Constitutional Opinions

Dis-United Kingdom?

What will Scottish secession mean for America?

By From the June 2014 issue

Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party.
Send to Kindle

What an opportunity for America is shaping up in the constitutional crisis in Britain, starting with the referendum that is going to be held in September over independence for Scotland. It may not put entirely paid the Acts of Union that, in 1707, placed two kingdoms, England and Scotland, under a single sovereign. But Queen Elizabeth has signed off on Scotland going to its people on the independence question, and recent estimates reckon the nationalists are between three and seven points away from victory. “Week by week,” the Financial Times has reported, “Scotland seems to slip away.”

This strikes me as a major moment, and not just because England and Scotland have been united for more than three centuries. On top of that a separate referendum could be held as early as next year that would lead to Britain leaving the European Union. That campaign, led by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has been gaining its own ground. By the time this magazine reaches the news stand, we may have a sense of it from the European Parliament elections that were set to take place at the end of May. As voters were preparing to decide, the Guardian characterized a recent poll as indicating that UKIP was “on course to achieve an emphatic victory.”

The British establishment, left and right, tries to paint UKIP as “loonies” (to use Prime Minister David Cameron’s phrase) and UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, as an eccentric. The charges are proving hollow, though. Farage, even in the estimation of his critics, keeps winning debates. The question seems to be whether Farage can avoid the fate of, say, Ron Paul. (That’s not to cast any aspersions on Dr. Paul, whose campaign for honest money I have cheered for years.) Right now, Farage seems likely to do better at the polls than Paul ever did. 

This has been coming to a head since 1988, when Margaret Thatcher made her trip across the Channel to deliver at Bruges, Belgium, one of the great speeches of the twentieth century. She didn’t use the word “constitution” in her speech. She did trace Britain’s roots in European history, reference Magna Carta, and note that she was speaking on the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution on which the crown passed to Prince William of Orange and Queen Mary.

It was also the speech in which Thatcher spoke of “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states.” She kvelled about the American example and warned that cooperation “does not require power to be centralized in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy.” She referred to the lesson of the Soviet Union. Then the famous words: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

A group of conservative intellectuals and parliamentarians, known as the Bruges Group, came together in the wake of Thatcher’s speech to stand as a kind of sentinel. But in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty was inked, creating the European Union. In the years since, it has seemed that all of Thatcher’s warnings were for naught. It was right after Maastricht that the UKIP was formed, and everything that is happening now can be seen as a kind of slow-motion constitutional reckoning of all that Thatcher foresaw.

The American president ought to be all over this. Yet President Obama seems to be at once oblivious to these issues, scared of change, and blind to the opportunities this situation represents for America. Obama likes to talk about the need for Britain to fix what is wrong with Europe (talk about a job for Hercules). He has actually warned Britain that leaving Europe would hurt its relations with America. The president has done this even while Europe hangs on America’s own foreign policy like an albatross.

In April, the first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, was in America. The leader of the Scottish National Party and a charming and crafty leftist and spokesman for the independence cause, Salmond appeared on Morning Joe. He also gave a particularly illuminating TV interview to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker. Salmond has previously said he is not seeking for Scotland to become an independent republic like America, but rather one of the commonwealth countries in Elizabeth’s vast realm. In his U.S. interviews he made it clear that what he wants is not independence per se but independence from England.

If he gets the divorce he wants, Salmond said, he will turn around and seek to have an independent Scotland made, in its own right, a full member of the European Union. This sets up the question: If Scotland joins Europe and England leaves it, what does that mean for America? It strikes me as an opportunity to create a new alliance of countries committed to the ideas of classical liberalism. Scottish secession would unburden England of a largely leftist population, and set the stage for England to be governed by conservatives for, conceivably, generations to come.

Canada, meantime, has emerged as a conservative success story. Australia, too, is a potential partner in a new arc of countries whose heritage is not so much a common language but common ideas of liberty and economic freedom that formed in England and reached their greatest flowering in our own revolution. Yet President Obama doesn’t seem to appreciate any of this. On moving into the White House he famously removed the bust of Winston Churchill.

At one point things got so bad between Britain and America that the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee issued a call for an end to the use of the phrase “special relationship.” Britain’s current leadership seems to have bought Obama’s notion that Britain would lose influence if it were to leave the European Union. But Obama is all for the kind of European statist dirigisme that is the reigning ideology in Brussels. So where are the rest of America’s leaders, including the Republicans in Congress and those eyeing the presidency?

Britain is less than a year away from electing its fifty-sixth Parliament. Prime Minister Cameron has promised that if he wins it, he’ll hold a referendum on whether to leave Europe. He’s gone so far as to say that if he is blocked by any coalition from fulfilling his referendum pledge, he’ll quit. So the constitutional question—here I speak of the possibility of disuniting the United Kingdom—becomes a political and even geopolitical question. Time for America’s leaders to join the fray and let England know that if it’s abandoned by Scotland and if it seeks to escape from European socialism, it will have a partner across the Atlantic. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the New York Sun, is the author of The Citizen's Constitution: An Annotated Guide (Basic Books).