This week’s referendum on Scottish independence may seem like an obscure, perhaps even Ruritanian quarrel to many Americans, but it has profound implications not just for the U.K. and Europe but also for the United States.
Most of the debate in the U.K. and elsewhere about Scottish secession has concentrated on whether an independent Scotland could survive or thrive, with a particular focus on whether Scotland would be immediately allowed to join the EU and if it would become a member of NATO despite the official anti-nuclear stance of the Scottish National Party. Very little attention has focused on the likely impact of secession—culturally, psychologically, and economically on the rump United Kingdom.
Great Britain—or whatever the country may be named after the loss of the North of that island—would the only Western European country to lose significant territory since the Second World War. (Various Eastern European countries have split since then, but all of them were relatively recent concoctions, put together in the aftermath of World War I and the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire.)
If the British union is dissolved after 300 years, you can expect the impact to be considerably greater than that felt in Russia when the USSR collapsed after a mere 82 years. And we are only beginning to appreciate the extent to which the Soviet collapse affected the morale of the Russian population, prompting a tidal wave of social ills ranging from alcoholism and suicide to catastrophically low birth rates to the rise of virulent ethnic nationalism.
With regard to the latter, it’s worth bearing in mind that “British nationalism” has generally tended to be relatively inclusive and non-racial. However, “English nationalism”, if awakened by Scotland's secession, is likely to mirror its Scottish and Welsh equivalents and be explicitly racial, with significant potential for ethnic, social and political strife.
Until the last couple of weeks the U.K.’s political class has been remarkably complacent about the referendum, partly because polls had showed a victory for the “No” vote and few had thought much about the possible consequences of secession.
It didn’t help that the commentary in the U.K. press has not been informed by a historical awareness of what happened in other countries when secession was threatened or territory was lost. The Brits seem unaware or to have forgotten that democratic countries like the United States and India have fought bloody wars to prevent secession, or that the loss of Alsace to Germany poisoned French society and politics for more than a generation.
Nor, for that matter, have they noticed that foreign countries, including Britain’s friends and allies, are baffled by the very idea that the U.K. would willingly allow itself to be dismembered.
But, arguably, the most important factor in the inappropriate calmness and inertia of the establishment has been its inability or unwillingness to talk about Britishness. The U.K.’s political class is so uncomfortable with overt expressions of patriotism, and so infected by the multiculturalist critique of British history as simply a narrative of racist, sexist, imperialist violence and exploitation, that it can neither promote nor fight for the union.
Even if a post-referendum secession process were to go as smoothly as that of Czechoslovakia (1918-1992), you can be sure Scotland’s separation from the rest of the U.K. would radically transform and weaken America’s most important military and political ally, perhaps to the point that it might give up its nuclear weapons, its key role in organizations like NATO, and its traditional advocacy of free trade. Such a diminished, demoralized U.K. would not be able, and perhaps not be willing to provide the essential diplomatic or military back-up that Washingon has long taken for granted.
As it is, deep cuts to Britain’s armed forces by the Cameron coalition have eroded the U.K.’s capacity and will to partner with the United States. That decline might become irreversible and permanent if the country is split in two. As for Scotland itself, given the past record of the Scottish National Party, it is likely to join the anti-American chorus at the U.N. and in other international organizations.
Moreover, a U.K. that has let Scotland go (together with its only nuclear submarine base at Faslane) and which could be confronted by more secessionist movements, might soon lose its place as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. No likely replacement—be it India, Brazil, or even Germany or Japan—can be counted on to be remotely as supportive of America’s strategic interests.