Politics & Policy

The Scottish Disease

Pro-independence rally in Glasgow, September 16, 2014 (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
The Scots aren’t alone in dreaming of secession.

On Thursday, Scotland will decide whether it intends to remain part of the United Kingdom or go its own way as a separate nation. Inspired, Catalonia has renewed its campaign for independence from Spain. Earlier this week, it became clear that San Francisco venture capitalist Tim Draper’s “Six Californias” initiative — which would have seen the state subdivided into six new polities, in effect allowing affluent Silicon Valley to secede from the state’s poor interior and the vulgarians down south — would not proceed to the ballot, having failed to secure sufficient signatures in the petition stage. Secession talk, indulged with varying degrees of sincerity, is a staple of the culture of my home state of Texas. Soy-latte radicals dream of a great liberal secession from red-state rednecks. The libertarian economist Michael S. Rozeff writes wistfully of personal secession, the “panarchism” of Paul Émile de Puydt.

Part of the allure of secession is sentimentality, rank romanticism rooted in tribalism. What a land the Scots might make for themselves if only they were relieved of the burden of sharing a kingdom with the English! (Answer: Norway’s welfare state, Sweden’s cultural dynamism, Italy’s solvency.) And which of the last true-believing pilgrims in the Church of Hope and Change, his fraying Shepard Fairey T-shirt his only protection against the chill of the frozen-foods aisle at Trader Joe’s, does not dream of living in a nation with no SUV-driving Rick Perry voters who drink cheap beer un-ironically? The popularity of survivalist fantasy literature and apocalypse-preparedness television programs, and the jaunty attitudes associated with them, suggest that dread is not the main feeling associated with doomsday portents: Having grown disenchanted with the world as it is, they welcome its end. Dr. Manhattan surely speaks for many of us: “These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” Dr. Manhattan retreated to Mars when he’d had enough; most of us only dream of a cabin in the woods.

The drive to secede is born both of despair — things have become irreparably bad where we are — and what is more often than not an extraordinarily foolish hope. Scotland is hardly a viable independent nation, though as Nigel Farage and other critics point out, it does not propose to become an independent nation, exactly, but a subordinate division of a European Union that increasingly resembles a central state rather than a confederation of free and self-governing peoples. The irony there is very sharp: Weary and resentful of being governed from London, the Scots propose to be governed from Brussels.

In the event they should have the opportunity to find out, Texans resentful of Washington’s micromanagement and its inexhaustible arrogance would most likely find it replicated in miniature in Austin — indeed, it already has been to a shocking extent — without the counterbalancing virtues of being forced to cooperate with the other 49 states. Six Californias sounds to me like six times the trouble.

Bigger is not always better, and there is a time to break away, as our Founders did, and as people have from time to time for as long as history has recorded. But the United States functions remarkably well at both the federal and state level. There are many deep and important criticisms to be made of it, but, difficult as it sometimes can be to believe, we live in one of the most stable and coherent societies that the world ever has seen. There are a few countries today that can boast of being better-governed — Switzerland, Canada, and Australia, for example — but not one that has been governed so consistently well for more than two centuries. Liberty and democracy are remarkably fragile things: Nearly every nation in Europe that had them lost them at some point during the 20th century, and much of the rest of the world has never quite gotten the hang of them.

What is often difficult for Americans on opposite sides of our political divide — which is mainly a cultural divide — to admit and appreciate is how deeply we need each other. A United States without a Manhattan does not quite work, and neither does one without a wheat belt. The roughnecks and the Web developers need each other more than is generally admitted. But they do not necessarily share a vision of the good life.

Even very early American colonial society, relatively homogeneous though it was, contained within it distinct and irreconcilable cultural currents: Massachusetts saw the world in a different light than Pennsylvania did. The genius of the American order was — was — that there was no reason to try to change that. The model of federalism that was operational for the first part of our national history meant that certain irreconcilable differences did not in fact need to be reconciled. (Some of them did.) We live in an America in which a teacher’s saying “God bless you” when a student sneezes is cause for a federal lawsuit — but we can have cities called Sacramento, Corpus Christi, and Santa Fe. Strange as it may seem, it is worth remembering that we had actual established churches at the state level for years, and nobody thought that a Christian Taliban was emerging. Quakers and Congregationalists managed to negotiate their differences.

The centralization of political power — whether in Washington or in London or in Brussels — means that such differences must either be reconciled or, should they prove truly irreconcilable, erupt into conflict. The allure of secession is that it promises to abate such conflicts by removing those who do not share our values and our priorities from the polity. Talk to a secessionist in Texas for five minutes and you’ll appreciate that he does not so much want to launch a new republic as he desires to exile the powers that be in Washington, and perhaps those on Wall Street or in Hollywood. Six Californias appealed to some Silicon Valley progressives, but also to more conservative Californians in rural and agricultural areas, who resent that their well-being has been subordinated to that of the delta smelt.

Scotland may make a kamikaze run at what it believes to be independence. But that is not really an option for Texas, the proposed state of Jefferson, the Upper West Side, or libertarian-leaning techno-utopians. We are going to have to figure out — to keep figuring out — how to live together, “with liberty and justice for all” without “one size fits all.”

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

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