Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Libertarian Perspective on the Scottish Independence Referendum, Part 2: The Case For, and Against, Scottish Independence,” By William Batchelder

Photo by William Batchelder

This essay (and Part 1) were authored by William Batchelder.

In part one of this series, I argued that the composition of the “Yes” and “No” campaigns – and indeed the proclivities of the Scottish electorate – pretty well guarantee that the debate over the Scottish Referendum will continue to take the form of an internecine struggle within the Scottish left. In recent days, this struggle has crescendoed. Two very popular figures from the Labour Party have come out swinging against independence. Elizabeth Smith, the widow of the late Labour Party leader John Smith (an almost universally venerated figure on the Scottish left), has urged Labour supporters to vote no.[1] Former trades union organizer and Labour Party politician John Reid launched a scorching attack on the Scottish National Party’s left-wing bona fides in the Daily Record, writing: “When the Labour Government of the 1940s was establishing the Welfare state, the nationalists were campaigning for Separation. When the Labour Government of the 1960s was expanding educational opportunity for working class boys and girls, the nationalists were campaigning on Separatism. When the Labour Government of the 1970’s was introducing the Race Relations Act, the nationalists preferred Separatism…”[2]


The First Televised Debate

I was in Scotland for the first debate on August 5th, so I did what any visitor to Edinburgh would do at such an historic moment – I emailed the local branch of the Scottish National Party to find out where independence supporters would be gathering. My friend Andrew and I were graciously received at a get-together of (mostly) senior citizens, most of whom were independence supporters. There was tea. There were biscuits. I had the privilege of meeting a member of the Edinburgh City Council and the great pleasure of watching the debate in good company.

While it is impossible within the scope of one article to consider all the arguments made by the two campaigns, a close consideration of the first televised independence debate should allow us to summarize fairly many of the most important issues. In the August 5th debate, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, the head of the Scottish National Party, represented the “Yes” Campaign. The one-time Labour party Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling of “Better Together,” defended the “No Thanks” position.


Prosperity and Social Justice

The first televised debate had the character of two men of the left arguing over means, because they had no real difference of opinion over the proper ends of government. This is reflected in the very questions that moderator Bernard Ponsonby asked both men. Early in the debate, Ponsonby asked Alistair Darling why he thought the union was the best way to “build economic prosperity in order to deliver social justice.”

This strikes me as a most tendentious question – I shall return to it below – but Darling accepted the assumptions implicit in Mr. Ponsonby’s question and delivered a prudential response. He argued that the larger size of the economy of the United Kingdom could be more reliably counted upon to fund these (uncontroversial) ends. Later in the debate, Ponsonby asked Darling if it was too risky for elderly Scots to stay in the union because Scottish pensions are, at the moment, insufficiently generous. Darling answered: “I too want to build a fair and just society; it is far better to do that when you have a stronger and bigger economy that you can build upon and make sure that you are treating older people fairly.”

Alex Salmond argued that goal of independence was to secure “a prosperous economy but also a just society in Scotland.” Salmond began to make his case for leaving the United Kingdom with an implicit attack on what he clearly believes to be the Westminster government’s neglect of the poor: “Within ten miles of where I am standing in Glasgow, there are thirty-five food banks in this city and its surroundings. How is it in this prosperous country of Scotland we have thousands… of families with children reliant on food banks?” At the end of the debate, one of the political commentators in the “spin room” observed that Darling and Salmond were “…two social democrats, or rather democratic socialists… with what they said over there you couldn’t put a fine paper between them, really, in terms of their aspiration for a prosperous economy and a fair society.”


Oil and the Scottish Economy

It is not entirely fair to say that “you couldn’t put a fine paper between them” on the subject of the economy. Perhaps the central question in this campaign has been how Scotland might manage, economically, as an independent nation. In the first debate, Salmond repeated the argument the SNP has long made: North Sea oil rightfully belongs to the Scots, and this windfall can be counted upon to help underwrite a more generous Scottish welfare state. Salmond also argued that the profits from North Sea oil could provide for the future in the form of an “oil fund” such as Norway began in the 1980’s with the proceeds of her offshore oil.

