Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland Decides

It looks like a really close independence vote in Scotland. I guess I would've come down on the 'No' side, mainly because of the currency issues. If Scotland keeps the pound, it seems that Scotland's economy is still ruled by London bankers, and it loses what little ability it had to control them. But the future is hard to figure out -- maybe they don't keep the pound, or any one of dozens of considerations overrides that. I'm glad I don't have to make these decisions.

My own postcolonial attachments to the idea of independence from England make it hard for me to be a 'No' supporter. As the American-born child of Bengali parents, I'm at the intersection of two spectacular stories of throwing off English rule. The American story is familiar, but the Indian story may be even better. Over centuries of being ruled by well-educated Englishmen, famines that killed millions were common in India. In the Bengal famine of the early 1940s, Churchill shipped the grain out of the Bengali countryside to fortify Calcutta against a Japanese siege that never came, starving millions of Bengali villagers. (Leo Amery, the British Secretary of State for India, recalls Churchill saying, 'I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion'.) Then after India becomes an independent democracy, famines that kill millions are a thing of the past. When severe drought hit Maharastra in 1972, the government responded to popular pressure for relief, and mass starvation was avoided. The US and Indian success story is basically the success story of democracy -- the people may not be geniuses, but they'll stop you from starving them. I guess if Scotland were to lose all democratic control over its monetary policy, the democratic lessons of America and India might actually apply against independence.

To a utilitarian like me, political systems are broadly like sewer systems. Their proper functioning is tremendously important to human life, and sometimes it's best to build your identity around them. Seriously, with the sewers. If your regime won't let you ever build sewers, becoming a violent sewer revolutionary and murdering people who won't let you do what's needed to build them may be better than letting millions die in endless cholera epidemics. But it's best for the structure of political authority and your identity to come apart if sticking them together doesn't achieve good consequences.

There's all kinds of cool arguments I've heard for independence, including my friend Alfred's argument that an independent Scotland could fill its underpopulated areas with enterprising immigrants (he pointed at me and said "we need more clever fuckers like you!"). Maybe some of these arguments point to systematic reasons why Scottish nationalism is a force for good. It's not impossible. Indian nationalism a hundred years ago was well aligned with the betterment of India, and very likely humanity as a whole. But if that's true of Scotland now, it's not something I can clearly see.

Scotland will always be the home of my favorite British things. There's MacPherson's Farewell, and Fear a Bhata, and the Loch Tay Boat Song. There's David Hume, and more recently, my buddy Aidan McGlynn versus this English knowledge-first thing that looks more useless on issues the better I understand them. There's the beauty of Edinburgh and the Highlands and girls with skin like milk and hair like fire. And I expect them to remain just as beautiful no matter what Scottish voters chose.