Thoughts on Scotland—by Peter Eisenstadt

Thoughts on Scotland
Peter Eisenstadt

I don’t know how I feel about Scottish independence. On the one hand, why not? Why shouldn’t the principle of self-determination and sovereignty, which has been extended to 206 or so nations around the world, not include Scotland, with its thousand years of history? Why should Scotland be forever tied to England? On the other hand, why? What will Scotland really gain that it currently lacks? Should this permanent divorce be decided on current political issues, which by their very nature, are ephemeral? What are the causes, the burning issues, that require a separation? And how will this separation work? If Scotland keeps the pound sterling and the queen, as the Scottish Nationalist Party has pledged to do, what, really does independence mean?

On the one hand, let’s not be sentimental about the Act of Union of 1707, a somewhat forced marriage which created the imperial colossus of Great Britain, when England and Scotland shared the job of ruling the waves, subjugating native peoples, bringing millions of slaves to the New World, and the other tasks of empire. But those days are over, and things change, including sovereignties.

On the other hand, let’s not be sentimental about creating new sovereign nations, something that has happened about 150 times in the last half century, with good, bad, and indifferent results. I’m sure an independent Scotland would be successful, and presumably, bloodless, but I don’t know if it is necessary.

Nationalism used to be bringing smaller pieces together to form a larger whole. This was the case for Germany and Italy, and in more complicated ways, large nations like Russia, China, and the United States. And it was the case for England, which was the first modern nation, with a strong centralized government dating back at least to the Norman Conquest, and which over time, incorporated Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Bigger nations provided protection against neighbors, was useful in times of high tariffs and trade barriers, and gave countries internal diversity in terms of population, natural and economic resources, and so on. But since 1918, nationalism has generally worked in the other direction, breaking up larger wholes to form small parts. In some cases, this was absolutely necessary, with England and Ireland being a prime example. In other cases, such as the division of Czechoslovakia, the breakup seems to have been relatively painless. In others, the breakup was immensely painful, with British India and Yugoslavia coming immediately to mind.

One irony of the current situation is that is the splitting of the world into its national constituents has been facilitated by the existence of supra-national entities such as the United Nations or the EU. Our world is getting larger and smaller, more homogeneous and more diverse all the time. At times, I would love to see a single, unified world government, sort of like on Star Trek, where the general rule was one government and one culture per planet. At other times, I dream of an anarchist harmony, in which every nation is atomized into a network of sovereign neighborhoods, in which any sort of superintending hierarchy is anathema. And perhaps, we will, in the not too distant future, get to realize both dreams at the same time.

I need to make a comment about Israel to keep this kosher. First of all, Jews generally do better in larger nations and empires in which nationality is not defined ethnically. I am uneasy about a world forever divided and subdivided into ever small nationalities.

Second, whatever happens, Scotland and England and Wales and Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain just where they are, next door, adjacent, and having to deal with one another. I sometimes think that far too much is made of the specific future constitutional arrangements pertaining to Israel and Palestine—the two peoples, both of whom rightly demand the realization of their legitimate national aspirations, will either learn how to live with each other, or they won’t. I hope, that whatever happens next week, that England and Scotland will continue to be a model to the world of how two nations, under one sovereignty or two,can share a single tight spot of the world.