(I've been under the weather due to a chest bug picked up in Dublin, so haven't had time to write the lengthy article I promised a while ago. Here's it's truncated summary version. Please don't bring up the referendum debate in discussions under other blog posts, okay?)
"Should Scotland be an independent country?"
I have a postal vote. I already voted "yes".
For what is probably an unusual reason ...
Forget all the short term arguments advanced by both sides about what currency Scotland will use, about whether we'll be economically better or worse off, the nature of post-independence Scottish defense policy, whether we remain a monarchy or become a republic, what passport we'll carry, and so on. That stuff is all short-term and will be resolved within a generation.
No, seriously: 95% of the discussion in the referendum debates and on the street has been about short term issues that can be resolved one way or the other in the coming days and months (occasionally, months or single-digit years). There's a remarkable amount of FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—flying around. Many folks seem to think that if Scotland opts for independence on September 18th then on the 19th they'll be stripped of their existing British citizenship, armed border checkpoints will show up on the M76 and A1, and the Queen will be given the boot by the end of the month. (Needless to say, none of this is going to happen.)
In making my mind up, I looked at the long term prospects.
In the long term I favour a Europe—indeed, a world—of much smaller states. I don't just favour breaking up the UK; I favour breaking up the United States, India, and China. Break up the Westphalian system. We live today in a world dominated by two types of group entity; the nation-states with defined borders and treaty obligations that emerged after the end of the 30 Years War, and the transnational corporate entities which thrive atop the free trade framework provided by the treaty organizations binding those Westphalian states together.
I believe the Westphalian nation-state system isn't simply showing its age: it's creaking at the seams and teetering on the edge of catastrophic breakdown. The world today is far smaller than the world of 1648; the entire planet, in travel terms, is shrunk to the size of the English home counties. In 1648 to travel from the south of Scotland (from, say, Berwick-upon-Tweed, the debatable walled border city) to the far north-west would take, at a minimum, a couple of weeks by sea; to travel that distance by land was a harsh journey of hundreds of miles across mountains and bogs and through still-forested glens, on foot or horseback. Today it's a couple of noisy hours on board a turboprop airliner. Distance has collapsed under us. To some extent the definition of the Westphalian state as being able to control its own internal territory was a side-effect of distance: a foreign army couldn't rapidly and easily penetrate the inner lands of a state without fear of retaliation. (Tell that to the residents of the tribal provinces in Pakistan.)
Moreover, our nations today have not only undergone a strange geographical implosion since the 17th century: they have exploded in population terms. The population of the American Colonies in 1790 is estimated at roughly 2.7 million; the United States today has over 300 million inhabitants. In 1780 England and Wales had around 7.5 million inhabitants; they're now at 57 million. So we have a 1-2 order of magnitude increase in population and a 2-3 order of magnitude decrease in travel time ... and possibly a 3-5 order of magnitude decrease in communications latency.
Today we're seeing the fallout from this problem everywhere. Westphalian states can't, for the most part, control their own territory to the extent of keeping intruders out; just look at the ghastly situation in Ukraine right now. Non-state actors play an increasingly huge role in dictating our economic conditions. And it seems to me that something goes badly wrong with representative democracy in polities that grow beyond somewhere in the range 5-15 million people; direct accountability vanishes and we end up with what I've termed the beige dictatorship. Beige isn't the worst colour‐some of the non-beige contenders are distinctly alarming—but their popular appeal is a symptom of an institutional failure, a representational deficit: many voters feel so alienated by the beige that they'll vote for the brownshirts.
My feeling is that we'd be better served by a group of much smaller nations working in a loose confederation or treaty structure. Their job should be to handle local issues (yes, this is localism) while compartmentalizing failure modes: the failure modes of a gigantic imperial power are almost always far worse than those of a smaller nation (compare the disintegration of the Soviet Union with that of Czecheslovakia). Rather than large monolithic states run by people at the top who are so remote from their constituents that they set policy to please lobbyists rather than their electors, I'd prefer to see treaty organizations like NATO and the EU emerging at consensus after discussions among numerous smaller stakeholder entities, where representatives are actually accountable to their electors. (Call me a utopian, if you will.)
Yes, this is also an argument for Wales, the North of England, and London itself all becoming independent nations. But they aren't on the ballot. So Scottish independence is a starting point.
One final note: what about left-internationalism? Isn't nationalism the enemy of the working class? (And to the extent that all of us who aren't in the 0.1% are "working class"—if you have to work to earn a living, you're working class, even if you're a brain surgeon or an accountant—the enemy of all of us?) Well yes: but the kind of nationalism that brought us the Great European War (for the Second World War may best be viewed with the perspective of long-term history as simply a flare-up of the war that began in 1914, after the combatants time out to breed a new generation of cannon-fodder) is pretty much dead. As dead as the Westphalian states that had territorial integrity they could defend, because getting from one to the other still took days or weeks by railway or steam ship, and invading another from the one took days or weeks of marching infantry divisions. Nor is the working "class" still obviously an entity you can point at, with which people share a strong sense of solidarity: where is the solidarity between lawyer and street-sweeper, nursing home care worker and robot designer? Yes, capitalism and the crisis of capitalism is still with us: but the continuing and ongoing recomplication of the world around us makes the traditional movement of masses one of questionable relevance. We need better structures, it's true. But I don't see them emerging from the kind of monolithic, territorially hegemonic state that thinks its place in the world is best secured by building bigger aircraft carriers. Firepower doesn't build external stability, as the past decade in Iraq demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt. We need consensus, and we need a finer granularity of constitutional decision making. Hence smaller nation-states.