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The Battle of Scottish Secession

In four months, Scots will vote on the following question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Although it seems more likely than not that the electorate will vote “No,” the outcome apparently is not a foregone conclusion.

Thus, an arrangement that has endured for more than three centuries may come to an end, and one of the world’s most important democracies may lose nearly 10 percent of its people and one third of its landmass.

What is driving the move for Scottish independence? One immediately suspects old-fashioned Scottish nationalism — Braveheart and all that. But according to Jonathan Freedland, writing in the New York Review of Books, this is not the pitch of the Scottish National Party (SNP) — the entity that’s driving the movement for independence. Nor is that movement particularly nationalistic (it is pro-immigration, for example) or anti-English.

Is the grievance, then, about money — a reaction to England disproportionately taking Scottish resources — along the lines of the Flemish secessionist movement in Belgium? Apparently not. Indeed, the SNP takes pains to reassure Scots (implausibly, one suspects) that independence would not disturb existing economic arrangements such as the currency, access to the national health care system, participation in the EU, the continued presence of the large financial sector in Scotland, and so forth.

(Interestingly, the SNP also assures Scots that “current [television] programming like EastEnders, Doctor Who, and Strictly Come Dancing…will still be available in Scotland.” Here’s a thought experiment: how many upscale American liberals would continue to vote for Democrats if it meant not being able to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, etc.?)

So what grievance is driving the Scottish independence movement. In essence, according to Freedland, it’s the fact that England isn’t sufficiently left-wing:

For the Nationalists, Scotland has become a land of social democratic consensus, one that believes it has more in common with the high-tax, high-spend northern neighbors of Scandinavia than it does with the turbo-capitalism of the City of London.

“There is a strong sense that the UK is evolving towards the US model, where you can never give enough to the top one percent,” Blair Jenkins, formerly of the BBC and now chief executive of the Yes campaign, told me when we met at the Yes headquarters in Glasgow. “A more collective sense of society, of looking out for one another, is a strong part of Scottish life.”

This explanation, though not necessarily the value judgment it entails, rings true. Scotland has veered sharply to the left of England. The Conservative Party has ceased to exist as political force north of the border, having never recovered from the “stain” of Thatcherism. Even the selection of a 35 year-old lesbian as head of the Party hasn’t helped.

Virulent anti-Israel sentiment also separates Scotland from England, though there is no reason to believe that this sentiment is a factor in the independence movement. As Haaretz reported:

There is a proud radical left-wing tradition in Scottish politics and public life, and Glasgow is often referred to as the most leftist city in Britain. Beyond a belief in trade unionism and the welfare state, this has also been translated into support of foreign causes favored by the left.

This previously included the anti-apartheid struggle and, in more recent years, the Palestinian issue. . . .[I]t seems that feeling among locals regarding Israel is much more negative than south of the border in England.

The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement calling for a ban on anything Israel-related is particularly prevalent in Glasgow. In Edinburgh, pro-Palestinian campaigners have lobbied the city council not to hire French utility company Veolia, due to its work on the Jerusalem light rail system. And while similar boycott efforts also occur in England, there is a consensus that “it’s worse in Scotland.”

How should American conservatives feel about the prospect of Scottish secession? Frankly, I’d be fine with it. If it turns out that the Scots enjoy life more in a high-tax, high-spend workers’ paradise, good for them. If they come to regret being unmoored from English style capitalism, then a valuable lesson will have been learned — and not, one hopes, by the Scots alone.

Meanwhile, from a conservative perspective England should benefit from the absence of 59 Scottish MPs, many of whom represent safe Labor seats. In that scenario, Labor’s prospects for forming future governments will be diminished.

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