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On the Possible Extinction of the United Kingdom
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Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution laments the possibility of Scottish independence from the UK.

The Union of 1707 was one of the great events of the eighteenth century for Britain, and it paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and much much more, including the later United States and many of the Founding Fathers. And yes some of the excesses of imperialism, exploration too. That union truly was a cornerstone of the modern world, of the sort they might put into a book subtitle in a corny way and yet it would be quite justified.

Maybe you think the partnership hasn’t been as fruitful in recent years. Still, I view it this way. For all its flaws, the UK remains one of the very best and most successful countries the world has seen, ever. And there is no significant language issue across the regions, even though I cannot myself understand half of the people in Scotland.

The link is to a pretty funny short video of Indian call center workers trying on Scottish accents to sound more trustworthy.

Nor do the Scots have a coherent or defensible answer as to which currency they will be using, or how they would avoid domination by Brussels and Berlin. If a significant segment of the British partnership wishes to leave, and for no really good practical reason, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong with contemporary politics and with our standards for loyalties.

Tyler’s nostalgia reminds me of Wordsworth’s Burkean 1802 sonnet:

On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic

ONCE did she hold the gorgeous East in fee;
And was the safeguard of the West: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reach’d its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is pass’d away.

I’m not going to give the locals too much advice, but I’d appreciate your thoughts.

One interesting aspect is that while England – Scotland is one of the older political boundaries in the world, Scotland was a multi-ethnic country for much of that time, with English-speaking “Saxon” Lowlanders and Celtic-speaking “Gaelic “Highlanders. The Highlander invasion of England in 1745 accelerated the drive of the British government to crush Celtic culture and Anglicize the Highlands, but before then northern Scotland was quite different from the southern Scotland of Hume and Smith.

Here’s a question: if Scotland seceded now, would the Highlands eventually secede from Scotland? And if you scoff at the idea of an eventual Highlands national capital in Inverness, why?

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  1. I’m not aware of any Highlands secessionist movement even existing, so that’s probably the main reason I would scoff at the idea of an independent Highlands. But the interesting question, of course, is why there is no Highland secessionism!

    For a moment I thought one reason there is no significant Highland secessionist movement is that Scottish Gaelic is practically extinct, but then I remembered that Irish Gaelic was also dying out as a spoken language already in the early 20th century but that didn’t stop Irish secessionism. So then I considered how Irish nationalists encompassed both English- and Irish-speakers; indeed, that English-speakers predominated, despite the romantic attachment to the Irish language among said nationalists. To a certain extent, Scottish nationalists also display a romantic attachment to Gaelic, with the result that Gaelic became an official language in Scotland in 2005. So the situation appears to be that Lowland and Highland Scots identify together as Scots against the English, just as Irish from different regions and linguistic backgrounds all identified as Irish against the English.

    I would attribute the lack of a distinctive Highland identity to various factors. One is that there was never a clear Highland political identity to begin with; the last time any Gaelic-speaking regions were politically separate from the rest of Scotland, they were being ruled by Norway in the Middle Ages, and that only included the Western Isles, not any part of mainland Scotland. Throughout most of the recorded history of the independent Scottish kingdom, the Highlands were considered an integral part of that kingdom. In contrast, while the English began making inroads into Ireland already in Norman times, there was nevertheless a clearer concept of Irish political unity.

    Another factor is the failure of the Jacobite rebellion and later, the Highland Clearances. As you noted, the Jacobite cause in Scotland eventually took on a distinctively Highland character. exacerbated by the fact that the Stuarts were now Catholics and that while Catholicism still had a presence in the Highlands, the Lowlands had become thoroughly Protestant and hence more likely to side with the Protestant English. So the crushing of the Jacobites was in many ways the crushing of a nascent Highland nationalism. Finally, the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century fatally weakened the ethnolinguistic base of Highland culture by forcing the emigration of much of the Gaelic-speaking population to Nova Scotia and elsewhere, and also setting the people against their own clan leaders who betrayed them.

  2. There are only around half a million people living in the Highlands now. That’s scarcely enough people to lead and carry an independence movement to fruition in today’s world.

  3. “And if you scoff at the idea of an eventual Highlands national capital in Inverness, why?”

    Because Inverness is only just in the Highlands – a sudden Lowlander strike west from Aberdeenshire could easily capture her! A secure capital must be built west of the Great Glen!

  4. “while the English began making inroads into Ireland already in Norman times, there was nevertheless a clearer concept of Irish political unity.” Sentimental tosh. Who invited Strongbow in?

    Thank God for the clearances, otherwise the poor buggers would have starved from the potato blight as the Irish did.

  5. “[I]f Scotland seceded now, would the Highlands eventually secede from Scotland? And if you scoff at the idea of an eventual Highlands national capital in Inverness, why?”

    John MacDonald of Islay, Earl of Ross, tried to run the Lordship of the Isles as a de facto independent state until 1493. He also had some ambitious and totally impracticable designs on Ireland. It’s very, very unlikely, but it wouldn’t be impossible for the Highlands somehow to wind up in a quasi-autonomous political situation comparable to the Isle of Man or the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

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