The average American couldn’t tell a Scotsman from an Englishman. In fact, the average American probably doesn’t know that Scotland and England are two different countries with a common government. Wales and Northern Ireland fit into the scheme somehow, too – it’s complicated.
Things may get a lot clearer on Thursday, if the Scots vote for independence. Great Britain’s dominant partner, England, might have made a fuss about that – with muskets and pikes – a few centuries back. But England is a gentler place now, and Scotland will be able to drop out of the Union peacefully if it so chooses.
On this side of the pond, it feels a little like Mom and Dad are getting divorced for very murky reasons. Americans have historically considered England the mother country – after all, that’s why we speak English – but the Scots were right in there with the English, building up the British Empire and populating the thirteen colonies.
Scotland did a lot more than send soldiers and settlers to the embryonic United States. Edinburgh and Glasgow were intellectual capitals of the Enlightenment, and Scottish philosophers whose names we’ve forgotten – like Francis Hutcheson – swayed the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and other architects of American liberties. The mother country is really Great Britain – England and Scotland combined.
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From this distance, it’s hard to see why so many Scots want out of one of history’s greatest national partnerships. The synergy of England and Scotland has no parallel. The British Empire was often brutal, like any imperial system. But the English and Scots carried such values as parliamentary democracy, limited government and abolitionism around the world.
The Scots often seemed the brains of the operation. We don’t usually parse out their achievements from those of the English, but the list of their great thinkers is staggering in light of Scotland’s small population. James Watt produced the steam engine that powered the Industrial Revolution. Adam Smith more or less invented modern economics. James Clerk Maxwell revolutionized physics. Alexander Fleming discovered antibiotics.
Unlike Ireland and Wales, Scotland wasn’t conquered by the English (though not for lack of trying). The two countries joined as equals in 1707; Scottish kings had already been ruling England on and off since 1603. It was a match made in hell for the aggressors they defeated or helped defeat, including Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Scotland doesn’t seem likely to flourish on its own. It has profited from its stake in England’s dynamic economy. Champions of independence say the country will stay afloat on North Sea oil; outside observers are doubtful.
We get the part about national pride and breaking away from Great Britain; America celebrates its own independence vote every Fourth of July. The thing is, Scotland is woven into Great Britain’s DNA. Without it, there’s not even a nation that can call itself Britain – just a little Scotland, a little Wales and a middling-sized England sharing the same island. There are no Brits.
We’d hate to see a splintering of one of the great pillars of the West. For the Scots bent on independence, this is about emotion. But if the breakup happens, those who understand their debt to the Great Britain – all of it – will feel some emotion of their own.