No Island Is an Island: Why I Hope that Scotland Stays in the United Kingdom

I will admit right up front that I don’t have a lot of skin in the game. I’m not Scottish, and my family has not been English for about 15 generations. And I believe that people have a right to control their own political destiny. I’m glad that they are having a vote. But when voters in Scotland go to the polls this Thursday, I really hope that they vote to stay in the United Kingdom. The world, I think, will be a better place if they do.

Sometimes, dissolution really is the only solution. But often it is simply an easy way to avoid the hard work of democracy.
Michael Austin
It’s not that I think that people should never separate themselves from a political state. The United States, and pretty much every other country in the Western Hemisphere, exist today only because, at some point, they declared, and in most cases fought for, independence from a European power. In the 20th century, much of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East did the same. And more often than not, the colonial power in question was England.

But that’s not what is happening here. Scotland is not an English colony. Nobody is forcing native populations into slavery or making them them buy finished goods from English factories. There is no taxation without representation. Scotland and England have been part of a unified political community—the United Kingdom—for more than 300 years.

This is not to say that they have always gotten along well. In any sizable political community (the United States for example) geographical and cultural differences often cause people to come to different conclusions about important issues. When these political divisions reach a critical mass, it is easy for people to see political disunion as the best solution.

Sometimes, dissolution really is the only solution. But often it is simply an easy way to avoid the hard work of democracy. For political communities to work, people who disagree with each other have to come to the table and work out major differences in their backgrounds, their life experiences, and their systems of values. This requires negotiation, compromise, balancing interests, winning some, losing some, and taking a few for the team.

It is a lot easier just to leave.

The problem, though, is that whatever new political group forms by the separation will soon face the same issues, the same disagreements, and the same temptations to dissolve the union. One of the most persistent fantasies of all human beings is that we would all be happier if we were surrounded by people just like us. But as it turns out, nobody is just like anybody else, and the practical endpoint of this fantasy is a world of seven billion sovereign states—every one of them solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This is precisely how C.S. Lewis describes hell in his masterful allegory, The Great Divorce. Lewis’s hell is a quiet—and infinitely expandable—neighborhood where everybody is free to do exactly as they please. But because the people of hell have always indulged the worst elements of human nature, they are incapable of living together. Everybody builds a grand house far away from anybody else.

I find Lewis’s argument here compelling. Hell is not an arena of externally imposed punishments. It is simply the eternal loneliness that we get when we take our natural human instincts—tribalism, selfishness, competitiveness, and anger—to their logical end. It is what we get when we keep walking away from the table.

I have no doubt that there are significant political differences between the majority of the people in Scotland and the majority of the people in England. But I hope they stay together anyway. Divisions of opinion are not a reason to dissolve a political union; they are the reasons that political unions exist. Human beings will always have different opinions; political communities give us ways to resolve those differences and govern ourselves anyway.