a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Two arguments on Scottish Independence, one for and one against

I was not personally affected by the vote for Scottish independence, but like many political junkies, I was very much interested. Though it wasn’t merely intellectual curiosity that drove me to follow it: the vote was a unique and precedential event on the stage of global politics that may well have implications beyond the Kingdom-that-is-for-now-still-United. Among my British friends, there was a split between those were tentatively relieved and those were tentatively disappointed that Scotland did not, in fact, secede yet all of them had a hard time deciding. I believe this is partly because we don’t have good frameworks to think through issues of boundaries and succession, as the old political ideologies (like imperialism and nationalism) are losing their grip. Liberalism and democracy are typically perceived to have no say on questions of boundaries and membership, and that’s a big problem for anyone who believes in individual rights and democracy. With this kind of motivation in mind, I’d like to briefly present two arguments, neither conclusive, that were not featured prominently in the debate about Scottish independence – one for, one against.

What reasons do people give for and against Scottish independence? To put it very crudely, the Yes argument was mostly nationalistic and the No argument commonly economic (which means it was about material welfare). Thus, the Yes people said that Scots are a nation and therefore deserve to have political independence – it is their right to control their own collective affairs. The No people said that an independent Scotland will either do worse than it is doing now or terribly bad, with all sorts of catastrophic scenarios flying around. Of course, the Yes people have responded by saying that independence would not have such dire consequences and may even have some economic benefits but their argument was still, for the most part, about national self-determination.

That brings me to one argument in favor of Yes. It seems important to have a living example of a nation achieving independence via a vote. It’s an historical opportunity to witness a nation gain statehood by ballots, not bullets and poke a hole in the generalization that independence is gained with blood and tears or not at all. Some political leaders worried that other national minorities looked to the vote with thoughts of their own national aspirations. If the vote succeeded, the thought went, such aspirations would be strengthened and that would lead to instability. But it seems to me that the opposite is true: such a peaceful campaign is a remarkable example of the potential of discursive and non-violent means for achieving political goals, which might encourage minorities to pursue similar non-violent means in the quest for their political autonomy. That wouldn’t be the cause of any ensuing instability, but a much better way of addressing the already existing tensions, which is a euphemism for the fact that many national minorities suffer discrimination, mistreatment and oppression. If you value democracy, you want to see it succeed where much blood has been shed before: in the struggle for political independence.

This leads us to the problem with the Yes argument. That the conversation has been couched mostly in nationalistic terms is, I believe, a source of concern. For various reasons I can’t enumerate here I am very skeptical about the idea of nationalism in general and about nationalism as a basis for political independence in particular. One troubling aspect of nationalism is that the idea that nations should have their own states and states should be nation-states forces people to choose. Why can’t someone be both Scottish and British? If nations are to have their own state, each state should have a clear nation. If there’s a nation that doesn’t have a state – either it should have its own state, or live as a minority in a state that isn’t its own.

More importantly, I think that there is a potentially better argument for the Yes campaign that wasn’t as prominent in this discussion. That is the democratic aspect: would a new independent state improve the Scottish people’s ability to affect the matters the concern their own lives? Some Yes people have made that argument, usually within the nationalistic framework: as a nation, the Scots will be in a position to manage their own life. But I’m not interested in the Scots as a nation, but in Scots (and the English, and all other affected parties) as individuals. Would it improve individuals’ democratic standings? Will they have more say in decisions that impact their lives? I’m not sure, and I haven’t heard many people make a persuasive argument either way. Some Yes people think that an independent Scotland would result in an improvement in democracy because there are differences in preferences, generally speaking, between the population of Scotland and the rest of the UK: Scots tend to support more social policies, such as governmental funding of education and healthcare than the policies of the UK government. Therefore, an independent Scotland would reflect better the preferences of most Scots while the remaining citizens of the UK would have policies that reflect their preferences.

This might be true. However, there are various other issues that complicate the story. Will an independent government in Scotland be sufficiently strong to have its own policies in the face of pressures from international markets and a strong neighbor? For example, if the now independent Scotland attempts to regulate labour standards more rigorously will they be able to enforce it given the competition with their southern neighbors or will they have to end up complying with the standards of the Westminster government only that now it’ll be a much more conservative government in which they will have no say?

These are empirical questions that are hard to answer, but to my knowledge they have not been the focus of empirical study in recent years. Partly, that’s because the kind of democratic considerations I’m raising here have not been prevalent in discussion on boundaries and succession, though I think they should be.


In defence of a constitution for the UK


Are we socially (and not just legally) obligated to presume innocence?


  1. Tomer, thanks for the interesting post. Something on which I am interested to ask you here is how you think your second argument – on policies tracking people’s preferences – would address intra-country regional variations. For example, one major concern in the north east of England, which has generally left-wing leanings, has been that Scottish independence would result in rUK politics moving further away from their interests, because the rUK government would lose the sizeable number of left-wing votes from Scotland. In this vein, I wondered whether you perceive any worry that, rather than improving the preference-policy correlation in the different places, it may, instead, have improved this correlation only in some areas whilst making it worse in others? And, if so, how should someone who values this correlation think about balancing the two divergent trends?

