Edinburgh, Scotland—Among the most high-profile opponents of Scottish independence are a number of non-Scots. British Prime Minister David Cameron has toured Scotland this week, urging a “no” vote on Thursday’s referendum on whether to separate from the United Kingdom. That’s to be expected. What was less expected was the intervention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed front-runner in the 2016 race for the presidency of the United States.
When Clinton traveled to Scotland earlier this year to accept an honorary degree from University of St. Andrews, she was explicit in her opposition to the proposal.
“I would hope it doesn’t happen,” she declared.
“I would think it would be a loss for both sides,” added Clinton, who told BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman that “I would hate to have you lose Scotland.”
That brought a reminder from Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that “Scotland is not a property to be lost but a nation about to take a precious and consensual and democratic decision.”
Clinton is not the only American who has weighed in on the Scottish vote. President Obama said in June, “There is a referendum process in place and it is up to the people of Scotland.” That was a reasonably balanced statement. But then he added what sounded to many like a slightly subtler appeal for a “no” vote, suggesting that “we obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.”
On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated the president’s earlier remarks, while acknowledging in response to a question about how the United States would respond to a “yes” vote by saying, “I suspect that there’s somebody at the administration who’s been thinking about that at some level.”
The notion of a “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom is not new. And Obama and his aides have every right to mention it, just as Clinton has every right to urge Scots to vote “no” on September 18.
But the notion that voting “yes” would represent “a loss for both sides,” as Clinton suggests, is every bit as debatable as the notion that the separation in 1776 of the United States from the Great Britain represented “a loss for both sides.” Britain obviously did not approve, as the long war that followed the American Declaration of Independence confirmed. But the idea that prominent Americans would go around discouraging others from declaring independence—especially via an orderly and nonviolent electoral process—does seem rather, well, hypocritical.
“It was very interesting hearing Obama in his own equivocal way telling the Scots ‘don’t do it,’ and Hillary Clinton in a much more vicious argument—‘Scotland shouldn’t do it,’ etcetera, etcetera,” observed the author and activist Tariq Ali, who noted that the United States supported the break-up of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
“That’s all fine. But when it happens to one of your allies, then you scream: Oh, no, no, Scotland, don’t do it, don’t do it. Why not?” asks Ali, who worked with Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign to secure a “yes” vote. “There’s no principle. All that’s at stake is imperial interest.”
It is true, up to a point, that Scottish independence would create some complications for the United States. An independent Scotland could, for instance, demand the removal of British Trident missiles, which are carried on submarines that are based in Scotland. Scotland could well deviate from Britain on a variety of defense and foreign policy issues, and it would certainly deviate on the question of austerity—as one of the prime arguments for an independent Scotland is, as the Yes Scotland campaign says, to “protect our public services and welfare system.”
The Yes Scotland campaign argues that is it possible to “build a more prosperous and fairer nation,” and such a nation might well offer a fresh alternative to the model of cuts and redistribution of wealth upward that has taken hold not just in Britain but in the United States.
So, yes, an independent Scotland might require officials in Washington to make some foreign policy adjustments. Ultimately, however, the United States could have a “special relationship” with Britain and with an independent Scotland, which economists say would be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. After all, it has quite good relations with Norway, an oil-rich country with a slightly smaller population than Scotland. And Salmond has gone so far as to say with regard to Britain and an independent Scotland, “America has two great friends and allies here rather than one.”
Clinton and Obama and others should be thinking a good deal more about the adjustment they are making in the signal we send to the world. By speaking against independence—especially in the absolute terms used by Clinton—they signal that the United States is more interested in immediate geopolitical goals than in the vision that inspired the nation into being. That vision was outlined 238 years ago in a document that began with a rather warm embrace of self-determination: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”
Despite what Clinton and Obama may say, supporters of Scottish independence note with some relish that the American declaration concluded by stressing that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”
This was noted earlier this year by Salmond, the Scottish nationalist who has forced the issue of independence and campaigned aggressively for a “yes” vote.
“Rather more than 200 years ago, America had to fight for its independence,” recalled Salmond. “We are very fortunate in Scotland that we have a democratically agreed, consented process by which we can vote for our independence.”
“So in summary,” says Salmond, “I suppose my message to President Obama is: Yes we can.”