Across the street from the Scottish Parliament, on Calton Hill, is buried one of the greatest Brits who ever lived. David Hume was a pioneer of the Scottish Enlightenment – a philosophical movement which helped lay the foundations of classical liberalism, a way of thinking about society that would come to define the modern world.
Hume was born when the United Kingdom was in its infancy, just four years after the 1707 Acts of Union which brought Scotland and England under the governance of one parliament. Over the next three hundred years, these newly united islands would advance and defend the principles of classical liberalism imparted by Hume and his contemporaries, perhaps more than anywhere. But the Union is now on its knees. On Thursday, just over a million Scottish voters turned out to fill Holyrood with candidates from pro-independence parties in what they hope will validate a second independence referendum. At this critical time, David Hume’s ideas are as important as ever, highlighting the contradictions at the heart of the independence movement.
The irony of independence lies in the friction between its emphasis on self-determination, and the nation it hopes to create. Those in favour of independence ask why Scotland, a minority population within the Union, should be unwillingly tethered to the decisions of a voting majority. What grounds, then, would there be to prevent a Scottish constituency with a pro-UK majority breaking away from an independent Scotland? For that matter, what if your local neighbourhood wanted political independence? Or even a single person? Where do we draw the borders?
Hume’s way of thinking about the nature of knowledge can also be applied to how we run our society. As an Empiricist, he believed that knowledge came from individual experiences and denounced the abstractions we make from those experiences as artificial. Just as the individual perception is the irreducible unit of knowledge, so the individual person is the fundamental unit of society. Any abstraction above the level of the individual – be it the family, the neighbourhood, the region or the nation – is ultimately artificial. It is out of these abstractions that political conflicts arise. Hume therefore knew that the only solution to these issues lies in minimising the effect of abstractions and devolving as much sovereignty as possible to the individual.
But that is something in which pro-independence voters simply do not believe. For many, an independent Scotland is seen as a collectivist utopia, with excessive focus on state provision and intervention. Sturgeon’s stringent lockdown measures in recent months have only reinforced her party’s tendency towards big government bureaucracy and its disregard for the private sector. The controversial hate-crime bill, which draws arbitrary distinctions between groups of people, was an ominous glimpse into the erosion of individual liberty that might well take place in an independent Scotland. And indeed, the whole independence movement relies on an imaginary difference between two groups of people who happen to live on either side of an imaginary line drawn up by medieval monarchs.
If pro-independence voters are keen to preserve Scotland’s sovereignty as a minority member of a larger union, then they must also acknowledge that the smallest minority on earth is the individual. Their nationalism seems to blind them to any level of devolution beyond that of the Scottish state. But self-determination does not end with Scotland. Unlike the SNP, the UK Government has the individual’s interests at its core.
It is hard to believe that such a flagrantly self-refuting idea as Scottish independence has persisted for so long. But it will eventually fall on its own sword. The collectivist nation that it promises to usher in is simply incompatible with the idea of self-determination. And therein lies the irony of independence. The place where pro-Indy voters want to go is undermined by the way in which they want to get there; the ends contradict the means.
Nevertheless, millions of Scots have just voted to fill Holyrood with pro-independence MSPs. Across the street on Calton Hill, David Hume is surely turning in his grave.
Angus Barrett is a Glaswegian student studying biology at Magdalen College, Oxford