In retreat: Scottish independence and nation-states

This Thursday, Scotland will vote to secede from the United Kingdom. Should the vote pass, Scotland will become an independent country, a goal some Scots claim to be the culmination of literally centuries of fighting. (See: the Jacobite Rising of 1745) Much talk has dwelt on whether or not the nation could survive on its own. The pro-independence camp declares that independence means freedom from London’s strict economic oversight. The pro-union camp warns about Scotland’s over-reliance on oil. Scotland may well have a legitimate claim for independence. But let’s put those questions aside for a minute and instead of asking, “Does Scotland need independence?” ask “Does the world need another new country?”

By “new country” I mean nation-state. Let me explain. Say a group of people has some combination of a common culture, territory, religion, language, and ethnicity. This group wants to be recognized as a country. We call that desire the desire for self-determination. Until this group becomes a country, it’s a nation. Hence, a nation that becomes a country is a nation-state. Scotland is one such nation. It wants the right to self-determination, and self-determination is considered a just principle almost world-over. It is, for example, a right enshrined by the United Nations Charter.

So what’s the trouble with another new country? This: Each time a small country splinters off from a larger one, we witness the failure of multiculturalism. Somewhere, some minority group—a nation—has decided that it is incapable of living together with a larger different group of people. For better or worse, it has forsaken the path of compromise and fled. No longer a minority in the UK, Scotland would be free to embrace its national identity in full—except for when its own minorities start feeling neglected. See the problem? The idea of the nation-state, composed of a single cultural entity, belongs to the early 20th century. Its time has come and gone. Today, we live in an increasingly globalized world where it’s simply not feasible to give every aggrieved nation a state of its own. We must learn to live together. Our alternative is Balkanization, the breaking up of the world—in Europe, in Africa, in the US, everywhere—into ever smaller, ever more insular units. But we have neither the time nor the resources to go down this road.

I should be clear, however, that I do not mean self-determination is a bankrupt concept. Some nations really are tyrannized by their own governments. Some really do face irreconcilable conflicts from within. It is easy to sympathize with these peoples. But it is hard to draw the line between who does and does not deserve statehood. What can be said at the very least, I think, is that some groups cannot do without their own sovereignty. Now think of Scotland. Scotland is part of one of the wealthiest, most democratic, and most open societies in the world. If multiculturalism cannot sustain itself in the United Kingdom, what are its prospects elsewhere? The problem is that the phrase “self-determination,” is today invoked too lightly with little regard for its consequences. Declaring independence should be a last resort, what happens when years of failed diplomacy and internal crisis leave policymakers no other choice. It cannot be an easy option just because it makes for an easy movement. Multiculturalism is not a growing patchwork of clan-states competing for a diminishing quantity of resources. It is the creaking sound of our complex modern states moving slowly but surely to consider and accommodate all of their citizens, no matter the cultural background.