The Scottish Play

Posted: Sep 17, 2014 12:01 AM

It's an old superstition among actors, who tend to avoid calling one of Shakespeare's tragedies by its name, which is supposed to invite disaster. It's like the way they avoid wishing each other good luck opening night lest they jinx it, preferring to say something like Break a Leg -- but here's hoping that Thursday's referendum on independence for Scotland will prove a flop, and a resounding one. So this issue can be settled definitively, and stay settled. Instead of being decided by the razor-thin margin some of the polls have predicted. So it won't hang around indefinitely, like Banquo's Ghost, showing up at the most inopportune times. Like now and forever. And the United Kingdom can stay united, Scots and Englishmen and the rest, all Britons together.

Any other result would be like taking the cross of St. Andrew out of the Union Jack: It wouldn't be the same. Neither would Britain without Scotland -- not just geographically but politically, historically, economically, militarily, culturally and every other way -- even spiritually. Tartans, bagpipes and all that are charming -- unlike the bad idea on today's ballot in Scotland: independence. The United Kingdom without Scotland? That makes as much sense as the United States without some of the key states.

You'd think so impractical a notion would never have gotten this far among a businesslike people like the Scots. Now they seem to be seriously entertaining this damfool idea of an independent Scotland, demonstrating that the hardiest and most practical of peoples can still get carried away by sentimental -- and self-destructive -- nonsense.

What ever happened to the realistic spirit and clear thought of the Scottish Enlightenment, of Hume and Adam Smith, whose empirical reasoning used to be held up as the opposite of the flighty French Enlightenment of Rousseau and Co., whose ideas, heavy on theory and light on real-world experience, would in the end produce little memorable except a Reign of Terror followed by a succession of less than enduring or endearing republics. (Which one are the French on now, their fifth or so?) It's all enough to make a monarchy look attractive, even democratic in its openness to gradual, stable change and progress, at least if the monarch is a British one.

Yes, a little nationalism can be a good thing -- and lots of fun, too. Think of the Scottish Festival at Lyon College in Arkansas, fiddlers and folk dancers and all that, or a rousing toast (or two or three) to Erin go Bragh! on Saint Paddy's Day, when everybody's Irish ("Kiss Me! I'm Irish") complete with stage-Irish accents, leprechauns and general shenanigans. Which include a river that turns green once a year in the vicinity of the Daleys' Chicago, that still toddlin' town. Ethnicity -- your own or some other favorite one -- can be fun, not just slaughter in the Balkans.

But there's still such a thing as wretched excess -- which is what today's referendum in Scotland is. A display of national feeling, and not just a display of it but thoughtful, considered action to further it can be the sign of a healthy nation making its grand entrance into the constellation of nations after due deliberation. ("When, in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another....") But it is quite another to approach the not unimportant question of national independence with no greater sign of sober judgment than painted faces and raucous rallies. As if Scots were choosing a soccer club rather than their political destiny.

Nationalism can be likened to a body's immune system kicking into action at the first sign of an alien intrusion, like ever-alert guards sounding the alarm when invaders approach the castle. But when that natural, defensive reaction is overdone, it can become a threat itself. And not just a minor one like the allergies set off by a little dust or pollen, but disabling, even life-threatening, diseases -- like lupus.

Why in the name of reason or just simple prudence disunite the United Kingdom. Talk about a potential for catastrophe, think of the Southern firebrands who chose to disunite the United States of America rather than save it, and the Old South with it, for that South would never survive The War it had started. And neither would the hope that a new and better South, free of the curse of its primal sin--human slavery--would emerge peacefully and happily within the American union, rather than after it had been torn apart by the bloodiest of civil wars.

Peace has its achievements that war can scarcely hope for. If this misadventure across the Atlantic has a happy ending at the polls, it won't be because a laggard British establishment has shown much leadership. After paying the Scots all too little attention as this long-brewing winter of discontent deepened, London's political class finally woke up last week and rallied, late and lamely, against disunion. Even then it emphasized not the old bonds of shared sacrifice and devotion to freedom that have held the United Kingdom together for a couple of centuries, but purely economic considerations: assets balanced against liabilities, control of North Sea oil and the future of the pound sterling ... rather than the mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave.

That is what unifies nations: blood and iron, as Bismarck put it, not speeches and referendums. If there is a single image which sums up that unity, perhaps it is the now only half-remembered sight and sound of a lone bagpiper playing "Highland Laddie" on a Normandy beach as British troops advanced through the smoke and flames undeterred, Britons together. Let's hope the British will continue to do so after today, and that this Scottish play will not prove a tragedy.