Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

When to call it quits


Today is the day of the Scottish referendum. As I’ve commented before, I don’t really have a personal opinion about the question, though I think Scottish independence would probably make my life marginally worse. (To the extent that I have a coherent political view of the situation, it is mostly concurrent with that expressed with some eloquence by Charles Stross. I’d much prefer to see a federal UK. I guess that’s what happens when you let aliens with their strange ideas infiltrate the nation.)

The only sense in which I think I have relevant expertise is with regard to the way people are talking about risk. The whole thrust of the No campaign has been to conjure up dangers, known and unforeseeable, of Scottish independence. I think they’re probably right — in particular, I think the economists are right that Scots are being misled by those who claim that they can successfully keep the British pound as their currency. On the other hand, there are also risks of staying part of the UK. In particular, the risk of being taken out of the EU by an English public that is increasingly insular in its outlook (inlook?) Since everyone’s fond of divorce metaphors, we might see Scotland as a woman whose jealous husband is trying to force her to move with him away from her friends and family. There is a long tradition of Scotland using relations with the Continent as a balance against England. It’s not so much a question of whether Scotland wants to be part of a bigger nation or go it alone; it’s a question of whether Scotland wishes to confederate with England or with Europe. And despite a reasonably successful 307 year run with England the choice for the future is not so obvious.

And that raises what I think is the most irksome twist of the No campaign’s logic: The question of timing. If you protest early against a new arrangement, you can be told, “You haven’t given it enough of a chance”. But if you wait too long, you can be told it’s really been settled by custom and tradition. (To be fair, “you haven’t given it enough of a chance” wasn’t really the argument against the 18th century Scottish rebels, who tended to find English muskets doing the persuading.) Surely it’s reasonable to reconsider these sorts of arrangements after 300 years or so. England offered Scotland the opportunity to be a co-coloniser rather than a colony, and it accepted. Now that the imperial dream is not just dead but despised, isn’t it reasonable to ask a new generation whether the union is still meeting their needs?

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