The electoral success of the Scottish Nationalist Party has enabled it to demand a referendum on national independence next year, raising the distinct possibility of a break-up of the United Kingdom. The decline of the U.K.’s status and power in the world means that belonging to it is no longer a source of pride, but rather of embarrassment. What better way to extricate yourself from the guilt of the British Empire—to the establishment of which the Scots contributed disproportionately—than to join the ranks of the aggrieved colonized by means of your own nationalism?

Oddly enough, though, if the referendum on Scottish independence were held in England, it might result in a higher proportion of votes in favor than in Scotland. After all, if Scotland had been independent, England would have been spared dour, humorless, and incompetent Gordon Brown, first as chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) and then as prime minister. Without his dim-witted efforts, the economic crisis in England would have been considerably less severe than it is.

Were it not for the Scots, in fact, England would probably never have had a Labour government in the first place. That explains why Scottish Labour politicians (including Brown) have belatedly discovered the virtues of Britishness as against Scottishness, and sought to promote British identity. If Scotland were independent, Scottish Labour politicians would never reach London; and Scotland is too small a stage upon which to display their abilities. Those who wreck economies in accordance with an ideology always seek to do so on the widest possible scale.

The English (I speak grosso modo, of course) believe that the Scots live off their English subsidies: not long ago, for example, the Spectator published an article claiming that there were only 15,000 net taxpayers in all of Scotland—that is to say, approximately .03 percent of the population. And indeed, parts of urban Scotland (and England and Wales) economically resemble the Soviet Union. Recycling government money is the only economic activity there.

The Scots, however, feel downtrodden and resentful as only the heavily subsidized can. They also believe that the English are cheating them of oil revenues. Most North Sea oil is in Scottish waters; the Scots dream of Abu Dhabian ease and plenty, though in fact the revenues are only about $2,000 per head, and unlikely to rise much. At present these revenues go into general British coffers and are wasted by the U.K. government rather than the Scottish.

The 1998 devolution of U.K. powers to a parliament in Edinburgh—one of Mr. Blair’s bright ideas—has created constitutional anomalies. It means that Scottish members of the Westminster Parliament can interfere in English but not in Scottish affairs; it is as if Delaware refused the authority of the federal government in Washington, but insisted upon its right to interfere in Texas’s business. The Scots have always felt some resentment toward the English. It was part of Blair’s political genius that he should have created English resentment toward the Scots.

The success of Ireland is another incentive to Scottish independence. Of course, some of the sheen has recently been rubbed off the Celtic Tiger model, but the fact is that the average disposable income of the bailed-out country still far exceeds that of the bailing-out countries. The Irish continue to live better than their creditors, and since part of the Irish success was attributable to generous subsidies from Brussels, the Scots hope that the same magic will work for them.

The European Union would be delighted by Scottish independence, for it would represent an accretion, albeit small, of the power of Brussels vis-à-vis national governments. An independent Scotland is bound to be more Europhile (for reasons of subsidy) than the U.K.; and, for the European empire-builders, every little bit helps. Never mind that it is not an empire that they’re building, but a Yugoslavia.

Nationalism such as the Scots’ might seem anomalous in a Europe in which national sovereignty is deliberately and constantly being diluted. After all, about 80 percent of the new laws and regulations of every member of the European Union now emanate from Brussels. European law trumps every national law, irrespective of a country’s legal traditions or the legislative promises of its democratically elected government. Scottish nationalism has therefore flourished at precisely the time when national independence has less and less actual substance.

Is this really anomalous? I don’t think so, at least not if you take the view that the political class throughout Europe is forming itself into a caste, and in the process is creating an administrative nomenklatura. Whatever the economic results of Scottish independence for the general population, you can be sure that the country’s upper echelons will find a comfortable billet, either in Edinburgh or Brussels.

But, provided subsidies are not forthcoming, it’s also possible that Scottish independence would do the country good. The cold shower of economic reality might then unleash Scotland’s substantial creative abilities, which at the moment are so inhibited by the tepid bath of constant subsidy.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next