Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland?


Photo: Scottish Government.

On the face of things, the positions taken by the Yes and No camps in the referendum campaign would seem to be diametrically opposed. Yes argue that an independent Scotland would be better off: it would be richer, stronger, greener and fairer, resembling Norway or Sweden as much as the UK. No argue that an independent Scotland would be worse off: it would be poorer, jobs would head south and it would lose, along with its EU membership, the disproportionately large influence it has internationally by being part of the UK. Yet despite the appearance of opposition there is something that Yes and No have in common, which is that both are offering answers to the same question: what is best for Scotland?

But why think that “what is best for Scotland?” is the relevant question to ask? Here’s a strikingly different approach we could take. We could ask, “What is best for everyone in the world, no matter where they live?” Asking this question would force us to think beyond Scotland’s borders and take into account the interests of all those upon whom the referendum will have an effect. Clearly, the outsiders who will be most affected are those living in the rest of the UK. In the event of a Yes victory, politics within the rest of the UK is set for a shake up.

Currently, Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster, only one of whom is Conservative. So Scottish independence is likely to shift UK politics rightwards. This rightward shift is unlikely to take the form that people sometimes imagine: endless Tory majorities. Rather Labour and the Liberal Democrats will themselves shift rightwards in search of the new median voter and the UK will end up striking an even closer resemblance to the US than it currently does.

All this should be good news if you are on the right. Scottish right-wing internationalists (if there are such people) have good reason to vote yes. But for those on the left, it should be deeply concerning. If the left is correct in thinking that right-wing policies worsen social injustice, then Scottish independence is likely to worsen social injustice in the rest of the UK. Given that the UK has many times the population of Scotland and given the plausibility of the principle that it is always better to save the greater number from harm, it would seem that left-wing internationalists in Scotland have a reason to vote no. And they may still have reason to vote no even if, as the Yes camp claim, Scotland would be richer, stronger, greener and fairer. From an internationalist perspective, turning Scotland into a Scandinavian paradise, even if that were possible, may not be worth the misery created south of the border.

There is a global dimension to all this as well. The Yes camp likes to argue that an independent Scotland will play a positive role in the rest of the world, but clearly it will not be a major international actor. The rest of the UK, on the other hand, will retain much of its current influence. If Scottish independence generates a rightward shift in UK politics, then this will affect the rest of world to the extent that UK foreign policy affects the rest of the world. Again, the right should welcome the shift, but the left should be troubled. A UK without Scotland might be even more likely to support US-led wars, even more reluctant to take action on climate change, even more restrictive of immigration, even more hostile to EU efforts on consumer and worker rights, even more eager to back neo-liberal economic policies overseas.

UK election map

The UK 2010 election results. Without Scotland, the Conservatives would currently have a majority in the UK parliament.

One thing that left-wing Yes supporters tell me, when I raise these issues, is that an independent Scotland will have a positive influence by providing a left-leaning role model for others to follow. Whether Scotland will really be all that left-leaning is questionable. Surveys of political values reveal that Scotland is not actually that different to the rest of UK. The problem the Conservatives have in Scotland might not be due so much to their right-wing policies as the perception that they are simply too English. If that is the case, one could imagine, post-independence, the emergence of a successful Scottish right-wing party, sawn of the Tory label and all its baggage and capable of attracting votes.

But even if we accept the idea that an independent Scotland would be some kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy, the role-model argument seems far-fetched. After all, if the rest of the world wanted a Scandinavian role model to inspire it, it already has one: Scandinavia. What need has it of a Scottish imitation? Moreover, no one should underestimate the capacity of large countries to ignore the affairs of smaller neighbours. The UK’s ignorance of the politics in the Republic of Ireland is rivalled only by the US’s ignorance of Canada.

Some may doubt that Scottish independence would really produce a noticeable shift in UK politics. They might point to the fact that Scotland has only been decisive in three British elections in the last fifty years: 1964, 1974 and, the last one, 2010 (without Scotland, the Tories would now have a majority). But there are two things to be said about that claim. First, the fact that Scotland has been decisive in three British elections in the last fifty years actually seems pretty significant. That is three out of thirteen elections; almost one in four. Second, one only knows whether Scotland is decisive or not after an election. Going into an election, party strategists must plan for all possibilities. One distinct possibility, in a UK election post-Scottish independence, is that those missing Scottish votes will make all the difference. Given that possibility, Labour and Liberal Democrats are likely to play it safe and shift right-wards. The idea that party strategists will simply ignore the loss of dozens of safe seats and plough on as before, is extremely hard to believe.

Now to some, all of these considerations are utterly beside the point because they will reject the internationalist approach from the outset. For them, the question “what is best for Scotland?” is the pervasive question in the public debate for a good reason: it is the relevant question. The idea that Scottish residents should countenance voting either yes or no for the sake outsiders, while anticipating harm to Scottish livelihoods, will seem preposterous, even treacherous. Scotland, like any other country, can legitimately put itself first when deciding its own affairs.

