British Lessons

Cliff May
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Posted: Sep 24, 2014 12:54 PM
British Lessons

I imagine James Bond is relieved. After all, one can’t very well be “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” if one is no longer Her Britannic Majesty’s subject – which one would not be had a majority of Scots voted for independence, thereby severing the knot Scotland and England tied 307 years ago.

But by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, Scottish voters last week decided to keep the United Kingdom united. Pro-union and pro-independence factions fought hard but no bombs went off and no heads were separated from torsos. In this fraught era, such civilized behavior is not to be taken for granted.

A bit of what I hope you’ll find entertaining trivia: James Bond came to life in “Casino Royale,” written in 1952 by Ian Fleming, a former naval intelligence officer and newspaperman. Though indubitably English, Fleming did not explicitly identify his hero as such. There was, however, this clue: Bond favored not Scotch but gin- or vodka-based cocktails, in particular martinis and his own creation, the Vesper. Then, in 1962, the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” hit the theaters. Its star was Sean Connery -- a true Scotsman if ever there was one. Fleming was pleased. Thereafter, he made clear that 007 was of Scottish heritage.

I applaud the outcome of the plebiscite – though with a trace of ambivalence. Here’s why: In the 20th century, when I was writing for Newsweek, I had a marvelous editor by the name of Robert C. Christopher. Scottish by descent, he prominently displayed a pro-Scottish independence poster on the wall of his office. If Bob – who every Friday at 5 placed on the corner of his desk a bottle of Scotch as an invitation to thirsty scribblers on deadline -- favored independence, how could I not feel some sympathy for the cause? On the other hand, back then, the breakup of United Kingdom seemed as plausible as the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union.

One lesson the 21st century should be teaching us: questions of national, ethnic and religious identify are complicated -- more so than most of those who self-identify as intellectuals would have us believe. Patriotism is not an evil force – it does not necessarily metastasize into hyper- nationalism. I also think it’s possible to be a proud Scot and a proud Brit. Many, perhaps most, Americans have overlapping allegiances. That can inoculate against any one allegiance becoming extreme.

More than a few Scotsmen do seem to harbor a lingering resentment toward the English. One should never underestimate the pernicious influence of Hollywood. Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning

1995 film, “Braveheart,” was among the most historically inaccurate movies ever made –a high bar – but it was also, as the Times of London has noted, a “cultural and political phenomenon” with the “power to whip a Scottish crowd into nationalistic fervor.” The Scottish independence movement has utilized it for that purpose ever since.

A bit of not-so-entertaining trivia: In 1305, William Wallace, the Scottish military commander portrayed by Mel Gibson, was beheaded – by the English.

Another way to look at the referendum: Scotland’s brave heart, which wanted to say “yes” to the adventure of building a new Scottish nation, was overruled by Scotland’s practical head which said “no” to the likelihood of economic turmoil and becoming a tiny country (Scotland’s population is slightly smaller than that of the Washington, D.C. metro area) with insignificant political and military power.

Had the plebiscite gone the other way, there would now be speculation about Wales breaking off, and other smoldering separatist fires, in Spain, Belgium and Canada, for example, might well have been further enflamed. Meanwhile, do not expect Vladimir Putin to let the Chechens decide whether to remain part of Russia. China’s rulers will not allow the Uyghurs to vote on independence for Xinjiang. Nor will the regimes that rule Iran and Pakistan permit Baluchistan to determine its future. And if the Kurds want an independent state in a swath of their ancient homeland, they’ll probably have to fight for it.

Post-referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised further devolution, also known as federalism which America’s Founders intended to be the basis of America’s system of government, one from which we have drifted – to our detriment, in my view.

Devolving power from London strikes me as a positive change so long as decentralization of accountability is part of the bargain. Self-rule produces laboratories of democracy. Those that fail can be as instructive as those that succeed.

With that in mind, some enterprising reporter ought to check the soil above the Edinburgh grave of Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, to see if he’s been turning over in response to the entrenching of Scottish welfare statism – including bloated government payrolls (the public sector accounts for almost a quarter of the jobs in Scotland) and a range of entitlements funded with the assistance of the English.

Their opposition to divorce from Scotland notwithstanding, the English appear less than thrilled about picking up so many checks. There’s also the fact that their northern neighbors have become “super voters” – empowered to weigh in on matters affecting the English, while English voters may not do the same on matters affecting Scotland. It is now likely that the Welsh and the northern Irish will ask for similar deals.

One last bit of trivia: The 84-year-old Sean Connery, knighted by Her Britannic Majesty in 2000, has long been an enthusiastic Scottish nationalist. But he failed to fly in from abroad to cast his vote last week. His brother, Neil Connery, told the Edinburgh News why: “There’s only a certain amount of days Sean can be in the country for tax reasons.” I don’t imagine that would meet with M’s approval.