Some of the more intense clashes in the debate concerned North Sea oil. Darling argued that Scots could not count on oil to sustain them as an independent country because the North Sea oil fields are “volatile” and “in long-term decline.” Salmond responded with exasperation, arguing: “There are 90 countries with oil in the world, every single one of them thinks it’s a blessing, where you seem to think it is a curse! You know having oil hasn’t done Norway any harm.” Later in the debate, Salmond sought to refute Darling’s assertion that the North Sea oil supply is too volatile to be counted upon by again invoking Norway: “Its not been a great problem for Norway, they’ve managed to find a way to use their oil resources to the benefit of their people, and so should Scotland.”

This vision of Scandinavian social democracy looms large in the imagination of SNP activists. One of my hosts at the debate-watching gathering shared his political journey with me. He had worked in Norway. While he lived there, my host was so sincerely moved by his experience of Norwegian social democracy that upon his return he changed his party affiliation from Labour to the Scottish National Party. He had run for office as a member of the SNP in order to fight to apply Scotland’s oil revenue to the succor of Scotland’s poorest urban communities. To the SNP leadership and their supporters, Norway presents a model of how the social democratic dream has been achieved in a relatively small European democracy.

Alistair Darling must be credited with his attention to some form of prosperity that does not issue from the bottom of the ocean. For a too-brief moment, the spectre of the great Adam Smith floated above the hall as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer urged the Scots not to put “any border, any boundary” in the path of free trade between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Darling praised this borderless “unimpeded market” as a “massive gain for us.”

Darling’s strongest moment in the debate occurred when he pinned Salmond down on the First Minister’s apparent lack of a “plan B” if an independent Scotland should be refused a currency union with the United Kingdom. Salmond appears to be proceeding under the assumption that an independent Scotland can dragoon the remaining United Kingdom into a currency union under the threat of Scottish debt repudiation. If this is indeed his plan, it strikes me as rather reckless. Darling was almost theatrical in outlining the risk to everything from Scottish mortgages to the future of the financial industry in the north. Within these contexts, Darling made as strong a defense of free trade and the financial services industry as one is likely to hear from a Labour politician.



At the moments when he invoked Democracy, Alex Salmond made his strongest case for Scottish independence. Recall from the first installment of this article the paucity of Tories in Scotland. And yet, about every other decade, the Scots endure a Conservative national government that only a miniscule number of Scottish voters support.

In his opening statement, Salmond said: “For more than half of my life, Scotland has been governed by parties we did not elect at Westminster, and these parties have given us everything from the poll tax to the bedroom tax. And they are the same people… who are telling us that this country cannot run its own affairs. My case this evening is simple: No one, absolutely no one, will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland.”[3] Salmond repeated this argument in his closing statement, and at strategic moments throughout the debate. When Darling characterized the SNP’s economic plans for an independent Scotland as unduly risky, Salmond replied “every time Scotland goes into a general election, we have the risk of having people we didn’t vote for ruling over us, that has happened for more than half of my life, I want to change that and have the certainty of democracy.”

Darling attempted to parry this Democratic thrust by casting his opponent as a bad sport. In Scotland, the most serious electoral rival of Darling’s Labour Party is Salmond’s Scottish National Party. In the 2011 elections, the SNP won their majority in the Scottish Parliament at the expense of Labour. This is how Alex Salmond became First Minister of Scotland. Invoking this election, Darling pointed his finger at Salmond and said, “I didn’t vote for him but I’m stuck with him. I just accept that that’s what happens in a democracy.”

This cannot have been convincing to anyone inclined toward Scottish nationalism. After all, Darling’s analogy assumes that the current system of general elections is truly Democratic. It seems to me that to accept the justice of being “stuck with” a Tory government at Westminster, a Scot would have to privilege her British identity over her Scottish identity. That is to say, if Ms. Jeanie MacDonald feels herself to be British, she is unlikely to count it an injustice that Scotland is often ruled from Westminster by a party that few Scots support. But if Jeanie privileges her Scottish identity, then a Tory government at Westminster must strike her as at least undemocratic, if not a little foreign.

I am surprised that I have not read more commentary concerning the near-total absence of British-ness in the televised debate. Darling made his case for the United Kingdom for an hour and a half without ever once invoking, or defending, a British identity. Now, surely he and his advisors know the Scottish voters better than I do. It must be the case that a British identity has ceased to have much hold on most Scots. If this is the case, then I suspect the SNP appeal to democracy is pretty well irrefutable in the minds of most Scottish voters.


