When Scotland “voted” on union with her southern neighbor 307 years ago, English troops flowed to the border and English pounds flowed through the Scottish parliament. English force sought, unlike Hadrian, to welcome and not repel. The parliamentarians quietly voted “yes”; their constituents loudly shouted “no.”
Robert Burns eloquently agreed with the screaming sentiment of the people rather than the pols:
What force or guile could not subdue/Thro’ many warlike ages/Is wrought now by a coward few/For hireling traitor’s wages.
More than three centuries later, Scotsmen — rather than representatives who don’t represent — voted whether to part from the Englishmen they had so controversially joined. Enjoying about as full a democratic expression as modern times have known, and minus the coercion, Scots apparently decided that differences did not dictate divorce, after all.
In what way, Scotsmen certainly contemplated, would untethering the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George change matters?
Would trade barriers restrict commerce between Adam Smith’s homeland and William Gladstone’s? Would Scots opt to drop English en masse for the ancient tongue? Would England prevent Scottish tourists from visiting London and Scotland prevent English tourists from visiting Edinburgh?
If the component parts of the whole fly separate flags and field separate soccer teams, then to some extent the “nation” isn’t much of a nation. But a nation ain’t what it used to be, as indicated by the Scottish “yessers” who hoped had the referendum passed to share a currency. So what would have been the effect of this parting between friends?
Strangely, the English might have won had “no” lost. Scottish members of parliament, overwhelmingly belonging to left-wing parties, necessarily make the United Kingdom more socialist. Scotland may have become a Scandinavian paradise, as some Scotsman had hoped. But such paradises rarely work in the world as they do in the imagination for the simple reason that fewer people work in them. In effect, the socialist Scots traded the cry of “Freedom!” from William Wallace, or at least his thespian medium Mel Gibson, for one of “Serfdom!”
Alas, the course of Scotland, even if the wrong course, remains for Scots to map. But following nationalist socialists, as history strongly suggests, isn’t a course that winds up in the right place.
Conversely, Englishmen, not Scots, should chart England’s course. Is England more English by diluting the British Parliament with the 59-member Scottish delegation that boasts exactly one Conservative Party member?
Such a better-off-without-them attitude characterized the antebellum secessionists in the American North. Outrage over the addition of the foreign slaveholding nation of Texas to the Union by simple majority votes in Congress (rather than through the more stringent requirements of a treaty or constitutional amendment) sparked secessionist sentiment in New England in the 1840s.
More scandalized that their flag flew over slavery than some Englishmen must be that their flag flies over socialism, anti-slavery activists, stoked by the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, resolved at a meeting held a mile from my home 168 years ago: “That for Massachusetts to remain as a partner in a Union, in which her people are deprived of every constitutional right, and continually subjected to the most atrocious insults and outrages, is to make herself a willing bond slave, traitorous to the cause of human liberty, and responsible for every act of usurpation which has stained the Federal Government with pollution and blood.”
Fifteen years later, some of the same activists who had supported secession supported killing secessionists. Everybody believes in their right to leave. It’s the right of others to go that plays as such a sticking point.
Patriots, in England now and America then, obsess over subtraction. They overlook what William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionists certainly did not: addition. Bringing outsiders into a deal doesn’t strengthen the original stakeholders. It dilutes power.
The empire on which the sun never set may be more powerful today than yesterday. It’s less English than it might have been. And that’s the problem — oft seen in advance but seldom in hindsight — with Empire, Manifest Destiny, and their many relatives.
There isn’t power in a union.