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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quo vadisti, Scotland

As children we learned geography from maps and globes that I naïvely assumed were static. Later I realized that maps of national boundaries are constantly changing.

The UK is abuzz with debate about independence for Scotland, where a substantial number of people wish to leave the UK. For Americans this is not an unfamiliar topic. Our national identity was formed by separation from the UK, and we have the subsequent history of attempted secession by southern states. Our neighboring Québécois have spoken of separation from Canada, to one degree or another, for decades.

I don't know exactly what is driving so many Scots to seek independence now, but the English and the Scots went at it for centuries -- as is often the case in such matters. The Irish, or at least those who currently live in the Republic of Ireland, had far stronger antipathy toward the English and did manage to secure sovereignty almost 100 years ago. For that matter one occasionally hears calls for independence from Wales and even Cornwall, two other territories of Celtic heritage.

Independence wasn't an easy path for the Irish to take, despite financial assistance they received unofficially from the USA. Only in the 1990s did the "Celtic Tiger" began to flourish; but the bubble broke several years ago, and now Ireland is a troubled economy. The Scots, on the other hand, have enormous wealth in North Sea oil and gas for so long as it lasts... apparently sufficient to prop up a national economy, if the English will relinquish such income.

What should be the policy of the USA toward a Scotland desiring independence? We cannot pretend that we would never notice. Every fragmentation of another nation costs the USA incremental money and dilutes our finite capacity for international attention. The UK military and in particular the Royal Navy relies on bases in Scotland; withdrawal would jeopardize the capability of our largest partner in NATO by far. Fossil fuels in the North Sea are indirectly important to Americans because of the interconnectedness of global energy markets. Many native Southerners in the USA have Scottish ancestors. I do on my mother's side, red hair and all.

Nevertheless I see no particular reason for the USA to actively encourage or discourage Scottish independence. We should say simply that Americans endorse the freedom of peoples to choose their governments, whenever possible through peaceable due process, and let the Scottish affair proceed to its destiny. We don't want to see the entire world balkanized, however. A world of 1,000 nations is not workable.