  2. Tomer, thanks for this great post! In a similar vein as Andrew, I wanted to ask you about the argument about self-determination. In a sense, what you write might be taken to suggest that the smaller the political units, the better, because the more weight an individual's vote has. But there is a countervailing force: the smaller the political units – in an interconnected world – the greater the degree to which its fate depends on outside forces (as you suggest in your second-to-last paragraph). So as a Scottish voter in an independent Scotland, my government may represent my position more closely, but there may be less things about which my government can decide.
    If we assume that there is such a trade-off, one of the follow-up questions becomes: who decides about where to draw the line? Some individuals may be more interested in having their views represented, others may care more about certain elements of policy-making being under the government's control. There are probably also kinds of interest which justify stronger claims for one side or the other, for example if vital needs are concerned. How do you think such decisions should be taken (in an ideal world, and maybe also with regard to Scotland)?

  3. Lisa and Andrew – thanks for your comments. I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear, given that the questions seem to assume that I think the second argument pulls us in the direction of an independent Scotland. Given that the title and the fact the first one is explicitly noted to be a tentative argument for No, I thought it was clear that I'm skeptical that an independent Scotland would be better on the democratic measure. I was just being careful about the extent to which I voiced those opinions since my knowledge of British politics is limited.

    So to clarify:
    1. I don't think that a smaller unit is preferable, all things considered. If I did, I wouldn't be working on a theory of global democracy…
    2. My goal in the last part was to bring up considerations that might suggest that becoming independent might not actually serve Scotland's self-determination, such as a strong neighbor with a much more conservative government.
    3. I think the best way to think about democracy is in terms of multiple levels nested within each other. which is why I am personally more excited about greater power for Scotland within the Union than an independent Scotland. Yet some people have expressed skepticism about the credibility of the promises of the Westminster government, suggesting that as soon as the threat of the referendum disappears – so will these promises. That seems like a valid concern to me.
    3. I don't think tracking preferences is the only, or even the best, measure of whether or not a government is best suited (from the perspective of procedural justice which I adopt) to rule a certain population. Yet this is something many empirical political scientists and economists focus on, and so that's what there is data on. And it's an important component – it's not a crazy measure.
    4. Lastly, both of you ask me how to balance counterveiling forces – a gain in democracy in one part against a loss in another, or the push and pull of smaller and bigger units. I don't have it all figured out, so I'd love to hear your thoughts but the main point here was to bring out the kind of considerations that would help make such a decision, which I thought weren't present in the discussion for the most part.

  4. Hi Tomer, thanks for those helpful clarifications. I guess one question that looms in the background of our discussion is a distinction between "what the best solution would be" and "what people have a right to do as self-determining groups". I agree that a nested model looks very attractive from a normative perspective. But what if a region that wants to break away from a country says: we don't care about what looks attractive from a normative perspective, we think that we have a right to break away from them! This may not be wise, but that does not defeat the right, if there is one.
    One way to respond to this is to say that you are going to derive what rights people have from the ideal theory, but I'm not quite sure it's always the same thing. Couldn't it be the case that sometimes a group has a right to secession even if they impose some moderate "cost" (in whatever currency) on others?

  5. I guess that depends on the cost and that it depends on what secession would mean. I'm not trying to be evasive, I really think that in some cases independence would be justified and the way other people are affected matters.
    I don't think that people have a right to secede 'no matter the costs' – self-determination has limits, particularly with the ability of others to be self-determining. So a lot hangs on that 'moderate' cost.

    I also resist the idea that we can clearly say who is the _we_ that wants to break away. Obviously this was a controversial matter in Scotland, there were lots of arguments about who belongs to the group of Scots (with much griping on the decision made in this referendum) and many people felt that despite the referendum, they were being disenfranchised. Democracy is a theory that tries to provide conditions under which it is legitimate to say 'we want to break apart from these people' and I don't think it's as simple as it seems.

    I ended up cutting out a part, but what was in it is a general discomfort with referendums (referenda?) – I think democracy is about participating in ongoing collective decisions and that one off popularity contests are not very good for that purpose. I think Scots have some pretty serious and valid concerns about their place in the union and I hope that they achieve more autonomy even though the result went No. Hopefully, that's possible.

    So yes, I think sometimes people have a right to secede even if it imposes costs on others. But independence is not a total concept, and I think we need to think of it not in terms of sovereign states, but in terms of nested societies. That's kind of how the European Union is structured anyway, and I hope the UK could be made more like that.

  6. I had similar thoughts to those of Lisa and Andrew, and so thanks a lot for the clarifications, Tomer.

    On 4: I'd like to make two points. First, if it were true that a gain in democracy in one part led to a loss of democracy in another, it strikes me as clear that this would provide us with *a* reason against pushing for advancements in democracy. (To this extent, I am very sympathetic to Andrew's point.) But, second, it seems also important to ask, Why does that burden fall more on some than others, if it does at all? That is, why should Scottish voters, rather than any other citizens, have to forgo such a large benefit for the sake of citizens in the north east of England? Perhaps there is an answer, but its certainly a question that ought to be taken seriously by advocates of the worry that Andrew describes in his comment.

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