September 25th, 2021


Scotland the brave, on the brink

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published Sept. 16, 2014

Volunteers for the Better Together campaign leave to canvass from their Edinburgh office

Old Blighty and Scotland the Brave have a lot of friends in places where it won't do the kingdom much good this week. The vote on whether to break up the United Kingdom, a prospect unbelievable to outsiders, is so close that even the queen is getting into it.

On her way out of church in Scotland on Sunday she stopped to tell a knot of churchgoers, in a carefully arranged encounter, to think not just "carefully," but "very carefully" before they cast their votes on Thursday. Ordinarily the queen does not deign to do that, rarely talking to anyone as she leaves the tiny Presbyterian chapel not far from Balmoral Castle in the Scottish highlands. A newspaper photographer assigned to the queen beat says it happens "once or twice in a generation."

But this is a special occasion, so special that something like it hasn't happened in 300 years. No one in Scotland, or in Wales or Northern Ireland, gets to vote for secession even that often. Polls show the vote - for once the adjective "historic," thrown about so loosely by careless writers and uninformed talkers - is as likely to go one way as the other.

The stakes are enormous for both the unionists, who want to keep the kingdom together, and the nationalists, who dream of inheriting the oil wealth of the North Sea without sharing any of it with haughty Old Blighty. No one knows or can even imagine what would follow secession.

Big business warned from London there would inevitably be economic consequences for Scotland if the kingdom shatters. Five large Scottish banks, including the most familiar names - Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Clydesdale among them - say they would move their bases to England. Other large retail companies, including the iconic Marks and Spencer, say the consequences of a "yes" vote would raise prices.

Campaigners for a "yes" vote leaped on the threats as reasons to proceed to independence. "The heads of these companies are rich men," says Jim Sillars, a former leader in the House of Commons and leading advocate of independence. "They are in cahoots with a rich English prime minister to keep Scotland's poor, poorer through lies and distortions." British Petroleum, he said, would "learn the meaning of nationalization" and if it wants access to "monster oil fields off the Shetland Islands it will have to learn to bend the knee to a greater power - to us, the sovereign people of Scotland."

Such belligerence, backed by heroic fighting deeds, is familiar to anyone conversant with the history of Scotland. A goodly percentage of the British army is native Scottish; so is the economic power of London's banks and insurance companies.

Many Americans think of Scotland as "the old country." Up to a quarter of a million Scots and Scots-Irish arrived in the Carolinas in the 18th century, many as indentured servants, little more than slaves. Their passage had been paid in return for agreements to work free, at any task decreed for them, for terms of many years. Many of them, once members of the middle class, unable to bend the knee, fled to the interior of the South.

These people, says the historian Edward Tunis, "were by temperament the utter antithesis of Quaker calm and German thrift. They took the land they wanted and dared anybody to move them; seldom did anyone do so." These were the settlers, Jim Webb, the author and former U.S. senator, said were "born fighting." He took those words for the title of his book about Scots in America.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of those Scots. "Every line of strength in American history," said Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian preacher, "is a line colored with Scottish blood." Three-fourths of the presidents, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison, were of Scottish descent. So have been half of the secretaries of the Treasury, a third of the secretaries of State. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, were of Scottish blood. So, too, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart and Ambrose Burnside, and later John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton. America would not have a military tradition but for the sons of Scotland the Brave.

The special relationship between Britain and America would certainly survive dissolution, but America's oldest and most reliable ally would be crippled, and the rest of the civilized world would inevitably suffer. Many prayers from "the outside" join those of the queen, for voters to think "very carefully" before they cast their votes.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.