"No, I'm still on the fence ..." 

Let's Have Some Tea, Scotland, and Talk This Out

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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There's a good, and largely overlooked, reason that Scotland and the rest of the U.K. might be better off staying together. Both the secession and anti-secession campaigns have been courteous, nonviolent and affable. Two nations able to contest this fairly belong in a union, for few are able to.

QuickTake Scottish Independence

"Within the set of civil wars, secessionist wars are not only the most common, but are additionally among the longest and bloodiest types of warfare," Bridget Coggins, now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, wrote in her 2006 doctoral thesis, based on a database of the secession attempts from 1931 to 2002. Of these 275 attempts, 195 were characterized by violence on at least one of the sides. Although that suggests rather a lot of peaceful disengagements, many derive from Britain's relatively nonviolent dismantling of its empire after World War II -- a policy orchestrated, at least partly, by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who was of Scottish descent.

Ask Chechens, East Timoreans, Sudanese, Kosovars, Eritreans -- or the leaders of the countries from which they fought to split -- about playing by the rules; the word "massacre" figures prominently in the histories of these independence bids.

Ask Crimeans about the billboards that graced their towns ahead of their illegitimate secession referendum this year, portraying Ukraine as a Nazi state. Ask Catalans about the tax evasion charges against their former leader, Jordi Pujol, seized on by the Spanish government to discredit the entire movement. If secession campaigns are not out-and-out violent, they are usually dirty because politicians are so reluctant to cede territory.

The Scottish bid is different; not only do both sides intend to honor the results of a legitimate, well-organized vote, but there's an absence of anything resembling violence or smear campaigns. Character assassination,"Better Together"-style, includes the outrageous revelation that Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is 30 percent short of his weight-loss target. Where are the out-of-focus tabloid photos picturing a lookalike buying drugs in a dark alley? Where are the allegations of financial improprieties or lurid kiss-and-tell tales from scorned girlfriends?

The Daily Mail newspaper recently laid bare what it called "the dark side of the campaign for Scottish independence":

Homes with 'No Thanks' posters have been pelted with eggs and one householder in Edinburgh had 'coward' etched into his front door. Farmers have received anonymous phone calls saying their livestock will be set loose unless they take down campaign boards.

Eggs? Graffiti? Liberated sheep? One of the world's great powers, the world's sixth biggest economy, may split apart in a few days, and the worst that happens in the lead-up to the momentous event is a handful of yolk and albumen missiles.

U.K. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband recently had to cut short a walkabout in Edinburgh after independence supporters chanted "You're a liar" and jostled the politician in a shopping mall. "I think we have seen in parts of this campaign an ugly side," Miliband complained. Here's ugly: In Kiev the other day, a legislator seen as sympathetic to the cause of pro-Russian separatist rebels was stuffed into a trash container.

Comparing Scotland with Chechnya or Crimea may seem far-fetched, but Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles was a hot spot on a similar scale, and its own secession referendum in 1973 was boycotted by the Catholic population. Passions in Scotland, by contrast, run no higher than they would during a local soccer match.

If such a high-stakes battle can play out in such a civilized manner, perhaps the differences between London and Edinburgh can be settled just as nicely without a split. The two sides don't hate each other enough even for a plate-smashing divorce, not to mention a real secession war. So what would a division solve that negotiations within the current scheme of things can't?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net