We have grown accustomed in the West to discussing our political affairs in the narrow and sterile language of material gain. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” we like to inquire. And why won’t Johnny vote reliably for the party that promises to put him on a pedestal of his neighbors’ making? But there are often deeper and more ethereal forces at play in the human heart — forces that do not disappear when we walk into the voting both or watch nervously from afar. They were on display yesterday in Great Britain, where, to the relief of a considerable majority of Brits, the people of Scotland elected not to secede from the union.
For English voters of the center-right, Scottish independence ostensibly had much to recommend it. Without the Scots in place to vote so reliably for the Labour party, the British parliament would have undoubtedly become more conservative, and with the socialists to their north cut loose, English taxpayers would have been freed from the burden of subsidizing Scottish universities and Scottish health care while receiving nothing but condescension in return. In Scotland itself, where the Tory vote is hopelessly geographically spread out, a change in the size of politics would have yielded a minor resurgence in the fortunes of the Right. And, absent the Scots’ incorrigible — and shameful — penchant for closer European integration, England might finally have left the tyranny of the European Union. For the conservatives of Albion, these developments would all have been most welcome. And yet most of those to whom I have spoken lately — especially, it must be said, those who consider themselves to be strongly conservative — did not think in this manner at all. Instead they seemed to be rather distraught at the prospect of one of the world’s great historical ventures being broken up — vexed, to use Orwell’s slightly saccharine term, at the prospect of an old family being torn asunder.
I was born in southern England, a long way from the border, and I did not visit Scotland until I was at least ten years old. I am not, in any way, shape, or form a Scot. And yet at no point in my 29 years have I ever distinguished seriously between myself and those who are. For me, the Scots are as British as are those from London, Yorkshire, Oxford, and Hull. Like Daniel Hannan, if I am asked where I am originally from, my answer, unwaveringly and without hesitation, is “Britain.” In consequence, Hannan speaks for us both when he says that a vote for independence “would have meant the end of the country we belonged to — the end of its name, of its flag, of our internal map of home.” Unlike Hannan, I have a new home — and one that I adore. I am, both in fact and in aspiration, becoming increasingly American, and in three years — knock on wood — my passport will look very different from my current one. Still, much as a person does not cease to love his parents when he transfers his loyalty to his spouse, an immigrant never loses entirely his attachment to his old country. I have often wondered what it might be like for a man to watch from his new home in America as his country of birth was invaded or occupied — or, worst of all perhaps, torn apart from the inside. Yesterday, I almost found out.
Self-determination being, per Macaulay, both a virtuous and necessary thing, Scotland of course had every right to leave Britain if it so wished. But to acknowledge this right is not to feel any less heartbroken when it is used. To have seen the flag under which I was born ripped in half would have been tough. So, too, would the consequences, even for my tiny family. My brother in law is half-Scottish and half-Malaysian, but he lives now in England with my sister and their baby. An independent Scotland would have put a border between him and his parents — or, more likely, given how staunchly British his father feels, forced them to move from their home of three decades and settle south of the border. My uncle who spent years in a Scottish regiment of the British Army would have been divorced from many of his compatriots, and they, in turn, would have been deprived of the identity for which they took up arms in the first instance. Driving from one end of the island to the other — something millions do each year, my parents included — would have taken on a wholly different character. My mother, who is not a political animal in the least, told me last week that if Scotland elected to go she would feel as if someone had removed a part of her body. This, by all accounts, was a feeling that — eventually, as the pendulum looked to be swinging beyond the point of no return — touched undecided hearts in Scotland, too.
Among our fashionable and cosmopolitan sorts, such sentiments — which are sneeringly dismissed as little more than irrational or parochial “nationalism” — are regarded with suspicion and, often, with downright contempt. And yet, disappointing as it must be for the globalists among us, these ideals still run deep in most hearts. Most Americans, I suspect, will know exactly what I mean when I say that a Britain without Scotland would feel to me like an America without California — or, for that matter, an America without just Manhattan. Ask a foreigner to describe the United States and he will mention skyscrapers, mountains, and Hollywood; the cowboys of the Old West, the rollercoasters of Orlando, the history of Boston, and the whiskey of Tennessee; Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Graceland; the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and the Washington Memorial; seafood on the East Coast, technology on the West, and farming in the Midwest. That, in toto, is America. When push comes to shove, I must admit to being less interested in what an independent Californian Republic would do to the electoral college or to the Senate or to federal income taxes than in what it would feel like to be asked for a passport half way across Lake Tahoe. Certainly, Americans in the Midwest like to gripe about city elites on the coasts; and Americans on the coasts to complain about the obstinate sorts in “flyover country.” I complain incessantly about Washington and I roll my eyes at those corners of America I dislike almost on the hour. Still, it doesn’t take too much to bring us all together again, and it should take an awful lot to drive us apart in perpetuity. Divided as the United States is, its trickier political problems can, should, and were in fact explicitly supposed to be resolved by fragmenting power, and by reserving the most important decisions to those who are most keenly affected by them. Going forward, I hope to see the country make more use of the mechanisms that were put in place to accommodate genuine diversity of opinion. Secession, however, is another game altogether — a right of last resort, reserved for genuine grievances and usurpations and not, as even the radical Thomas Jefferson conceded, for light and transient causes. For all the political griping that we heard lately from Scottish rabble-rousers, it remains the case what independent powers they have already been given have never really been used. If they need more leeway, it can be worked out. But leaving?