A Libertarian Reflection on the Referendum

So what is an American Libertarian to make of all this? In all such matters, we would be wise to heed the words of Ron Paul. In the context of another, rather messier independence referendum, Dr. Paul demanded to know, “Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”[4] While the Scots must give grave consideration to the question of independence, the correct position for American libertarians must surely be that this is none of our business.

Alas for this would be non-interventionist, I do care! I grew up in a family whose Anglophilia was exceeded only by an almost unhinged enthusiasm for Scotland. My father lionized Wallace and admired Robert the Bruce. In grade school I knew far more about Bannockburn than Gettysburg. I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of St. Andrews. Each August my family returns to Edinburgh; indeed, this summer my wife attended her twentieth Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Just a few weeks back, my daughters and I once again made our annual pilgrimage to the Canongate Kirkyard to place flowers on the grave of Adam Smith. None of this makes us Scottish, but it makes us keenly interested in the fate of a place and a people that we love.

I am also very sympathetic to secession. The modern Hobbesian state rules over vast spaces and numberless throngs of people with imperturbable unaccountability. Leviathan is the enemy, and anyone who wants to take it down a couple regions has my sympathy. If the Scots want to secede from the United Kingdom, why shouldn’t they? And if the Shetlands and the Orkneys want to secede from Scotland (and apparently they have threatened to do so), so much the better![5] Spain out of Catalonia! US out of Ohio!


The Libertarian Case For Scottish Independence

There is a Libertarian case to be made for Scottish Independence, so let us make it. First, it seems ridiculous to argue that Scotland would be too small to go it alone. As Alex Salmond pointed out during the debate, 12 of the 28 member states in the EU are the same size as Scotland or smaller. At, Peter St. Onge has argued that smaller size might in fact lead to greater prosperity, arguing that “Germany is poorer than the small German-speaking states (Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein), France is poorer than the small French-speaking states (Belgium, Andorra, Luxembourg, and Switzerland again and, of course, Monaco)…”[6]

The experience of a century of ever-metastasizing central government in Washington DC has caused me to lose my faith in Federalist #10. If we Libertarians favor small governments, I suspect we need to embrace small states. When a small state is struggling to be born, it ought to command Libertarian sympathies worldwide. Small is beautiful because small is – or at least can be – accountable. If the boosters of representative government are correct in their proposition that democratic regimes are “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” surely that proposition is more true the closer the regime is to the people. Westminster is a long way from Aberdeen. Edinburgh is not.

And indeed the logic of devolution seems to lead inexorably to independence. In 1997, it was conceded that it is just for the Scots to have their own parliament in order that they might have more say over some matters of governance. In 2012, it was conceded by Westminster that it would be more just to concede more powers to Holyrood. Would it not then be most just if the Scots simply ruled themselves by becoming an independent state?

Let us put the matter in an American context. Imagine living in upstate New York. In any state or national election, most of your ballot counts for nothing. New York City gets to choose the bulk of your state and national elected officials in every single election. Now, imagine that upstate New York has its own language and a distinct culture that is 1500 years old. It is no wonder the Scots get upset about this.

We Libertarians hold that war is the health of the state, and so we oppose war in all but the most desperate circumstances. Some antiwar Libertarians have cheered the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom because they hope this might deplete the power of America’s most reliable military co-adventurer. American elites certainly seem concerned. Our leading imperialist busy bodies, including President Obama and both Clintons, have subtly expressed their preference that the Union stay together. Senator John McCain (R-Raytheon) has expressed his “concern.”[7] If Obama, the Clintons, and John McCain all oppose Scottish independence, it cannot be all bad.

At the very least, an independent Scotland could be shed of the nuclear weapons the vast majority of the Scottish people abhor. In Alex Salmond’s opening remarks in the August 5th debate, he denounced the presence of “Europe’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction” at HMNB Clyde, a mere twenty five miles from Glasgow. Despite the unpopularity of nukes in Caledonia, the Scots, under the current dispensation, will be expected to spend 6 billion dollars of their own money to maintain these weapons.


The Libertarian Case Against Independence

A smaller polity, more democratic accountability, and less militarism – this sounds like an open and shut case for Scottish Independence. But to rest our case here may be to confuse means with ends. Libertarians prize smallness, and the accountability that comes from a representative government within that context, because these conditions seem most likely to promise the people liberty. To the libertarian, liberty is not the highest good, but it is the highest political good – and that includes economic liberty. If the libertarian case for Scottish independence is crowned by an appeal to democracy, the libertarian case against Scottish independence begins with the Scottish electorate.

