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David Morris: Scotland Can Show the World that Small Is Beautiful

And perhaps challenge the preeminent power of corporations to defy governments elected by the people.

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Scottish Highlands
Image from Flickr user saffron_blaze

By David Morris
By arrangement with On the Commons

Since 1945 the number of nations has soared from about 60 to more than 180. The first wave of new sovereign states came with the decolonization movement of the 1960s and 1970s; the second in the early 1990s with the break-up of the Soviet Union. If Scotland votes for independence it may ignite a third wave. Dozens of would-be nations are waiting in the wings: Wales, Catalonia (Spain), Flanders (Belgium), Brittany (France), the list is long.

In 1957 in his classic book The Breakdown of Nations economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr persuasively and rigorously argued that small nations are the natural order because throughout history they have served as the engines for enlightenment, innovation, mutual aid, and the arts. The large nation state, he argued, is not a product of improved efficiency but of superior force.

“It is the great powers which lack the real basis of existence and are without autochthonous, self-sustaining sources of strength. It is they that are the artificial structures, holding together a medley of more or less unwilling little tribes. There is no Great British nation in Great Britain. What we find are the English, Scots, Irish, Cornish, Welsh, and the islanders of Man. In Italy, we find the Lombards, Tyroleans, Venetians, Sicilians, or Romans. In Germany we find Bavarians, Saxons, Hessians, Rhinelanders, or Brandenburgers. And in France, we find Normans, Catalans, Alsatians, Basques, or Burgundians. These little nations came into existence by themselves, while the great powers had to be created by force and a series of bloodily unifying wars. Not a single component part joined them voluntarily. They all had to be forced into them, and could be retained by them only by means of their division into counties, Gaue, or departments…”

Small nations are easier to administer, more nimble in policy, and their governments are more accountable to and reflective of their communities.

With a population of 5.2 million, a sovereign Scotland would rank just below the median size of the world’s nations. It could rest assured that nations of its size can thrive. Think Finland, Costa Rica, Ireland, Norway. Small nations are easier to administer, more nimble in policy, and their governments are more accountable to and reflective of their communities. Indeed, it is the divergence between the values of the Scottish culture and those of the Conservative government in London that has been a major impetus for independence. That divergence is reflected in the fact that today only one Tory holds a seat from Scotland in the British Parliament.

Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservatives advocate welfare cuts, austerity and privatization. They enthusiastically embrace what the Scots would call the mean values of the Conservatives’ heroine Margaret Thatcher, who summed up her thinking with the famous phrase, “There is no such thing as society.”

The Scots most definitely believe there is a thing called society. The Scottish National Party, which controls the Scottish regional government and supports independence, wants to get rid of nuclear weapons, raise the minimum wage in line with inflation and begin a sweeping extension of child care. It is also more favorable toward immigration and the European Union than the British government.

“There is more of a communitarian viewpoint in Scotland that sees the value of coming together to provide public services, to acknowledge the strength of community in Scotland,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister told the New York Times.

The Limits of Small

But if Scotland does become sovereign it will quickly discover that that sovereignty has been severely restricted by new global rules promoted by increasingly dominant global corporations. Nations may be getting smaller, but corporations are getting larger. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, more than half are global corporations. The Top 200 corporations’ combined sales represent over one quarter of the world’s GDP.

To control larger nations, corporations have convinced/bribed/bludgeoned governments to put in place rules that severely circumscribe their authority to express the will of their people.

The brute strength of corporations is usually sufficient to cow small countries. To control larger nations, corporations have convinced/bribed/bludgeoned governments to put in place rules that severely circumscribe their authority to express the will of their people. Today corporations can with impunity buy a post office box in the Bahamas and pay no taxes in the United States, or Scotland. Trade agreements grant extraordinary new rights and privileges to foreign corporations and investors that formally give corporate rights precedence over the right of governments to govern their own affairs. If there is a dispute, foreign corporations can skirt domestic courts and directly challenge any policy or action of a sovereign government in often secret proceedings presided over not by judges, but by arbitrators, often corporate lawyers themselves. Dozens of corporate challenges are currently wending their way through these “courts”:

  • US tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia over their anti-smoking laws.
  • US company Lone Pine Resources Inc. is demanding $250 million in compensation from Canada because of lost potential profits from Quebec’s moratorium on “fracking”.
  • The Swedish energy giant Vatterfall has sued Germany for its decision to phase out nuclear power, demanding billions in compensation.

