Global Agenda: Centrifugal

Foreigners have been pulling money out of Britain, but Britons have also been pulling money out of Scottish banks and financial institutions.

British and Scottish flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)
British and Scottish flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As if the world did not have enough on its plate, as if barbarous terrorism in the Middle East and the reemergence of Russian territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe was not enough to be getting on with, a new and wholly unexpected threat – a genuine black swan – has emerged in, of all places, Scotland.
The sense of shock among the British establishment is palpable. As recently as two weeks ago, the attention of all classes and ethnic groups in the UK was riveted to the twin issues of Islamic extremism and cultural chasms. On the one hand, there was shocked dismay at the discovery that hundreds of British youngsters had joined the Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. On the other, there was horror and embarrassment at the discovery that large-scale, systematic child abuse had been practiced by Pakistani males on young girls in the town of Rotherham, while the authorities – police, welfare, local council, etc. – refused to see or hear the evil under way in their midst and being reported to them.
Of course, Rotherham is not unique, but the combination of the revelations there and the events in Iraq and Syria made it impossible for all but the most obtuse British officials and commentators to continue to deny that the country has major problems with its Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants – and that these problems stem from those immigrants’ cultural mores and, in the case of the youngsters, their susceptibility to religious radicalization.
Serious problems for the UK – but not as serious as the existential threat now hanging over it. Abruptly, literally from one day to the next, the referendum campaign under way in Scotland over the simple question of whether Scotland should leave the union with England exploded into the imminent implosion of the UK and into a potentially major issue for the EU and, quite possibly, the entire world.
During many months of somnolent campaigning it had seemed that the “Yes” camp – meaning those in favor of leaving the union and hence of Scottish independence – was set to achieve a respectable, even impressive, showing of around one-third of the vote. This share began to rise in recent weeks, but the publication on September 9 of an opinion poll showing the Yes percentage shooting into the upper 40s, suddenly raised – for the first time – the prospect that the Scottish nationalists might actually win. This single poll was soon amplified by similar, or even higher, showings in other polls, making the referendum result “too close to call.”
The consequences have been extraordinary. The value of the British pound and of British government bonds has slumped. Foreigners have been pulling money out of Britain, but Britons have also been pulling money out of Scottish banks and financial institutions, fearing that the latter will be trapped in a new and unknown legal and regulatory jurisdiction called Scotland. From every point of view, we are in territory that is not merely unexplored, but whose existence was not even suspected hitherto.
Most people, both in England and the rest of the world, cannot understand what has possessed the Scots. The practical arguments against independence, especially in everything to do with economics and finance – currency, investment, pensions, etc. – are overwhelming. The Scots are, by reputation, “canny” and sensible, so why would they deliberately jump into the wild blue yonder? Yet there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence, in addition to the supposedly “objective” opinion polls, that most Scots – even those many expatriates living in England and elsewhere – are split between their rational heads, which tell them that No is the only vote that makes sense, versus their emotional hearts, which pull them toward voting Yes. Remarkably, it is also clear that Scottish women are strongly No-oriented, while the men are the Yes-leaners. The bottom line is that it is impossible to assess how individuals will feel and act behind the curtain in the voting booth, so next Thursday’s result is anyone’s guess.
But the specter haunting the financial markets and the outright panic that has seized the political establishment is driven by a phenomenon that extends far beyond the beaches of the British Isles. That is evidenced by the fall in Spanish government bonds and, more generally, by the intense interest being evinced in the Scottish vote throughout Europe and, indeed, the world. If the Scots vote Yes and then negotiate, in an orderly manner, their exit from their 300-year union, then the precedent is set for many other ethnic groups, from Catalans in Spain, via Belgium’s sparring Flemish and Walloon “partners” in their 185-year-old little national venture, to the endless patchwork of tribes and quasi-nations in Eastern Europe. All of these may demand independence and, if they are refused, may turn to less peaceful methods than referenda. Texas, increasingly distant from and disenchanted with the East Coast power elite, may begin to take its own secessionist rhetoric more seriously.
The world in general is increasingly bloody-minded, and people everywhere seem disinclined to live together in harmonious yet heterogeneous sociopolitical structures. Logic and rationality are being subsumed to baser instincts. In the case of Scotland, it’s so ludicrous as to be funny – but it really is anything but.