Let us return one final time to the first televised independence debate, for two further observations. First, and I found this quite remarkable, the words “liberty,” “freedom,” and “free enterprise,” were never uttered in the hour and a half debate. The “Better Together” campaign promises safety and security, shared risk and greater prosperity through a larger market. The “Yes” campaign offers the romance of independence, Scottish ownership of North Sea oil, and the prospect of more democratic elections. Both offer more – more pensions, more NHS coverage, more free university places, more benefits. I have read absolutely nothing from either camp offering more liberty to the Scottish people. It simply is not part of the political conversation.

Instead, both sides offer the Scots “prosperity and social justice,” (with the emphasis on the latter). Consider again moderator Bernard Ponsonby’s question to Alistair Darling. Ponsonby asked how, exactly, remaining in the Union could “build economic prosperity in order to deliver social justice.” Because Darling and Salmond accepted the proposition contained in this question implicitly, it is worth interrogating from the libertarian perspective.

Ponsonby’s question begins with the assumption – dubious at best – that a state can “build prosperity.” This proposition is followed by another, equally dubious: that the purpose of prosperity is to “deliver social justice.” So, prosperity is not, for instance, the just reward for an individual’s labor. The just end of prosperity is not that it secures the dignity of the individual and his family and allows them to advance themselves as they see fit. The end of prosperity is not that it allows an entrepreneur to pursue her vision and make some new thing out of nothing. The purpose of prosperity is not the voluntary dispersal of alms toward the relief of one’s neighbor. Rather, the purpose of prosperity is that the substance (presumably) of prosperity should be harnessed by the state to achieve “social justice.”

And what, exactly, is “social justice?” Certainly Mr. Ponsonby does not feel compelled to define it. Neither candidate, when queried about “social justice” asked the moderator for clarification. This is not because the definition of social justice is clear to everyone, but precisely because it is a god term, which need not be defined because it is expansive, irrefutable, and accepted on faith. “Social Justice” would seem to occupy the same place in Scottish political discourse that “American Exceptionalism” occupies in the political discourse of the United States. Few indeed would propose American exceptionalism in order to demonstrate the proposition. Rather, American exceptionalism is invoked order to end debate by an appeal to one of the community’s most sacred opinions.

At various points during the debate, the moderator took questions from the floor for Salmond and Darling to answer. At one point an exasperated looking middle aged man in a sweater and reading glasses asked, “Mr Salmond talks about ending food banks, but I’d like to know how that is going to be achieved. Is it by encouraging people who can make a contribution to make a contribution, or is it just going to be by raising taxes and handing them out in benefits?” The question was never taken up by the moderator and never addressed by the candidates. I suspect that is because we all know the answer.

The Conservative Party is hardly a collection of Hayekian free marketers. And yet, I shudder to imagine all of the dirigiste instincts of the Scottish electorate unleashed on their economy without any hindrance from the Tories. It is hard to see how the economy could flourish in the stifling business climate which would likely result. It is very hard to imagine that an independent government presided over by the Scottish National Party is going to be able to deliver on all the promises it has made without going very badly into debt. It is in this context that I think we can best understand the alarm of the financial services industry at the prospect of Scottish independence.

I must admit that ever since 2008, when J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and AIG managed to convince Washington DC that the world would come to an immediate end if they were not gifted with billions of dollars, I have had a hard time taking anything bankers say very seriously.[8] Nevertheless, the increasingly shrill warnings out of the financial services industry about the possible unintended consequences of Scottish independence are sobering. RBS, Lloyds, Clydesdale Bank, and Standard Life have all threatened to remove at least some of their operations to England if the referendum passes.[9] Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has urged Scottish voters to reject independence.[10] The prospect of Scottish independence seems to offer in plentitude the two things that most depress markets – instability, and confiscatory taxation.

A final mark against Scottish Independence, from the libertarian perspective, is the puzzling enthusiasm of Scottish Nationalists for the European Union. The same folk who rail against Westminster for being a faraway, unaccountable, and undemocratic seem to thrill at the prospect of entering into the EU as an independent nation. I cannot understand why the Scots would want to sever a reasonably successful union of some 300 years, only to turn right around and sacrifice a measure of their new independence in order to join an multistate body which strikes me as far more aloof and unaccountable to the individual voter than the Parliament at Westminster.


