What Scotland Tells Us About Europe

An iron-clanging cold day in January. Snow in the forecast. South Carolina will finally vote, sending the traveling GOP carnival of tax returns, private equity and uncomfortable marriage tales on to Florida. And what do I want to discuss? Scotland. You know, that northern appendage of Great Britain jutting into the chilly North Sea. The land of kilts, hairy legs, golf, Adam Smith, David Hume and single malts on rainy days. And independence. Today in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf offers his usual dispassionate anatomy of the issue on the table: Scotland's attempt to break the union with Britain and regain its independence "lost" in the Acts of Union, 1707. What I know about this issue is not worth much, mostly provided by Wolf and sketchy memories of old articles in news magazines. Wolf seems to think that in the long run, true Scottish independence would be crazy. Who knows? In America, who cares, as long as you can get a tee time at the Old Course, St. Andrews?

What's interesting to me is not the details of Scottish independence, but the fact that it's happening at all. On one side of the North Sea, you have this massive crisis as the European Union tries to hold itself together. On the other side, you have Britain, attempting to establish some autonomy with the eurozone, while retaining its voice and the perceived economic benefits (mostly in terms of its very large market). And within Great Britain, you have this tendency toward fragmentation, embodied in the most serious way by Scotland, which is trying to do to Great Britain what Great Britain is trying to do with Europe: square the circle. Wolf is acute in speculating that the same structural woes that befell Europe may well afflict a Free Scotland, Britain relationship: "the complexities of a monetary union among fiscally independent sovereigns."

What's striking here is this atonal interplay of centrifugal and centripetal forces when it comes to notions of nationality. The modern state began to coalesce somewhere in the late Middle Ages, notably in Britain and France. Nationalism, as an ideology and as a cultural touchstone -- the "nation" and "state" as one indivisible whole -- arose in the 19th century. Nationalism is a centrifugal force: Its drive is to form nations consisting of folks who speak the same language, share some ethnicity, history or religion, who believe in the same thing, who are, by some definition, similarly authentic. That is: fragmentation and separation. The rise of the modern state is centripetal: Its natural tendency, accelerated by the demands of modern economics, is integration and consolidation: to absorb greater territory, markets, populations; to eliminate boundaries and barriers; to gain access to greater resources and capital -- human and monetary. The eurozone project is one example of this phenomenon (it is, of course, grounded in Enlightenment rationalism, which mostly takes the form of economic thinking traceable to that Scot, Adam Smith, and is a sharp contrast to the underlying romanticism and occasional descent into irrationality of nationalism). So too is globalization, whether it's the technocrats gathering as we speak at Davos or Tom Friedman's "world is flat" message.

Scotland, like Quebec, the Basques or the Kurds, much of the Middle East and the Balkans, not to say any number of simmering hot spots along the Russian periphery, are reminders of just how these two tendencies war with each other and the sheer difficulty of holding large, multicultural aggregations together effectively. This may apply as well to China and even the most Enlightened of democracies, the U.S., created well before nationalism as an ideology emerged (needless to say, nationalism is not the same as patriotism, or even exceptionalism). Even in America, you have renewed cries for states' rights and local autonomy, as political polarities map regional cultural differences, often simplistically reduced to religious differences. Rick Perry talks about South Carolina at war with the federal government. The Romney camp talks about healthcare as a state issue. Immigration remains a burning issue in some states. And protest movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street either toss around phrases like secession or nullification, or, in the latter case, attempt to carve out their own political spaces with their own experiments in reinventing governance. And what is a multinational corporation but a large, global, self-governing entity?

The Scottish independence movement is a lot larger, more organized and established than, say, the encampment at Zuccotti Park. But it feeds from the same drive: that people who share something -- Serbs for Serbia, Croats for Croatia, Scots for Scotland -- constitute "natural" political entities. It's us and them (Michael Greenberg in The New York Review of Books has another essay about OWS that makes that point about Zuccotti). In good times, of course, this tendency toward fragmentation gets papered over by technocrats who argue, particularly in the West, that people only want security, growth, money in the bank and nifty consumer goods; and it's pretty clear that over the last three decades, the technocratic projects, aided by technology, have made great strides -- though less so of late.

For all the Republican disdain for "socialist" Europe, free trade, free markets and a basic utilitarianism do unite technocrats and politicians across the developed economies; indeed, adherence to those beliefs and policies is nearly the definition of "developed." Those "rational" policies, which include ever-large free trade zones, are always the coming thing, are always on the side of history, like Karl Marx's proletariat or Francis Fukuyama's "last man." This is a long wandering way of saying that, in a world where Scotland -- Scotland! -- is threatening to break away from ties with Britain formed (quite successfully, mind you) over three centuries ago, how will the eurozone convince national entities, each with some call on a deep and emotionally satisfying past (the past, being dead, is often satisfying) to drop all that and cloak themselves in this synthetic garment called "Europe"?

All this explains how Europe, perhaps Scotland and Britain, and for a few bad years under the Articles of Confederation, the U.S., could end up with a monetary union married to fiscally independent political entities. It's not that the leaders of all these projects are stupid, feckless, corrupt or necessarily weak -- as the eurozone leadership has been charged with. It's that as long as both these set of ideas remain powerful, and democracy remains viable, they have very few other options but to try to desperately square the circle.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.