This article was originally published by The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. Reprinted with permission.
Whatever its outcome, the referendum in Scotland on 18 September will have an explosive effect. It will not be any kind of ending but only the start of a new roller-coaster of difficult and protracted arguments. If Scotland votes ‘Yes’, a lengthy process of fractious constitutional negotiations over crucial specifics (the pound, Trident, EU membership, etc.) will ensue. If it votes ‘No’, an immediate outpouring of (depending on where you stand) relief, exasperation, triumphalism or recrimination will give way to extended wrangling over what further powers should yet be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood.
That is not to imply that the referendum was a mistake. On the contrary, given the consistent and rising demand over many years among a significant section of the Scottish population to register its political judgment on the question, it was imperative that it take place. And many have reported that the campaign has healthily galvanised popular engagement in democratic debate in a way not seen in Scotland (nor, we might ruefully observe, in England) for many years.
The decision is a far-reaching one, so it is important to be clear on exactly what it is about. I offer here no argument for or against independence but merely one proposal as to how to construe what is being decided.
‘Independence’ means creating (or on some accounts, recreating) a state, a self-governing political community possessing underived constitutional authority. Yet too often the debate has failed to distinguish, consistently and clearly, between the ‘state’ and the ‘nation’. The distinction is routinely elided in ordinary political language, as in the misnomer the ‘United Nations’, which is in fact an association of states not nations.
Now it is obviously true that the demand for Scottish independence is substantially animated by a widespread popular identification with and affection for the ‘nation’ of Scotland. That may be the fuel in the tank, but it is not the question on the ballot paper. Voters are not being asked to express a view on the significance or esteem or destiny of ‘the Scottish nation’. Nations are elusive cultural phenomena with blurry edges: they cannot be voted for or against. States are determinate political and legal institutions that you can either bring into existence or not.
Nations are notoriously difficult to define. While they are often marked by a dominant ethnic heritage, many are increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious. Nations are thickly-textured, evolving, porous, morally ambiguous societal amalgams. While one nation may be more or less recognisable when set against another, nations lack the crucial features of centred identity and independent agency.
Strictly, then, a nation in this sense cannot possess ‘rights’ or ‘duties’ or make ‘claims’. Thus, for example, the 1842 Scottish ‘Claim of Right’ was lodged against Westminster by the Kirk not by some amorphous body called ‘the nation’. Nations do not act themselves but function as micro-climates which condition and facilitate the acting of independent agents (persons, associations, institutions, etc.). Thus, you can, consistently, maintain a high view of the integrity and importance of ‘the Scottish nation’ yet place yourself firmly in the ‘No’ camp. Equally, you can, consistently, hold a meagre view of what ‘the Scottish nation’ amounts to, but be an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ supporter. How so? The key lies in what states are for.
In opting for a new Scottish state to come into existence, ‘Yes’ supporters will be voting for a new, independent centre of political agency which is not identical to the Scottish nation. For a start, many members of the Scottish nation live outside Scotland (and, incidentally, were given no vote); and a large minority of those resident in Scotland are not ‘ethnic Scots’. The term is highly problematic and has, rightly, played no part in the ‘Yes’ campaign, which has consistently advocated a ‘civic’ rather than an ethnic nationalism.
But more importantly, a new Scottish state (like every state) will bear a distinctive moral purpose which cannot be borne by the Scottish (or any) nation. Theologically, this purpose is a divinely appointed ‘calling’ or ‘ministry’, one which far transcends the goals of expressing, protecting or enhancing ‘the nation’. Most of the matters that fall within the calling of states cannot be identified as ‘national’ questions in the sense defined here but arise from the universal needs, challenges, conflicts and aspirations arising from the public life of any human society: curbing violence, protecting human rights, helping secure the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, work, health), establishing essential public infrastructure, seeking concord with other states, and so forth. (One that might properly be deemed ‘national’ could be the safeguarding of particular features of a nation’s public culture such as its national language, architectural heritage or natural endowments.)
We can say more: these are not only matters arising within the public realm of society but are also matters of public justice. The term ‘public justice’ is one attempt to capture the heart of the Christian political tradition’s understanding of the state’s divine calling. On that understanding, the state is appointed to uphold not merely ‘order’ but ‘right order’, by promoting an array of public conditions conducive to justice. The practical meaning of ‘public justice’ is, of course, much contested: a plural democratic society will throw up a variety of accounts of what public justice demands in any particular context, some converging, others sharply diverging.
Note that absent from my illustrative list of matters of public justice is a supposed duty on the part of the state to ‘increase prosperity’. Making citizens more prosperous is not the direct responsibility of the state but of ‘the nation’ (specifically, its economic actors, who are also subject to norms of equity and sustainability). The inconclusive argument about whether independence would boost or shrink Scotland’s national economy is relevant only insofar as there is real doubt that a Scottish state could fulfil its basic justice responsibilities to the poor (and to the environment). Indeed a Scottish state presiding over a nation with a lower GDP might yet validly claim to be a better practitioner of public justice if it proved more successful at lifting many of its poorest citizens out of poverty (and better stewarding its environment).
If this line of thought is correct, then the central question facing Scottish voters on 18 September is not, ‘will independence restore Scottish self-esteem or vindicate Scottish national identity?’ Rather, it is, ‘will independence redress substantial public injustices occurring in Scotland on account of the Union?’ Or, at least, ‘will it substantially advance the prospect that public justice be done in Scotland?’ You do not plunge into the costly and disruptive business of creating a new state merely in order to enhance a nation’s diminished self-esteem. Rather, if you need a new state in order better to pursue public justice, then you work to boost your nation’s self-esteem in order to make a new state feasible.
My personal observation (as a distant but highly interested outsider) is that, to date, the ‘Yes’ camp has done a better job of framing the question in those terms; whatever one makes of its substantive claims about what justice actually requires, or about the prospects of an independent Scottish state actually delivering those requirements. ‘Yes’ proponents have argued that the constraints imposed by seemingly permanently entrenched centre-right Westminster governments (whether Tory, Labour or Coalition) have blocked decisive advances towards a distinctively ‘Scottish vision of social justice’ and have imposed upon Scotland nuclear defence and energy policies which, it is claimed, most Scots deem unjust. An eloquent Christian rendition of this claim appears in Glasgow theologian Doug Gay’s 2013 book Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism. The claim is, however, disputed by another eloquent voice south of the border, Anglo-Scots theologian Nigel Biggar (here, and in Church Times 5 September, where Gay also writes).
Scottish voters, Christian or otherwise, evidently disagree about what public justice requires for Scotland. But I hope that when they come to vote it will indeed be that question about which they disagree. If it is, then the Scottish nation can stand taller on 19 September whatever the result.