Opinion: A view of Scottish Independence from the Scottish DiasporaOn September 18, 2014, the Scottish people will vote on a referendum asking whether Scotland should be an independent country. Across the pond over in the United States, many descendants of the Scottish diaspora are following the vote with a mixture of curiosity, and support. Many of the Scottish diaspora settled into the southern U.S. states and as a result, our cultural personality shares many traits with our U.K. cousins. We are also following this independence movement with an eye towards our own past. Here in Georgia, we are in the middle of observing the Sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War.
I had the pleasure of visiting Scotland in mid-April of this year. It was my first visit and I made sure to see as much of the country as I could cram into a ten-day vacation. Although my vacation began and ended in Edinburgh, with thanks to friends who loaned their flat, I also traveled across the central Highlands and explored the Isle of Skye. I engaged in informal conversations with many of the Scots I encountered.
It was apparent in every museum, castle, and monument I visited that the Scots are extremely proud of their history and they took great pains to make sure you understood there was an extensive monarchical lineage before the Brits ever showed up. They didn’t gloss over the extensive militaristic intrusion into their daily lives, whether it was Viking raids, Roman expansion, or British invasion. It was also obvious that family life was close-knit by necessity, whether it was aligning clans for protection from invasions (including other clans), or just struggling to eke out an existence in the harsh climate and isolated, rugged landscape. The resulting portrait is of a people who have had to always look to themselves first for basic survival. Independence and self-reliance are crucial, outsiders are not always friendly and life is harsh.
This fierce independence and self-reliance carried over to the southern United States. Like much of Scotland, the Southeast is rural, primarily agrarian, and the weather can be brutal. Historically and currently, we do not produced many industrial, manufactured goods, much like modern-day Scotland. In the mid-1800’s, everything was either imported from outside of the southeast–from other states, or Europe, or produced locally by a decentralized slave economy. The result was that the Scottish descendants in the southeast perpetuated the same insistence on autonomy and self-rule.
Scotland, like the Southeast, dislikes its distant government. The main gripe is that the liberal policies favored by the Scots are outweighed by the more conservative views across the rest of the U.K. During the 1800’s the Southeast held views that different from a significant portion of the country and –most importantly–from that of a far-off government. In the 1800’s our issues centered on slavery, access to industrial manufacturing, the right for more self-determination (aka “States’ Rights”), and other concerns. The Southeast, much like Scotland, felt out of step and really just wanted to manage its own affairs free from the influence of a distant governing force.
For the Scots, 300 years of British rule, is just a drop in the bucket of their history. In their hearts lives an independent country that was cut down in its prime, snuffed out and consumed just as the world began to change and modernize. They’re tired of being the butt of bad jokes about their kilts and bagpipes. They feel like Rodney Dangerfield, collectively unable to get any respect.
Here in the South, our culture, speech patterns, and way of life are still the butt of pop-culture ridicule. Our drawl carries hints of a Scottish brogue; our bluegrass music has Highlands melodic influence. Culturally, religiously and politically many areas still feel out of touch with the rest of the country. (As a liberal voter in a conservative state, I can especially appreciate this.) In light of our similarities, I cannot help but reflect on where we have–and haven’t– gone since our own push for independence 150 years ago. While the Scottish effort is peaceful, I can’t help but feel that the world has significantly changed and that the emphasis on independence isn’t quite what it used to be.
There is still a sense, in some Southerners, of bitterness at the outcome of the Civil War. It is very complicated–for some, it focuses on the pains of wartime loss and Reconstruction. I will stress, however, that it goes past our historic racism–the majority of us would be quick to agree that slavery was a heinous institution and acknowledge deep regret at its affiliation with our history. What still lingers is a persistent individualist, separatist, mistrustful mentality that, in my opinion, holds us back. We refuse to see ourselves as part of a greater whole, like organs or limbs on a body, each contributing its own talents to a larger person. Rather than working together to assist one another, we insist on keeping our local government control in every issue. The downside is that there are numerous occasions where a larger, more regional mentality would serve us far better. In Atlanta, transportation policies are one example. Nationally, health care and public assistance programs are another. The fact is that the failure of our country to see itself as one entity holds us back, as a nation first, but also the entire southeastern region.
Scotland, here is my advice to you. The “Yes” party has had over two years to map out a plan for how the country will support itself and the best they can do is the North Sea oil reserves. That’s great, but have y’all heard of Peak Oil? Eventually, natural resources will run out. Sure, you can build factories, expand small farms into giant agribusinesses, establish tech hubs, but I have to ask you–at what cost? One of the things that most struck me about Scotland when I visited was its remote, rugged, natural beauty. Scotland, you have a very special place. By remaining in the union, you have the opportunity to maintain this special landscape and unique lifestyle, while enjoying access to modern amenities produced elsewhere. You already have the freedom that you seek–with the benefit that someone else still “has your back” , supporting you. It’s rare that I quote Queen Elizabeth, but I believe that she spoke wisely when she advised voters to “Think very carefully” about the future.