Scottish Autonomy and the Problem of National Sovereignty

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) sign an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

Earlier this week, the British and Scottish governments reached an historic agreement that would see Scotland hold a referendum asking voters to decide whether Scotland would become an independent country or remain as part of the United Kingdom. Numerous issues are at stake, not least of which is control of the estimated 20 billion barrels of oil and natural gas located under the North Sea.

There is good reason to think that British Prime Minister David Cameron is making a strong political move. While the Scottish National Party has polled well in recent elections, the idea of Scottish independence is much less popular than the party which supports it. A recent poll found that only 34 percent of Scottish voters supported independence, while more than half believed Scotland’s economy would suffer if it declared independence.

What's Braveheart got to do with it?

What’s Braveheart got to do with it?

The referendum will take place in 2014, coinciding with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots, under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, famously defeated English forces led by King Edward II. Interestingly, the strongest level of support appears to come from those Scots who came of age in the mid-1990s, when the film Braveheart popularized the Scottish struggle.

The move towards a referendum on Scottish independence raises one of the classic challenges of global politics: the problem of national sovereignty. The idea of national sovereignty links the concepts of state (the physical territory) and nation (the people who inhabit that territory and share a common sense of belonging). Within a country, the idea of legitimacy links the people and the state through the concept of sovereignty. The right of the state to exercise power, according to political thought since the Enlightenment, is rooted in the social contract. Since the end of World War II, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, the legitimacy of nondemocratic states has been strongly questioned.

The problem, of course, is at what level such popular consent takes place. The historical patterns of development has resulted in international legal boundaries between states which rarely correlate neatly with the common identity of those who inhabit those states. Indeed, it is relatively rare for the geographic boundaries of the political entity of the state and the cultural/ethnic entity of the nation to correlate much at all. Yet the tidy nation-state represents the ideal type of international relations.

Far more common are multinational states, countries in which multiple nations often compete for control of the state. Nigeria is perhaps the most well-known example. There, more than 250 ethnic groups—the three largest of which comprise about two-thirds of the population—compete for power. One of the most important legacies of colonialism in Africa was the creation of lasting political boundaries that bare little correlation to the politics on the ground, often undermining the sovereignty and legitimacy of the post-colonial state.

The status of the United Kingdom is similarly complicated by its history. There, four distinct “countries” are united. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland exist as “countries within a country.” Over the past twenty years, political authority has increasingly devolved from the unitary state. Political power has been decentralized away from London and towards regional governments. Independence in Scotland would represent a dramatic culmination of that (admittedly much slower) historical trend.

And other groups might be watching. Around the world, there are countless groups who identify themselves as stateless nations. The Palestinians are perhaps the most well-known, but others include the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Uighurs in China, the Hmong in Southeast Asia, and the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey

What do you think: Should Scotland declare independence? What would the political, economic, and social implications of such a move likely be? And how would Scottish independence affect the claims of other nationalist groups seeking independence, such as the Basques, Tamils, or Kurds? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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