestors back to the 19th century, and I take pride in that.

Scottish nationalists will say, "That doesn’t make you Scottish." That is true in my case — I don’t identify as Scottish; I identify primarily as British — but it is also banal. What I resent in that argument is being forced out of claiming as my primary civic identity an open-facing and inclusive "British" identity, which incorporates and celebrates the diversity of sub-national character and origins within the United Kingdom. There are countless families whose roots and cultural heritage span far beneath the border; cutting the family tree’s roots in two will cause many of them huge cultural pain in a visceral, human sense.

The Scottish nationalists have bullied the rest of the British citizenry out of a position in which we can feel comfortable in our own skin claiming a broad, tolerant, national civic identity — one in which a person can either identify simply as British, or find no inconsistency in describing one’s nationality as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, English … and also British. To be days away from ripping apart centuries of common cultural heritage, intertwined not just in the legal entity of the state but in the very DNA of thousands of families, is a cruel fate for those of us who feel democratically powerless to be able to halt the Scottish nationalists’ cultural sectarianism.

Second, to have no voice feels politically unjust. Many of us south of the border whose primary civic identity is British, and live in England, do not want a British identity to be shoehorned by a Yes victory into a narrow and introverted English civic identity, because little England translates politically into the politics of the U.K. Independence Party and the hard-line Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party.

Were Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, the probability of a British exit from the European Union would sharply increase. Yet British citizens left in the remnants of the state would have had no say in moving their country to the brink of leaving the European Common Market, upon which the security of external investment in the United Kingdom depends. In this way, the referendum forces the majority of British citizens into a passive democratic position in the face of a decision that recklessly gambles, on a hairline vote, the prosperity and career prospects of a whole generation. That is not right.

Third, to have no voice feels constitutionally unjust. The decision to define those eligible to vote as people living in, rather than also born in, Scotland means that several constituencies are unfairly excluded: Many Scottish soldiers in the British Army have no vote, for example. More broadly, the decision to allow Scottish independence on a simple 50 percent majority vote is inexcusable. Constitutional lawyers can say that there is no constitutional tradition of supermajority voting in the United Kingdom for votes that have a constitutional impact (unlike in many other states, where a two-thirds majority is often required for constitutional amendments). The weakness of that argument is that a vote that will destroy the state itself plainly goes above "constitutional" status, since it attacks the very sovereignty from which the constitution derives its authority.

Not using a supermajority is unforgiveable not from a narrowly partisan perspective, but because whatever the outcome on Thursday, the simple majority system will lock in the bitterness that has accompanied this referendum into the politics of the foreseeable future. We know from the polls that the referendum will be close. The effect of a Yes vote that ends up, say, at just narrowly over 50 percent will be to embitter toward the new polity in Scotland those who voted No. Meanwhile, the majority of British citizens outside Scotland will feel that there was not strong enough support for such a fundamental break in centuries of common history. Conversely, if the vote is narrowly No to independence, the bitterness will flow the other way, and the specter of future divisive referendums will hang over the state for another generation.

I am against Scottish independence, and I feel that very strongly. But whatever your views on Scottish independence, a Yes victory would necessarily be a tragedy: The phoenix would rise from the ashes of the ideal that all citizens are equal, and have an equal say in the future of their country.