Why Some Scots Want to Leave the UK

Tyler Cowen thinks Scotland should stay in the UK, and so do I. But this bit of his blog post I can’t quite agree with:

If a significant segment of the British partnership wishes to leave, and for no really good practical reason, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong with contemporary politics and with our standards for loyalties.

I find this entire prospect depressing, and although it is starting to pick up more coverage in the United States and globally, still it is an under-covered story relative to its importance.

This is a referendum on the modern nation-state, an institution that has done very well since the late 1940s but which is indeed often ethnically heterogeneous at its core. While I expect Scottish independence to be voted down, if it passes I will feel the world’s risk premium has gone up, even if the Scots manage to make independence work. (emphasis original)

The main reason why some Scots want to leave the UK is ideological. Scotland consistently votes 15-20 points to the left of the rest of the UK, and with a current center-right government and a constantly improving prospect of a Conservative victory at the next election, many left-wing Scots fear the policies they’ll face in a united Britain. If you follow the Twitter feed of Yes Scotland, you’ll see a stream of claims about new social programs an independent Scotland could implement, and explicit fears about future Tory rule.

Furthermore, Scots are discontented with devolution, wanting something more, but many of them do not trust that David Cameron will follow through on promises to enact more generous autonomy for Scotland (his party is, after all, still the Conservative and Unionist Party).

Growing state intervention in people’s lives has made ordinary ideological disagreements more salient and fundamental. As a result, ideologically polarized people in advanced democracies often wonder whether they can live in peace with “the other side.” Is this depressing or just inevitable? Anyway, I’m not sure Scottish secession would raise the world risk premium any more than Norwegian or Icelandic secession did, or than Faroese independence would. It would at least be peaceful and negotiated. Still, I reiterate that it is probably a bad idea for Scots, and unlikely to happen according to the polls.

4 thoughts on “Why Some Scots Want to Leave the UK

  1. I am rooting for the Scots to secede. I imagine they think they could create a mirror-Norway. I reckon they’d create pre-1984 New Zealand.

    Let’s run an experiment!

    (Besides, I’m pretty sure that a ‘Yes’ vote is required before we can turn some patch of Little England into Galt’s Gulch.) 😉

    1. I have heard this sort of comment from market-oriented types before, and I would probably have agreed once upon a time. But what I worry about is that in the long run, a left-of-center Scotland will try to forestall a move to fiscal responsibility by raising barriers to capital flows. That will be difficult to do as part of the EU, but not impossible: various regulatory barriers can subtly impede the common market. In other words, pre-1984 New Zealand. Maybe that will be a learning opportunity, but OTOH, we already have plenty of learning opportunities around us (such as New Zealand’s turnaround), and not everyone seems to be learning.

  2. Isn’t this the only way that democratic polities learn? By empowering a “responsible party” and then, in the event that their policy package fails, handing control to an opposition government?

    [I understand that everyone will raise a hue and cry about the bond markets and/or the IMF first, but a new government should ultimately result.]

    Here’s another question: is there any chance that the Scottish government could be plagued by a resource curse with North Sea oil?

    1. I’m skeptical that the resource curse is a big deal, especially in the developed West. (Canada & Norway do fine.) Furthermore, North Sea oil is fairly depleted, & Scots know they won’t have the revenues that much longer. There’s little risk that Scotland will become a “petrostate” with all that term usually implies.

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