Scotland and Secession

Scotland votes for independence in a couple of days. I don’t have any particular dog in this race, or at least, not a big one. Some of my ancestors were Scottish. They came to the Americas before there was a United States to come to. I’ve never been there, and my travels and the years I spent living in Europe were confined to the continent, specifically in the East.

Yet Scotland poses an interesting conundrum, both in what it means for Scotland/the U.K., and what it means for everyone else.

First, the easy answer: everyone else. Slate recently ran a series of stories looking at various sides of What Scottish Independence Means elsewhere, including among other secessionist movements in Europe like the Catalonia-Spain rift and here in the U.S., where we’ve often had populist groups raise their handmade flags for a bit before sheepishly taking them down again once they realized no one was paying much attention.

In the U.S., secession happened once, and it led to the bloodiest conflict in our history. And as a cause for a movement, secession failed utterly. The Civil War did lead to the birth of a nation, but it was a nation in which the ideals of the Declaration and the laws of the Constitution would march in their slow but sure manner toward realization. Before South Carolina threw down the secessionist flag, the country was a hodgepodge of local jurisdictions that mostly did their own thing and ignored what everyone else was doing. After the war, the country was a hodgepodge of local jurisdictions that always had one eye looking over their shoulder to see if Washington wouldn’t object.

The Civil War created the United States as we knew it, and the United States it created was the one based on the Union. The South, the old Confederacy, was gone. Jefferson Davis is a name on statues and highways in a few states, and Robert E. Lee is probably  known mostly for his genteel surrender to Ulysses S. Grant than he is for any of his prewar or wartime deeds. Most other “Founding Fathers” of the Confederacy are known only to those who actively study the Confederacy. Which is to say: few people alive today.

Nonetheless, there’s still a bit of the old North-South schism that still lurks under the skin in isolated pockets. Confederate flags were commonplace when I was growing up in Maryland (part of the Confederacy in the war, but now more similar culturally to Massachusetts than nearby Virginia). The Stars and Bars were commonplace when I went to college in North Carolina in the 1980s. Even in the 21st Century someone still trots out that old banner every once in a while, yelling about Southern heritage and how the South will rise again, then screaming political correctness when it’s pointed out that it’s pretty racist to be doing that.

(I’d ask why it is that people who talk about Southern heritage don’t talk about anything other than victimization, or race, or Civil War-era grievances, or why it’s only white conservatives that ever bring it up. It’s not like the South never had any black people.)

But for all the ugliness of this barely-concealed racism among neo-Confederates, the Tea Partiers, even some pretty mainstream Republicans in the South (especially since the nation elected a black man president of the United States) these are really isolated incidents. Yes, there’s a lot of attempting to organize, and there are plenty of wealthy racists willing to make One Last Stand against the long list of things they believe to be Wrong with America that were not so wrong six years ago. The Republicans may even win the Senate this November. But it won’t be because they play the racist card or promote secession, it will be because people are fed up with the Democrats too.

For one thing, demographics have changed even more. As popular as Fox News’ perpetual rage machine is, its core demographic is old. They’re not gone yet, but they’re going. The strategy among southern conservatives seems to be more about gerrymandering the minority vote out of existence before pesky things like demographics put them out to pasture for good.

But for all that — covert and overt racism at the local and regional scale, discriminatory policies, pseudo-threats to secede from the United States and paens to a lost time when all was sun porches and lemonade and black people kept to the servants quarters out back — secession in the U.S. is really a non-starter.

Let’s assume for the moment that we’re not just talking about the South seceding as a whole. Let’s throw in the Vermont or Northwest liberals who want to carve out their own green republics. Let’s throw in the occasional fruitbat conspiracy nut like Cliven Bundy, who thinks he can squat on federal land and declare it his own and outside the law of the federal government that allowed him to use it in the first place.

Let’s talk about “secession.” Can it work here, for any reason?

No. Not really.

Because this nation was rebuilt in a new image after the Civil War, and went on to become an industrial powerhouse, emerging as a global superpower in the aftermath of World War II, we can’t go back. We’ve become very mobile. I myself, born into the middle class in the Mid-Atlantic, have lived in the South, in New England, and now in the Pacific Northwest (the latter decision a whim that’s turned into 15 years and something approximating “putting down roots”). Traveling across the country has never been easier (except they keep shrinking airline seats). Most of us know people from other parts of the country, and most of us, whether we are liberal or conservative, religious or not, find that we have a fair amount in common.