In 2010, in an unusual display of concern, thirty-seven academics from developed and developing countries, including eminent writers in the field of investment law, issued a joint public statement decrying the way trade agreements hamper “the ability of governments to act for their people.” They maintain, “States have a fundamental right to regulate on behalf of the public welfare and this right must not be subordinated to the interests of investors where the right to regulate is exercised in good faith and for a legitimate purpose.” No one listened.

Adam Smith argued that sympathy and empathy could be the twin foundations of a just economy.

Perhaps if it gains political sovereignty and attends to its internal affairs, Scotland could debate the global rules that prevent governments from expressing the will of their citizens. As historian Arthur Herman has noted in his book How the Scots Invented the World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It, Scotland has once before had an outsized impact on the world. In the 18th century Scotland’s appreciation for democracy and its strong emphasis on universal literacy made Edinburgh and Glasgow epicenters of intellectual thought. All of us are aware of one of Scotland’s most famous sons, Adam Smith. But very few of us are aware that before he wrote The Wealth of Nations he wrote the 1759 best seller, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Building on the ideas of Francis Hutcheson, one of the founders of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith argued that sympathy and empathy could be the twin foundations of a just economy.

From the first lines of the book Smith is clear about where his theory will take him, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Later Smith adds:

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. … We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”

As authors Fred Kiel and Doug Lennick explain, Adam Smith believed “we are all born with a ‘moral sense’—that is, he believed humans are innately equipped with consciences. Because of this assumption, he thought that the ‘invisible hand’ of economic self-interest would be governed by the people’s moral sense. Economic self-interest, yes, but in the context of what’s good for all.”

Perhaps Scotland’s independence can usher in a new Scottish Enlightenment, one that again makes morality and sympathy a foundation for designing national and global economies. Is it too much to ask a tiny nation to again re-invent the modern world?

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Minneapolis- and DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Public Good Initiative. His books include The New City-States and We Must Make Haste Slowly: The Process of Revolution in Chile.

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2 comments for David Morris: Scotland Can Show the World that Small Is Beautiful

  1. Comment by John on September 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    ”Perhaps Scotland’s independence can usher in a new Scottish Enlightenment, one that again makes morality and sympathy a foundation for designing national and global economies. Is it too much to ask a tiny nation to again re-invent the modern world?”

    This is a key sentence in this excellent analysis of the Scottish Independence debate.

    For too long, the Scottish sense of society and some degree of shared national wealth has been suppressed by a English Parliament heavily controlled by privilege and capital, badly used to enrich the few. The English dont even know that this is so, nor would an elephant in your bed know it was crushing you.

    The debate in Scotland has released a huge burst of democratic energy unknown in its English counterpart. Scotland wants rid, first of all, of the dangerous nuclear submarine base, so close to a major city. Many Scots have suggested moving it to the Thames, at Westminster.

    Scotland wants a fairer social contract, where the poor and marginalised are not hounded by vicious taxes such as the Poll Tax or now, the Bedroom Tax, condemned by the UN representative some time ago.

    This debate is fundamentally about democracy. Scotland values democracy where England’s grasp on this is feeble, and where capital crushes democracy, as in the US.

  2. Comment by John on September 19, 2014 at 10:31 am

    ””Perhaps Scotland’s independence can usher in a new Scottish Enlightenment, one that again makes morality and sympathy a foundation for designing national and global economies”

    Well, this aspiration lost today. A beacon of hope extinguished or at least dimmed for a generation.

    Capital and its erosion of human and social values triumphs again, and we continue to hell in a handcart……

    Scotland wanted rid of an arsenal of nuclear weapons, housed 20 miles from a major city. This noble aspiration is lost.

    This was a debate on nationalism like no other. Scotland’s nationalism was not like that of many, triumphalist and ominous – it was a wish for better values in a small country, free of a government of millionaires and privilege, who have dismantled the productive economy of the UK since the time of Thatcher, only to replace it with the appropriated unearned wealth of bankers, those parasites we all tolerate because we have not yet got rid of them. They produce nothing, yet suck up the wealth of the labour of others.

    These are the enemy within, and they remain with us all.

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