God Save the Queen

So, Scotland has gone to the polls, and it has decided to remain part of Great Britain. I had worried that nationalist sentiments and the perception of momentum behind Scottish independence might cause the people of Scotland to make a terrible decision; I am relieved to see that my fears were unfounded.

Having written that, there can be no doubt that a great deal of national healing needs to take place in Scotland. This piece by Michael Ignatieff, which reflects on bad feelings that remain from the Quebec independence fight back in 1995, is a useful guide for Scots who seek to engender a national feeling of unity in the aftermath of the referendum vote. Here is hoping that the people of Scotland–from the politicians to the populace–take heed of Ignatieff’s words, and work to ensure that there will be no lingering sense of resentment now that the outcome has been settled.

Here is hoping as well that politicians in all countries pay attention to Walter Russell Mead’s observations:

The most important lesson of the whole referendum may be this: that large and complicated political unions require decentralization and local control in order to survive. The centralizing, rationalizing impulse which imbues all great federal capitals with the desire to impose uniform laws and regulations across their territory—in Washington, in Brussels and in many other cities besides London—is something that needs to be kept within strict bounds.

The 20th century was an age of centralization. Industrialization made societies much more complex and increased the demand for uniform national legislation and policy, while the limits on communications and technology made the rise of large, centralized bureaucracies the most efficient and often the only feasible way to manage the affairs of large organizations. Moreover, with only a very small percentage of the population (only 1 or 2 percent early in the century, and not rising fast until after World War 2) having college educations, there was a shortage of people with the experience and breadth of knowledge necessary for many of the functions of government administration. Progressive ideology was all about creating effective bureaucracies and taking key issues out of politics and handing them over to (allegedly) meritocratic and apolitical administrators who would serve as the guardians of the public weal.

The 20th century was the golden age of the centralizing state, and the advanced industrial nations, including ones like the US and the UK where historically governments had been smaller and less intrusive, were marked by strong progressive and bureaucratic governments. This form of government had its problems and limitations, but it did many things well: improving public health and education, providing a framework for the development of a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced economy, organizing for victory in World War Two and the Cold War and so on.

However, in the 21st century it appears that the progressive ideal of the state will no longer suffice. A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.

Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.

Quite so. The best way for nation-states to engender feelings of national unity and counter secessionist sentiments is for the governments of those nation-states to show that they trust and respect local governments. As Mead notes, a sophisticated populace with access to treasure troves of information via the Internet–along with the attendant capacity to make decisions without bureaucratic interference–will accept nothing less.

As a final matter, let me note that the Putin regime has been paying attention to the vote in Scotland, and decided to remind the rest of the world that it has not lost its capacity to be ridiculous.