President Woodrow Wilson once stated, “Every line of strength in American history is a line colored with Scottish blood.” Although history has rightfully not been kind to Wilson, few would doubt the accuracy of his assertion that Scots (and their Ulster cousins) have played a disproportionate role in the creation, perpetuation, and prosperity of the American republic. Nearly 238 years after Thomas Jefferson’s Scots–inspired Declaration of Independence, America’s cousins across the Atlantic are considering following suit.
On September 18th, Scotland will ask its people whether it should secede from the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and form its own sovereign state. The September 18 referendum, mischievously timed to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s defeat of the English at Bannockburn, marginally favors the status quo. After months of comfort for the pro-unionist ‘Better Together’ campaign, the most recent polls point to a tighter race with 40 percent of Scots supporting secession. With six months to go, the momentum appears to be with those seeking an amicable divorce.
How has this happened, and how would Scottish independence impact America’s ‘special relationship’ with her closest ally, the United Kingdom? Having voted and then been granted greater autonomy from London, Scotland has had its own semi-autonomous parliament since 1999, albeit with considerably less power than a U.S. state. The electoral system that was selected to vote officials into office was deliberately devised to avoid a party winning an overall majority, which proved to be successful until the separatist Scottish National Party won a stunning victory in 2011. With an electoral mandate they set an independence referendum as their key priority.
Unlike Jefferson’s Declaration, if successful, Scottish independence would not lead to a republic. Queen Elizabeth II (I of Scotland) would remain head of state, a smart move by the ‘Yes’ campaign to de-radicalize independence and make the electorate feel more comfortable with a vote for change. The debate has therefore become more focused on incrementalism, with plans for an independent Scotland retaining both membership of NATO and the European Union, a common currency with the rest of the UK, and open borders. Although questions remain about the longevity of Scotland’s oil and the state of her finances post-independence, the aggressive business climate that’s been proposed has already given the left heartburn.
Yet if proponents have sought to demonstrate how seamless a transition would be, supporters of the status quo have endeavored to highlight the complications. Despite evidence to the contrary, London has claimed that any kind of currency union with Edinburgh would be unworkable. However, to suggest that it would be in the interests of 50 million English to complicate trading in a market of 5 million Scots defies logic. Similar arguments have been made pertaining to Scotland joining the EU and NATO, concerns with credence, but primarily rooted in the knock-on effects they might have on other secessionist movements elsewhere in Europe. Elsewhere, claims by UK government ministers that they would have no choice but to erect border checks are outright pathetic.
Americans, however, should certainly take note. The United Kingdom is one of a handful of countries that’s still interoperable with the United States’ military. If the political climate remains the same, it is unlikely that Washington will have the same relationship with Edinburgh as it has with London when it comes to a willingness to sustain the political cost of casualties in hot wars such as Iraq. Following the lead of countries like Norway, Scotland will likely still be willing to put boots on the ground to fulfill NATO obligations. Although the SNP has pledged that it would no longer allow Britain’s nuclear deterrent to be stationed in its territory it has stated that it would permit NATO allies to use its ports “without confirming or denying whether they carry nuclear weapons.” Such a move might allay concerns in Washington, but still raise considerable questions regarding the future, specifically the location, of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
Only weeks ago UK Prime Minister David Cameron thought he had nipped independence in the bud by promising Edinburgh greater powers. However, the sheer distrust of the current UK government and the attempts by London to show how isolated an independent Scotland would be have likely backfired. Although they vote for socially democratic parties, Scots are still a small ‘c’ conservative country reticent to pursue radical change, let alone independence. But they’re also a stubborn people. If it is the intent of unionist politicians to tell Scots how they would be incapable of creating a prosperous country, they might well be surprised how many end up willing to give it a go.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. A native of Scotland, he recently became a U.S. citizen. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt