While the world waits for the results of Scotland’s independence referendum, it has lately occurred to many Americans that we have not taken the affair as seriously as we should have. What many of us regarded as a joke as recently as last week has abruptly barged into the real world as a possibility. Here it is, a strange thing: the United Kingdom might well break up. Whatever the actual reasons for separation, real or pretended, it is a prospect that many Brits and Americans alike find vaguely ominous in light of a world that appears more unstable by the week.
Of course, we aren’t the only ones who regarded the Scottish referendum with a lack of seriousness. Britain’s ruling class seems only to have woken up to the potential dissolution of their polity last weekend. As Walter Russell Mead put it, “Not since Neville Chamberlain handed half of Europe to Hitler on a silver platter has the British political class seemed so blind or out of touch.”
At this point, no matter which way the vote goes, the question will not be settled any time soon. (As of this writing, the polls were closed but the votes had not all been counted.) Just as Quebec’s first referendum to secede from Canada in 1980 was followed by a second referendum 15 years later, and then a Canadian Supreme Court ruling, Scotland’s independence movement will not dissolve if the “no” vote prevails. The thing will fester in Britain, a sore spot for years and perhaps generations to come. It should at least prompt some long-overdue soul-searching among the Brits, and to some extent it already has, which is a good sign.
Frustrations with a Central Power
But Americans, too, should consider the gravity of what’s unfolding here. We don’t often reflect on how and why, exactly, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. Those words are for the most part just something we all know, to which we profess a kind of civic fealty. But now we see the Scots potentially about to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with Britain, and the words suddenly spring to life. Can Scotland secede? If Scotland, what about Catalonia? What about Kurdistan? What about Texas?
Indeed, what about any of our states? Herein lies a valuable lesson for Brits as well as us Americans. At a Tea Party rally in 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry seemingly, infamously, hinted at secession: “There’s a lot of different scenarios… We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot, to boot.”
Perry’s off-the-cuffs remarks weren’t really anything more than Perry trying, in his roundabout, blustering way, to make a point about the Tenth Amendment and how Americans were frustrated with Washington. The incident resurfaced when Perry announced his campaign for president, forcing him to clarify that, no, he does not actually support secession for Texas or any other state. After the election, it came up again when a Texas secession petition filed with the White House gained tens of thousands of signatures in a matter of days, prompting an official reply from the Obama administration. In response, Perry dutifully issued a statement saying he “believes in the greatness of our Union and nothing should be done to change it.”
The mainstream media used the affair to poke fun at Perry and deride the Tea Party. But facile joking aside, it’s worth thinking about why Perry and the vast majority of Americans would never really support secession—and why, though they call it by another name, the Scots should not secede.
Why Secession Is Impossible
The truth is, Texans could no more secede from the United States today than they could separate from each other, town-to-town and county-to-county. Texans, above all, are Americans. The features and attributes most often ascribed to Texas—limited government, low taxes, an entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit, stubborn independence, a sense of community and shared identity, even a tendency to talk big—are really attributes of the American character. That Texas embodies these things in an exaggerated way testifies to the Lone Star State’s American nature, not its departure from that nature. If Texans seem an alien people to the political and media establishment in Washington, it says much more about our insular elites than it does about Texas.
Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas and later the state’s governor, knew as well as anyone that to be a Texan was also, and first, to be an American. In 1860, as the Civil War loomed, Houston delivered a speech denouncing secession, challenging those who would call him a traitor: “Men who never endured the privation, the toil, the peril that I have for my country, call me a traitor because I am willing to yield obedience to the Constitution and the constituted authorities. Let them suffer what I have for this Union, and they will feel it entwining so closely around their hearts that it will be like snapping the cords of life to give it up.”
As for the matter of seceding just because Abraham Lincoln won the election, Houston avowed, “The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln, and if the battle is to be fought for the Constitution, let us fight it in the Union and for the sake of the Union.”
What Does a Nation Mean?
The question at the heart of the Scotland’s vote is not whether it can break away from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Of course it can. The question is whether it should. As many observers have pointed out, the arguments over policy, over how to apportion Britain’s decrepit welfare state or what to do about the common currency, don’t amount to much in the end. It’s really a question of how the Scots see themselves as a people and what sort of people they aspire to be, which strikes at the heart of what it means to be a nation. Scottish writer Alex Massie touched on this last week, making his case for a “no” vote on independence:
The other day the historian Tom Devine remarked that all the Union has going for it is sentiment, family and history. Like that’s not enough? Those aren’t wee things, they’re the things that make us who we are. The blood and guts, the bone and marrow of our lives. The tissue that connects us to our fellow citizens, the stuff that makes us more than an individual. The things from which you build a society. You can have that in Scotland, alone and independent, too of course. But we also have it in Britain, right now, and we will lose some of that if we vote Yes. Or some of us will, anyway.
The kind of break Scotland contemplates is for us Americans unthinkable. Our Civil War settled it: E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. Scotland and Britain, whose three centuries of union eclipse our own, will need to grapple with what family and history and blood and guts are worth to them in that bright future they hope to forge. In this, they would do well to lean on their past, which in many ways offers them the only prospect of a better future, though they might not know it yet. At the very least, the Scots should remember the words of their favorite son, the poet Robert Burns, who in 1795 put down in verse what an untidy and thorny thing it is to be a strong and united people:
Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang ourselves united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!
No! never but by British hands
Shall British wrangs be righted!