Scotland The Brave

On September 18, Scotland will vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom or to become independent after 300 years. With a last name like mine, it might be supposed I’d have a deep interest in the vote.

Until I got interested in genealogy a decade ago, I assumed my Monroe ancestors had originated in Scotland and my identity was vaguely connected to that feisty piece of real estate. But it turns out my people have been in America a really long time. My line goes back to an immigrant, Andrew, who arrived around 1650 and who through a different grandson from mine ancestor was President Monroe’s forebear.

For a century and a half my Monroes married women of Scottish or English ancestry, but after that it’s welcome to the melting pot. A couple generations of Monroe men married Germans followed by my mother — a quarter Welsh, a quarter German, a quarter English, a quarter French-Canadian. All of which has diluted my Scot portion to a mere dollop.

Also, I have visited Scotland and found it scenically bleak, climatically grim, and the people cheerless when they weren’t being surly. Bad food, too. I decided to embrace my French eighth, at least when ordering dinner or planning vacations.

Still, the Scottish vote is interesting as one more sign of our centrifugal times when long stable polities are flying into pieces or aspire to — the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, the Basques, the Catalonians.

On the one hand, it is easy to see why the proud Scots would like to retain their identity and regain their autonomy. For a millennium before the Acts of Union in 1706-07 there was no love lost between the Scots and the English. Indeed, there was a state of almost perpetual war or guerrilla combat across the border. And feelings remain far from warm and fuzzy north of Hadrian’s Wall.

There seems to be some feeling by Scots that the chief appeal off their homeland to the English is the considerably quantity of North Sea oil off its shores. And there’s also understandable resentment at the lopsided power of English persons and their views in making policy that affects the Scots. They may get to express their views as members of the United Kingdom, but they rarely get their way. It must be sort of like being Bernie Sanders, the sole Socialist member of the Senate.

On the other hand, going it alone may pose practical difficulties that vastly outweigh the psychic rewards of reclaiming independence. Despite oil revenues, Scotland is a small rather poor country that clearly benefits from being a part of the much larger UK. It gets to do business in a relatively strong currency and lives under an umbrella of social services and defense.

At independence, the pound would no longer be the currency, the country would have to provide services and pay for them out of its own revenues. Just to take one example, the UK’s nuclear subs, now based in a Loch, would relocate south along with the associated jobs. According to the conservative Economist magazine, government spending in Scotland is actually 1,300 pounds per person higher than in the rest of the UK. The Economist argues strongly against the break up as do American liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers. All view it as the road to marginalization.

The United Kingdom with 64 million people is the 22nd largest country in the world and one of the more prosperous. Scotland accounts for only a bit over 5 million of that total. In fact there has been an attempt in recent years to lure back overseas citizens of Scottish heritage because the population is no larger today than in 1940 while neighbors and rivals have grown.

An independent Scotland would be the 118th largest country in the world, about the same size as Lebanon, Turkmenistan, Norway and the city-state of Singapore. In fact, Metropolitan London is over twice the size of the entire country of Scotland.

Lest Scots find that depressing, it’s estimated as many as 27 million Americans have Scottish ancestors, and millions more in Canada, Australia and farther afield. It was just that Scotland couldn’t support them given its vile climate, lack of arable land and nasty neighbors.

The question is whether those Scots who stayed behind would be better off as part of a United Kingdom or alone. Alone, Scotland would certainly get a lot less respect than it does now and might be forced to join the EU for reasons of economic survival including the adoption of he Euro. Ask the Spanish and the Greeks how much fun it is being pushed around by the Germans.

One can be forgiven for thinking the Scots would be better off sticking with their cousins to the South than putting up that. But the Scots are as notorious for their cussedness as for their fiscal sharpness, so anything might happen on Thursday. The question seems to boil down to which Scottish attitude will dominate at the polls — that of William Wallace or of Adam Smith.


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