We in the Lower 48 are too American to really be secessionist any more. In the 1850s you could make an argument that there was a bigger difference, not just in the institution of slavery, but in fundamental character (the industrializing, mainline Protestant/Catholic North versus the agrarian, evangelical/fundamentalist South). That’s not the case for most people anymore, especially in southern cities, where the influx of capital, education and immigration has turned former backwaters into major metropolises with diverse populations: Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, Atlanta, Houston.

Economics are really a secondary driver of any secessionist movement. Even gung-ho secessionists in Texas (while Gov. Rick Perry’s comments were taken somewhat out of context, a northern governor would never even contemplate that kind of comment, because it’s part of the foundational myth of what makes Texas Texas) would sing a different tune the minute there was an oil bust.

No, secession is about national identity, and the vast majority of us are American first and something else a distant second when it comes to finding our place in the world.

Scottish actor James McAvoy said it best recently: people may be talking about economics in the Scotland vote, but it has to come from the heart. If you get a new country, it’s yours, for better or for worse, and there’s no turning back.

And you need to assume the worst: A crisis will hit the new country, because they always do. You will get an oil bust in Texas (or Scotland), or Cascadia will hit a wheat shortage, or Vermont’s currency will get debased by Wall Street hedge funds, or maybe a larger power will pick on the nascent Free Republic of Whatever. Will they go running back to the Stars and Stripes? Yes.

But if there’s an identity to replace that Americanness they jettisoned — and I don’t see much evidence of that here in the Lower 48 — that might drive the locals to persevere and see their new country through both good times and bad, that will determine if a secessionist movement will stick. Otherwise it’s just politics, and those winds shift every few years even when there isn’t a storm brewing.

The rules are different in Alaska and Hawaii. Alaska likes to talk its independence, but for many reasons (not least the Alaska Permanent Fund, which pays people just to live there) it receives more in federal funding than it pays in, so secession is hardly likely there, no matter what the provincial twits in the Palin clan say. Hawai’i, where people of Pacific/Asian extraction are in the majority, is another issue, but it is still a big recipient of federal money, and given Hawai’i’s remoteness and substantial tourist trade driving the state’s economy, the islands are likely to stay in the union for some time.

No, the only real secessionist movement of any significance in North America is the one where there is a significant barrier between regional and national governments, reinforced by different cultures and languages: Québec. As one Québécois friend remarked to me at one time, it’s not a matter of if Québec secedes, it’s when.

(And while the province’s motto, “Je me souviens”/”I remember,” may seem nationalist on the surface, the author’s original intent might have been to reinforce the notion of Québec as an integral part of a larger Canada: “Je me souviens/ Que né sous le lys/ Je croîs sous la rose.”/”I remember/ That born under the lily/ I grow under the rose.” For those unfamiliar with the symbolism, the lily is associated with France, the rose with England.)

So where does this leave Europe if Scotland goes independent? I don’t know. Its a tougher question that I’m comfortable not answering because I simply don’t have the knowledge of the various little movements all over the continent. Of the ones that might be significant, Catalonia has long wanted to break away from Spain, but Madrid is hardly likely to let them go, lest it give the Basques any ideas. Both Cataláns and Basques speak a language other than Spanish, which has helped build their sense of national identity as distinct from that of Spain as a whole. Both groups also suffered under the yoke of the fascist Franco regime from the time of the Spanish Civil War up until 1975, so it’s a little harder for Madrid to say “trust us” when that era is such a recent memory. And, like England, Spain also used to be a global superpower that saw its colonies break away one after another. (Really, someone ought to write a paper about countries suffering from National Post-Superpower Complex.)

Belgium may try to split into Flanders and Wallonia (its government hardly functions as it is, divided largely along the Flemish-French ethnic lines), but it’s hard to see how that will play out in the heart of the European Union.

The real question mark is would be back in the rump United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the latter of which, you may recall, has spent centuries in internecine warfare, with a not-insignificant population who would like nothing more than to break from England once and for all. Because if Scotland can be just let go, why not them as well?

But all these disputes (plus many smaller ones of much less significance) are all happening within the confines of the European Union. The Basque and Northern Ireland conflicts have been violent in the past, but have been largely calm lately. The worry in some quarters is that the Scotland vote, if it succeeds, will encourage a return to that era. “Some quarters” may just mean in the halls of power in London and Madrid, and those fears may not be borne out on the streets. Or maybe they will.

That, however, shouldn’t be a reason to prevent the Scottish from choosing their own destiny. The campaign has been largely sedate, with U.K. prime minister David Cameron’s plea to remain to be rather weak, when comedian John Oliver said Cameron needed to deliver a full-on Love, Actually-style romantic reunion speech. My only hope is that the Scottish thistle can thrive as much as the English rose, whether they’re in the same or separate gardens.


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