Al: Why can’t I go left through those trees, up that hill, over that bunker, and onto the green?
—Medinah Country Club, 1 Oct. 2012
“So you’re saying there’s no route to get there in three,” Al said as we stood in the trees right of the seventh fairway. “Yes,” I replied, “that’s what I’m saying.” “That’s pretty pessimistic” he said.
I told him I’m part Scot.
“We’re all optimists now,” he said. “That’s all in the past.” The stereotype of the dour Scot, he meant, was dead and gone, and Scotland looks forward to a new future, an optimism that, perhaps, is more reflective of a European than American mindset nowadays—and some might think that that’s why it’s Europe, rather than America, that’s got the Ryder Cup.
Scotland’s future is already mapped by my golfer, who was (and still is) Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. He was playing at Medinah on the day after the Ryder Cup ended, as part of tourism blitzkrieg his government was advancing to promote the next Ryder Cup, which will be held at Gleneagles in 2014. “Do you agree,” Salmond’s government wants to ask the Scots in that same autumn of 2014, “that Scotland should become an independent country?” Salmond’s ambition is to become the first Prime Minister of an independent Scotland. Independence is, he said, something that’s going to happen.
It might be a surprise to some Americans that such a question could be asked at all, given that Scotland has been an integral part of the United Kingdom (is, in fact, one reason why Great Britain is referred to as a “United Kingdom” at all), as a practical matter, since the accession of James I to the English crown in 1603. The last time, until recently, the matter was even in dispute was in the rebellion of 1745—“the ’45”—commemorated by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, like Waverly and Kidnapped.
In reality, the Scots have had a kind of home rule since 1999, when a Scottish Parliament took its seat in Edinburgh at Holyrood for the first time since the Parliament of Scotland merged with the Parliament of England to form the Parliament of Great Britain at Westminster in London in 1707. Three hundred years later, in 1997, the Scots voted to take back command of their own future in a referendum whose success Salmond is trying to recapture.
Regardless of whether it’s successful or not, the campaign has gotten great numbers of Scots to think about their future, which is probably a good thing. And it has also gotten very many other residents of those islands north and west of France to think about theirs too, as witness the contrary campaign put together by the supporters of the Acts of Union and the Westminster Parliament, who use the tagline “Better Together!” That campaign was something of a muted—at least for viewers on this side of the Atlantic—narrative thread for the Olympic Games held in London this past summer, as each British medal, within the islands, became in effect an argument for the status quo.
The argument made the Better Together! people is the same one that is always made by centralizers, going back before even the examples of Abraham Lincoln, in America, and Bismarck, in Germany. On the Better Together! website, one version of the argument is put by “Mary from Glasgow”: “When the bank we have our mortgage with was going under the whole of the UK bailed us out. Geordies, Scousers, Cockneys, Brummies, and Scots taxpayers: we were there for each other.” The greater power wielded by larger concentrations of people, in other words, enable more and better results for everyone—which would seem to put the Better Together! people, at least from an American perspective, on a footing with liberals like FDR or LBJ, people who wanted to use the massive power of the U.S. federal government to do good.
Yet it’s Yes Scotland, the outreach program of the Nationalists and Better Together!’s opposition, that wants to sell the idea of independence on the basis of reform. “Do we want,” says Yes Scotland’s website, “to be a nation that for the first time tries properly to get to grips with the persistent poverty that still blights Scotland, or one where economic policy is set by the financial institutions that got bailed out when their run of luck ran out?” And “Do we want a policy on immigration and asylum which is limited by the prejudices of the mid-market London media, or do we want to seize the economic and social benefits that immigration brings?” And “an independent Scotland could … claim the economic opportunities of a major shift to renewable [energies].” The argument for independence, in other words, is that it would allow for a quicker, or more direct, pace of change than afforded by the status quo.
There aren’t, of course, any easy comparisons between European and American conditions: Scotland’s call for independence has a rough comparison to the call of some American conservatives for “states’ rights,” a call that’s traditionally been associated, with good reason, with the most backward and retrogressive policies. Reading Yes Scotland is like reading the manifesto of an organization that demanded the secession of Alabama and Mississippi because it would advance the cause of African-American human rights. Yet what’s interesting about examining both sides’ arguments is that both sides advance their agendas in light of what would be best for the community at large.
In that sense, the old anecdote about the difference between the European and American Ryder Cup teams—that the one needed one table for twelve guys, and the other needed twelve tables—takes on something of a new meaning. It’s certainly clear, that is, that the American squad suffered from a lack of teamwork and direction, from the nearly complete failure of the four captain’s picks (Furyk, Snedecker, Stricker, and Dustin Johnson; only Johnson had a winning record) to the strange inability of the American team to relay the fact that Medinah’s 18th hole was playing short on Sunday.
That last is perhaps the most significant: traditionally, the American team has done poorly in the “team” aspects of the Ryder Cup—the alternate-shot and better-ball formats—and much better in the singles matches on the final day. Ostensibly, that’s because of the American insistence on individualism as opposed to Europe’s brand of collectivism. But in this Ryder Cup, it was Europe that did poorly in the “team” matches, losing 10-6 after the first two days. Yet they dominated in the singles, taking the first five matches of the final day. Those losses were arguably because the U.S. captain, Davis Love, failed to properly order his golfers—Bubba Watson vs. Luke Donald? Who thought that would go well?—which is to say, again, that poor leadership was to blame. Since Love effectively said that he was basically just letting his players do what they want, Johnny Miller apparently pointed out that that wasn’t leadership at all.
Davis is, as I’ve pointed out, a “true Southern gentleman” and from the very area of the country (the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia) that invented the doctrine of “states’ rights,” so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he ought to be so laissez-faire about his captaincy. But it’s worth noting the distinction to be made between “states’ rights” and what (some of) the Scots are doing: “states’ rights” is usually a means of avoiding leadership, while what the Scots seek to promote is, from their perspective, precisely to seize leadership.
It’s worth noting in this connection, perhaps, that in 1320 the Scots issued the Declaration of Arbroath, which was the first declaration of independence in the world. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” it reads, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” In that document, for the first time in world history, is the principle that sovereignty derives from the governed, and not from the governors, expounded. Which, as it happens, was similar to another argument being advanced around the same time, by one William of Ockham.
William, a Franciscan monk, was writing then about how the Pope’s power ultimately derived from the Church, and not the other way around. It’s that same William who wrote that “nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience,” which is also known today as Occam’s Razor. Which, you might also know, is about how to find the shortest route between two points. It used to be Americans who thought that way, you might think. Alex Salmond, and the European Ryder Cup team, seem to argue differently.