Scottish Independence: The Spectre of Nationalism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, the British government agreed to allow Scotland to hold a referendum on whether or not it desires independence from the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the Scottish government is seeking independence despite one, shall we say, minor hiccup–it is against the interest of Scotland and the Scottish people to become independent from the United Kingdom. Even if you’re not Scottish or any kind of British, this matters, because it demonstrates how very powerful nationalism remains as a force for getting people and nations to do things they absolutely should not do.

First it is necessary to establish that independence is, in fact, against the Scottish interest. The first thing to notice is that Scotland raised 43.5 billion pounds in revenue on average over the last five years, but spent an average of 56.3 billion. Now, it’s true that the whole of the UK has been in deficit over the last five years, but the UK’s debt has been much smaller. Here’s the comparison:

  • Scotland Average Deficit as Percentage of GDP, last 5 years: 13.26
  • UK Average Deficit as Percentage of GDP, last 5 years: 6.36

This leaves Scotland running a deficit that’s twice the percentage of GDP that the UK’s recent deficits have run. Now, the Scottish Nationalists have an answer to this–North Sea oil. However, it is unknown whether or not Scotland would receive its share of the North Sea oil revenue based on the size of its population or based on its geographic closeness to the oil. In each scenario, here’s what happens to Scotland’s average deficit as percentage of GDP:

  • Based on population: 12.34
  • Based on geography: 5.14

So the population approach is not significantly more economically viable for Scotland, though the geographical approach seemingly is. However, who is to say that the British government would be happy to give the overwhelming majority of the North Sea oil revenues to Scotland? In addition to this concern, there is also a long history of inconsistent revenue from the North Sea reserves:

  • Revenue has ranged from 647 million pounds to 12.9 billion pounds, depending on the price of oil
  • The average revenue over the last 31 years is 5 billion pounds

Even if the Scots get lucky and manage a geographical split of the revenue, there is a further problem–the wells are running dry. Even the most optimistic reports say that 40 billion barrels have already been produced, with a mere 14-24 billion remaining. The North Sea oil fields are past their productive peak and, while they may continue to operate for a long time, will produce both less oil and less revenue going forward. The use of this oil to bankroll Scottish independence while it lasted would also make Scotland indirectly a flagrant carbon emitter.

So what we have is an economic case predicated on a share of the North Sea oil an independent Scotland may very well never receive, being sold at a price that will fluctuate, with the production and output falling over the next several decades. It is a flawed plan on several levels. The nationalists are making an assumption about the distribution of the oil revenue that they may not be able to back-up in practise, they’re assuming prices for that oil that they may not get, and they’re thinking in the short-term, as production is known to be declining. It is not a sustainable model for running an independent state–at least not with the welfare and social programming package that the nationalists want to implement.

This is the real tragedy of Scottish independence, if it comes to pass–Scotland has taken advantage of the United Kingdom, running a more egalitarian system of social policies that provides free university education to everyone in Scotland. An additional 1,600 pounds per person is spent by the Scottish government on top of what the English receive. Sooner or later Scotland would find itself in a bind because it could not secure the oil on a geographic basis, because oil prices have fallen, or as a result of declining production. The resulting spending reductions Scotland would see would make the Scottish people the victims of Scottish independence, rather than its benefactors. The Scots are not the only ones who would likely see reduced support and investment from their government–Scotland’s reliable record of voting for left wing parties in recent UK elections means that, without Scotland’s seats in parliament, it would be extremely difficult for a left wing British government to be elected. With less opposition, the British conservatives would be able to pursue their austerity agenda more ferociously, resulting in further spending cuts and benefits losses to the English, Welsh, and Irish. In short, no one wins from Scottish independence.

So then the question is, why is a referendum even being held? Why have we even come this far, when Scottish independence is clearly against the rational interest of all involved parties? Nationalism is a deeply irrational and illogical force, and the Scottish Nationalist Party has taken full advantage of emotional Scottish nationalism to bring the UK to this point.  The basic construction of any nationalist position goes something like this:

  1. I am of X nationality.
  2. I am a great person.
  3. Other people of X nationality are similar to me, and consequently better than people who are not of X nationality and consequently not similar to me.
  4. Therefore, people of X nationality should be independent/conquer other nationalities/have special rights/etc.

There is nothing about nationalism that is more philosophically defensible than racism or sexism. You could substitute “X Race” or “X Gender” in for “X nationality” and get the same sort of argument for racism or sexism. Nationalism is putting some people ahead of others on the basis of geographical location or genetic background. It is only defensible to the extent that the state protects its individuals and their interests, and so some loyalty to the state is expected on that basis. We naturally reject nationalism when it is a pretext to conquer–we condemn the German nationalism of the Nazis, for instance. However, too often, we do not reject nationalism when it is about independence, even though the drive for nationalist independence comes from the same logical source. What difference does it make if someone is from Scotland or from England, beyond the nationalist prejudices Scottish and English people have attached to those distinctions? Scottish and English people both help one another and make one another stronger than they would be alone, economically, militarily, in all areas. Who cares if Scottish people live further north, or are genetically distinct, or have a different cultural heritage? None of that has anything to do with what the right move is for people living in the United Kingdom today, with what ensures their highest possible standard of living and quality of life. It is ethically irresponsible of the Scottish Nationalist Party and its leader, Alex Salmond, to ignore the economic advantages of being part of the United Kingdom just because Scottish people are slightly different from English people. That this nationalist argument has not been dismissed out of hand as every bit as dated and ridiculous as racism is a poor comment on society today more broadly. You can dress nationalism up in democratic garb and call it “self-determination”, but it is every bit as dangerous and harmful today as it was when it drove people to war over and over during the 19th and 20th centuries.