American spectators who have been thrilled by the excitement of the vote have at times focused in on the wrong heroes. The longstanding rivalry between the English and Scottish is an interesting one for sure, and the bloody struggles at the likes of Bannockburn, Neville’s Cross, Dupplin Moor, and Solway Moss were, in their own perverted, grubby little way, rather romantic. But, within the long and hard-fought Anglo-American quest for liberty, they are but a minor footnote. Searching for principles, the founders of this country did not thrill to the words of William Wallace, and nor were they inspired to separation by the tribal nonsense that Hollywood seems to find so endlessly fascinating. Instead, they built their new nation on the backs of giants such as Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid and Adam Ferguson, and, of course, David Hume — all Scotsmen, yes, but also all British Scotsmen who helped to turn a small island in the North Atlantic into the most successful nation the world has ever seen. When Alexander Hamilton observed that the revolutionaries thought “in English,” he may as well have said in “Scottish,” too. Which is to say that Britain came into its own when it stopped tearing itself apart, not when it started, and that the heroes and architects of what we might call the Pax Anglospherica — the post-1815 settlement that has given those parts of the world that wish to prosper the gifts of capitalism, reason, free trade, democracy, individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and due process, not to mention a host of remarkable mathematical and scientific discoveries and inventions including the steam engine, the telephone, the television, radar, penicillin, insulin, and the bicycle — did not have Gibsonesque blue paint on their faces. Since 1945, British power has been severely diminished, but, as Bill Clinton, President Obama, and a host of other major players have attested, it still plays a vital role in the world order — a role that is most effective and coherent when the two countries are united. Today, as for the last three centuries, Braveheart is dead and Great Britain is alive. And we are all better off for that.
In the end, the No campaign won it comfortably, with 55 percent of the vote. Up next will be a bitter fight over the fallout, during which some of the more acidic voices within the defeated Yes camp will attempt to steal a base by pretending that this election was “close.” It wasn’t. This, frankly, was a blowout. Consider, by way of context, that Barack Obama received 53 percent of the vote in 2008 and 51 percent in 2012, and that both victories were widely regarded as having been decisive. If the No campaign in Scotland has no clear mandate, as it will presumably be claimed, then nor does the president of the United States. Britons should refuse to believe the spin, and they should demand that any changes to the constitutional settlement that are deemed necessary are ushered in slowly and soberly.
Alas, this will be more easily said than done. Having panicked at the sight of a rogue poll, the leaders of Britain’s three major parties saw fit to promise what was not theirs to promise: namely that if the Scots consented to stay out, radical reform would follow. This vow has provoked some eminently reasonable grumbling in Parliament, primarily from MPs who remain virtuously jealous of their prerogatives and who are determined that the will of the legislature should not be subordinated to the quixotic and hasty bribes of a few nervous power-brokers in London, but also from irritated English nationalists who are irritated by the prospect of buying off the Scots once again. (For details of this game, see NR’s excellent editorial.) “You cannot tear up the British constitution,” the Scottish Conservative lord Michael Forsyth griped yesterday, “because three leaders signed a press release.” Sympathetic as I am personally to the prospect of a more devolved and more genuinely federal Britain, Forsyth is quite right. David Cameron should have woken up this morning with the upper hand — able to tell the next Alex Salmond that the government had allowed him to fight a referendum on his own terms, and that he had lost resoundingly on those terms. Instead, Cameron has his work cut out. What happens next will be anybody’s guess, only one thing being certain at present: that, having been offered a straight yes–no plebiscite, the people of Scotland declined to leave the union, and that, for now at least, that’s as far as it goes. Hurrah.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.