The “No” outcome of the referendum asking Scotland’s voters the question “should Scotland be an independent country?” is a Pyrrhic victory for the United Kingdom
“Yes” netting 44.7% of the tally undermines a 300-year consensus and the devolution of substantial political power to Scotland is already conceded. Such a near-tie is far more problematic for an existing political system struggling to maintain its legitimacy than for a new one trying to find its feet. And the concerns raised in advance of the referendum persist.
With the burden of proof shifted onto them, the social-contract arguments for existing states were drawn out from the shadows of handwaving and dimly-remembered civics classes. This culminated in the astonishing rationale against Catalan independence expounded by Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo: “Each and every Spaniard is the owner of each and every square centimeter of the country.” The formation of the Scottish-English union via agreement of the Scottish parliament was frequently invoked as a source of its legitimacy three centuries later, underscoring how rarely modern political territories are not solely the result of conquest.
With much of the impetus of the “yes” side stemming from a desire to get nuclear weapons out of Scotland, even with the practicalities of operating a domestic conventional military unresolved, the textbook objection of “but what about defense?” was largely obviated. Naysayers even seriously presented the prospect of Scotland becoming the new Switzerland as if that were a bad thing.
Far more of the commentary was devoted to economic uncertainty in the case of independence. Critics such as Paul Krugman raised the valid point that since Scotland’s economy currently relies on the global financial system, with all its instability, political independence would have reduced its leeway to absorb the damage from wider economic crises to which it would have still been vulnerable.
The question split the economic elite, with British Petroleum predictably backing “no” and the more global sectors favoring “yes.” Meanwhile, ownership of the bulk of Scotland’s land itself remains with the elite, fully half in the hands of a mere 432 families. Ownership of individual estates has already been shifting away from old-money aristocratic families to a global pool of speculators.
The Scottish economy, with its diminishing oil and gas revenue, has been hit particularly hard by deindustrialization. But as post-industrial technology rapidly becomes the norm, an economic base is increasingly viable. Key services can be unbundled from geography; the referendum received much of its impetus from the effects of the most limited competition of Scotland being able to pick and choose between the UK and the EU. And full competition of currencies, for one, will go far beyond the choice between the pound and the euro. Decentralization to a point matching the level of the traditional Scottish clan system will no longer be a romanticized memory, but everyday reality.
The sun is setting on the imperial state.