I certainly accept that the internationalist approach goes against current orthodoxy, but I want to question whether that orthodoxy is defensible. For the question remains: what can justify the view that Scots should show greater concern for other Scots than for outsiders? Every one is human. Why worry about some human beings more than others, simply on the grounds of their geographical location?

That question is rarely raised in everyday politics, but it as a question that nationalist political theorists have sought to answer. One of their most powerful arguments rests on an analogy between nations and families. People are often entitled to do things for their fellow family members that they need not do for strangers. If your mother is in hospital, it is okay to visit her; you do not have to visit other patients as well. If your sister is part of a group trapped in a burning building, it is okay to try to rescue her first, ahead of rescuing the others. If you want to read a bedtime story to your child, you can do so without incurring the obligation to read to every child. Families are often entitled to put their fellow family members first.


Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has described nationalism as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”. Photo: Scottish Labour Party.

Perhaps nations are like families. Nations, like families, offer people a sense of connection with others and a source of their identity. Just as people feel proud or ashamed of their families, people can also feel proud or ashamed of their nation. Families matter to people. Nations matter to people. If nations are like families and family members can put other family members first, then maybe nationals can put other nationals first too.

Not everyone buys this analogy, however. One thing that seems to be special about families is that they are (usually) a site of love and intimacy. And this helps to explain why family members can prioritise other family members. For it is hard to see how we could sustain relationships of love and intimacy if we did not put those we love and are intimate with ahead of others. By visiting your mother in hospital, you express your love for your mother. In reading to your child, you experience intimacy with your child. No such argument from love and intimacy can be made in the case of nationals. The vast majority of our fellow nationals are strangers we will never meet. A person who refuses to award her fellow nationals priority status does not thereby miss out on a loving, intimate relationship.

Anti-nationalists, moreover, have their own analogies. Clearly there are cases in which it is unjust to award one group of people priority status on the basis of a morally arbitrary characteristic. Racism, sexism and sectarianism are wrong. What makes nationalism any different?

The left, which often prides itself on its opposition to arbitrary discrimination, has had an uneasy relationship with nationalism. This is true as much in Scotland as elsewhere. Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has described nationalism as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”. Strong words. But if nationalism is to be rejected and internationalism embraced, then the Scottish Labour Party, along with the others involved in the debate, should be prepared to say things like, “even if this is bad for Scotland, it is worth doing because of the benefits for outsiders”.

This article has so far suggested that right-wing internationalists have reason to vote yes and left-wing internationalists reason to vote no. But let me end here by saying a little to redress the balance. One important international implication of a Yes victory would be that Scotland would seek to remove British nuclear weapons from the Faslane naval base. No doubt, the UK would do all it could to keep its nukes in Scotland and, in the event that it had to move them, it would search hard for an alternative location. But it is at least conceivable that Scottish independence, coupled with a revived anti-nuclear movement in the rest of the UK, could lead the UK to scrap its weapons altogether. Whether that possibility lends one reason to vote one way or the other depends on how one feels about nuclear weapons.

Moreover, once one adopts the internationalist approach, some of the No camp arguments lose their force. If Scotland is no longer part of a country whose influence is disproportionate to its population size, then that may actually be a good thing. From an internationalist (and democratic) perspective, the UK’s disproportionate influence is unfair – a product of colonialism and power politics. The UK does not deserve its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for instance. If the UK lost it after a Scottish exit, as some warn it might, that should be welcomed, especially if it led to a shake up in which poorer countries assumed more influence. Even the jobs argument looks different from an internationalist point of view. If jobs really would head south post-independence, then that would be bad for Scottish people made unemployed, but it would be good for the English people who get a job as a result and that benefit also needs to be taken into account.


An independent Scotland would seek the removal of British nuclear submarines from their base at Faslane – an act that could have international ramifications. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence.

Finally, and most importantly, while the internationalist approach takes seriously the impact of the referendum on the rest of the world, it does not ignore the impact on Scotland. Since it is in Scotland that the strongest impact will be felt, an internationalist would be willing to vote against the interests of outsiders, as long as the benefits for Scotland are sufficiently great. Perhaps an independent Scotland really will be the successful, progressive country that the Yes camp promises and perhaps, as things turn out, the shift rightwards in the rest of the UK will only be slight. If so, a left-wing Scottish internationalist should vote yes after all. This article has proposed an internationalist approach to deciding how to vote, but it has not claimed that that internationalist approach yields any easy conclusions. On the contrary, the internationalist approach complicates matters further by bringing a range of new considerations to light – considerations that are all too often ignored in the public debate.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy