WASHINGTON—What do you think of the September vote in Great Britain to decide whether Scotland shall be free of London’s rule? Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707. Yet in September Britain will go to the polls to vote “yes” or “no” as to the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If a majority vote “yes,” Great Britain will be great no more.
The Act of Union in 1707 was a long time ago. It ushered in over 300 years of uniting—dare I say it—two great people, the Scots and the English. The Scots may have been portrayed as a junior partner, but they held their own. Edinburgh in the 1770s came to be called “the Athens of the North,” the home for a brilliant enlightenment with great thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Over the past 300 years the Scots have made splendid contributions to philosophy, science, the arts, commerce, warfare, and—forget not—drink. To this day its leading export is whiskey, and it is very good whiskey on a par with Tennessee bourbon, maybe even better.
Yet now centrifugal force has set in. A sizable minority of Scots will vote “yes” this autumn, and they have the momentum. They could become a majority by the election. Would Scotland really relish its role in the community of nations as a country that has no clout? Would it relish diminishing England? Today Scotsmen figure mightily in the world with their power base in Scotland and England. Just a few years ago a Scot, Gordon Brown, was prime minister. England is peppered with powerful Scotsmen. Do they really want to diminish themselves to the level of, say, Slovakia.
Slovakia broke from Czechoslovakia in 1993, goaded by visions of self-importance and an irrational urge for change. The Czech Republic, full of confidence and cultural and economic competence, greeted the divorce with insouciance. Today it is about as important in the world as it was before the split. As for Slovakia, well it is a backwater.
I do not think Scotland will ever be a backwater, but it will not be what it has been while united with England. So what do the English think about the coming election? Polling suggests that as many as 60 percent do not want Scotland to exit. On the other hand, the prospect of an exit does not cause a lot of agitation. It is mostly accompanied by a shrug. According to Freddy Gray, the managing editor of the London Spectator, “as the polls tighten and the momentous day approaches, Englishmen remain strangely disinterested.” Prime Minister David Cameron gave what he thought was a stirring Churchillian speech for unity in February. “We want you to stay,” he said to the Scots. His speech fell flat. It is typical of the oratory surrounding this election. In a word, it is boring.
So what is the likely outcome? I do not know, though I have followed the debate carefully. Possibly it is difficult to predict the election because it was always so difficult to have anticipated it a few years ago. After more than 300 years united with England now the Scots want to revert to their former condition. It is as though the American West chose independence or, ever more implausible, the American South, notwithstanding a bloody civil war.
Allow me to offer our British cousins a way out. Follow the course taken some years ago by the citizens of Toronto and the rest of the province of Ontario when confronted by the citizens of Quebec who were seized by an independence movement. The citizenry of England should make it very clear that they frankly “don’t give a damn.” It worked in Canada, and my guess is it will work in Great Britain. Faced with the complexities of conjuring up a new nation, the Scots will be glad to return to Great Britain.