Secession here and across the pond
Scottish voters next Thursday will decide whether Scotland remains within the United Kingdom or becomes a separate, independent nation.
Scotland and England have shared the same monarch since 1603, when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England following the death of his aunt, English Queen Elizabeth I.
The two nations joined into a united kingdom in 1707, and have never been separated since.
But next Thursday’s vote is too close to call. The most recent polls in Scotland have the “no” supporters (who favor the present arrangement) and the “yes” supporters (who favor secession) nearly equally divided.
The Scottish situation is different in several ways from secession proposals — past and present — in the United States.
One of the most important differences is that the Scottish referendum will take place with the permission of the English government. In 2012, in the U.K., Parliament agreed to allow a binding referendum in Scotland on independence.
The United States government has never granted any state or group of states that authority, in fact declaring secession to be illegal in this country. We fought a war over it.
Another difference — one tinged with a little irony — is that the United Kingdom operates without a written constitution.
Parliament governs that nation through the traditions of common law, and alters or overrides them when it pleases. Granting Scotland the right to decide its own future was a logical extension of the decisions of Parliament decades ago that gave independence to British colonies in Africa and elsewhere.
In the United States, on the other hand, where we have a written constitution that delineates the powers of the federal government, authored by representatives of the various states in 1787, we have always maintained that the states can never leave the union. Once in, always in.
Only a constitutional amendment could grant the states the right of secession. Congress, unlike Parliament, has no power to allow a state to vote for independence.
A third difference is that the support in Scotland for independence comes from Scots who think current British policies are too conservative, dating back to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The “yes” voters in Scotland favor a more progressive direction.
But in the United States, the recent calls for secession by some residents of Texas and Alaska, for example, are based on their belief that the U.S. federal government is too liberal. They desire to “free up” their states to chart a course more aligned with some of the more extreme Tea Party platforms.
Britain holds some trump cards that are giving some Scottish voters pause.
The British pound is one of those.
The British government says that an independent Scotland will not be able to retain the British pound as the common currency of the two nations, and will have to select another one. That poses major problems for economies as closely bound together as those of England and Scotland.
Defense would be another headache: would Scotland have to rely on its own army and navy, staffed solely by Scots? How would Scots and Brits in the current U.K. defense forces be sorted out, and how would the ships, planes, tanks, etc., be divided?
Modern-day secessionists in the United States would face similar challenges for their “free” states.
Could Alaska’s population successfully defend itself? Could Texas, by itself with no help from the federal government, solve its own education, health and poverty problems?
An independent Scotland could maybe thrive. A state that leaves the United States would have less chance.