The Decision

This summer I had great fun pestering the native Scots about how they planned to vote. I heard one answer more often than any other. I heard it from a librarian, taxi drivers, tavern keepers, and one of the elderly ladies who hosted me at the debate-watching party. I heard it from the young, the middle aged, and the elderly. They all told me, “My head says no, but my heart says yes.” From here in the United States I am watching, fascinated, as a people I admire in a land I love almost as much as my own make the hardest political decision of their lifetime. If they choose to stay, I wish them more devolved powers from Westminster, more self-determination, more democracy, more financial security, and fewer nuclear weapons.

And if they choose independence? The indispensible Bill Kauffman once said, “a healthy secession movement has to be based in love: love of a particular place, its food, its poetry, its accent, its history, its games, its people. Movements spurred by resentments – of the capital, of taxes, of the political class – are doomed to (and deserve) failure.”[11] Despite recent hysterical headlines in the Daily Mail about the conduct of independence supporters, I believe the vast majority of Scottish Nationalists are following their hearts. I do not believe they are acting out of ressentiment, or hatred of the English, or even contempt for the Tories. I believe they are acting out of love for Scotland. If they choose independence, may the Scots choose it out of a love for their beautiful land, out of a love for her history, out of a love for her culture, out of a love for one another. The choice is theirs. It is our duty to wish them well.


William Batchelder is Assistant Professor of History at Waynesburg University. He has a PhD in Medieval English History.





[3] I do not understand why Salmond referred to “parties we did not elect” instead of just naming the Tories…




[7] Hopefully the Senator from Arizona will refrain from casting about for insurgents to arm if the vote goes against him.

[8] Although one must admire the audacity….




4 Responses to ““Libertarian Perspective on the Scottish Independence Referendum, Part 2: The Case For, and Against, Scottish Independence,” By William Batchelder”

  1. thelyniezian

    Surely one should not worry as a libertarian about speaking our mind on foreigners’ domestic issues. One, political ideals have no borders of necessity, and there are libertarians in Britain too (not me I might add, I’m afraid*). Secondly, surely a key pillar of liberty is the ability to speak one’s own mind without hinderance?

    I wonder what might have happened, as an aside, if the bank bailouts really had not happened. A British documentary on our own banks who recieved similar assistance reveals that, in contrast to more productive businesses, they have not cut back and continue much the same risky ventures that helped precipitate the crash to begin with. If there were no bailouts, would they not have to find savings or go under? Would this cause chaos or could it be weathered?

    *On the EU, however, I am in full accord.

    • gabe

      Bear in mind that much of these continued “risky ventures” are being done at the behest of our own Leviathan – the US government – that is still insisting that the banks be used for social justice undertakings. Thus, the poor credit risk can once again no longer be denied a loan / mortgage. The intention is the same, the results will be the same – they (Federal Agencies) are just mandating different tactics.

  2. RAnna

    Good perspective–this this the most well-informed and thoughtful article on Scottish independence that I have come across.

  3. gabe

    A very well thought out essay. Very informative.
    A couple of quick points.

    1) I am not quite as confident as the author that the Scots are doing this out of a love for “home.” surely, there is some measure of this in their thinking – yet, all one hears from the Yes proponents is “how much more will we get?” This appears to be the preponderant sentiment.
    2) I have heard it said that Shetland (if I recall correctly) will secede from Scotland should the Yes team prevail and take with it their oil revenues.
    3) The larger point / question regarding oil revenues is this: Who owns the oil?
    Are there not private companies that have property rights to this resource. This gets us back to the authors point about the absence of Adam Smith in these debates. Are the Scots intended to nationalize this resource or will it simply be a question of obscenely confiscatory taxation.
    4) Am in agreement with the author that if this were being undertaken by a true love of “place” or “home”, this would be commendable. However, given the avowed intention of the Scots to seek membership in the EU, one must question whether the Scots are pursuing this for love of “place” or are simply looking for another source for entitlements.
    How could one love “place” and desire to enter into a union with a political construct (behemoth, perhaps) such as the EU which if it accomplishes anything, it accomplishes the destruction of national identity with an enforced uniformity and a rather surprising suppression of individual liberty with it’s speech codes / prohibitions, bureaucratic pronouncements / regulations, etc. etc. etc.


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