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Scotland’s return to the state of nature?

By David A. Rezvani


Some observers may immediately recoil at the thought that an entity that is partially independent would have advantages over an entity with a full measure of sovereignty. This indeed seems to be the view of the minority of Scottish voters who intend on voting in favor of Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom during the September 2014 independence referendum. To them, Scotland’s current condition of partial independence may seem like a cup that is half full. By contrast, full independence may seem like an outcome that is always good. This view is however at odds with the condition of nearly 50 partially independent territories throughout the world (like Hong Kong, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico), which tend to be far wealthier and more secure than their demographically similar fully independent counterparts. The per capita GDP of the average partially independent territory (of US$32,526) is about three times higher than the average sovereign state (of US$9,779). The relative wealth of partially independent territories is even more striking when the comparison controls for factors such as population size, geographic region, and regime type. The aspiration for full independence for its own sake also flies in face of our own common sense experience as individuals.

When consumers purchase fruits and vegetables at the grocery store rather than growing it themselves, when we buy clothes rather than learning the art of weaving, when customers put money in banks rather than guarding it themselves, when citizens consent to reliable police protection rather than arming for a state of war―in all of these actions people have ceded what would otherwise be their full independence and instead embraced partial independence. We put our confidence in others in some respects while in other ways retain our own autonomy. This frees us to specialize. It facilitates collaboration, allowing us to build on the work of others. It gives us confidence to take risks. At the citizen level, however, we do not typically refer to this as partial independence―we refer to it as being civilized. Clothing oneself with an animal skin and running out into the wilderness to survive alone in the state of nature may provide someone with a full cup of independence, but it is not the kind of condition that most people want to be in.

scottish parliament building

But this is precisely what Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his secessionist Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) colleagues seem to want for their homeland. Scotland’s current partial independence with the United Kingdom provides wide ranging economic, political, and security advantages for both the United Kingdom and Scotland. With the world’s fifth largest economy, the UK provides a larger share of public services per capita to Scotland than other areas of the country. London is also one of the largest financial centers in the world and amidst the 2008 financial downturn―while nearby sovereign states like Iceland and Ireland were reeling under financial strain―Britain’s central bank opened its coffers to Scotland, spending £126.6 billion to prevent local bank failure. Britain, which is the world’s fourth largest military power, also furnishes Scotland’s defense. The UK also has one of the highest levels of rule of law and provides Scotland with credible guarantees for its own self-determination.

And with full control over the elections in its own local parliament as well as control over one-tenth of the seats in the British Parliament―with an occasional Scotsman as UK Prime Minister―Scotland is far more influential with its neighbors and throughout the world than atrophying into a mini sovereign state. If Scotland’s current arrangement is modified with new powers (such as greater control over taxation, natural resources, and foreign relations), its partially independent status stands to deliver even greater advantages.

Choosing full independence would, however, tragically throw away many ― or all of ― the aforementioned advantages. It would take Scotland into the wilderness of international anarchy in which it would have to fend for itself as a sovereign state. Entry into the European Union may mitigate some of the costs of secession and international anarchy, but there are no guarantees of the terms―or availability―of such membership. Indeed, even if Scotland managed to eventually join the EU, it is widely believed that it would need to drop the British pound and adopt the (locally unpopular) Euro.

Whether as a society or an individual, there certainly is a time in which it makes sense to quit the interdependence advantages of civilized life. If (as with war torn regions) one’s security and rights are under threat, or if (as in the world’s numerous weak fully independent states) conditions are so poor that society has lost its preexisting capability to deliver services, or if (as with historic colonies) one is subject to continuous exploitation by a higher power―under such conditions one may be justified in grabbing a rifle, bundling up the family, and heading for the woods. To some extent, some of the later conditions may indeed apply to Catalonia’s association with Spain―but none of them apply to Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom. Scotland’s partially independent union with the UK brings substantial advantages that would not be available under full independence.

True nationalists do not seek a political alternative (like full or partial independence) for its own sake or because it is an article of faith. Rather, they seek out alternatives that best fulfill the economic, security, political and other interests of their nationality. They refrain from needlessly throwing advantages away. It may however still be the case that SNP leaders have a winning strategy. If pushing for a self-damaging divorce with the UK is merely a ploy to win even greater powers as a partially independent territory, they may in fact have a strategy that could validate their nominally nationalist credentials.

David A. Rezvani, D.Phil. Oxford University, has taught courses in international and comparative politics at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, MIT, Trinity College, Boston University, and Oxford University. He is a visiting research assistant professor and lecturer at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Surpassing the Sovereign State: The Wealth, Self-Rule, and Security Advantages of Partially Independent Territories.

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Image credit: The modern architecture of the scottish parliament building in Edinburgh. © andy2673 via iStockphoto.

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