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Ian B on the Bases of Scottish Separatism

We’re Libertarians, and we do a lot of economics, so let’s do some economic thinking.

People tend to look on this current unhappiness that is fuelling division as a matter of ethnicity or nations. We talk of Celts and English; the “Celtic Fringe” and so on. But here’s a more simple definition of what appear to be the “two parties” in the argument: Highlands and Lowlands. Here is a topographic map of Britain-

There is a pretty obvious division between highland areas and the lowland areas, which are in the South East. In general, highlands are less productive than lowlands, and this has been true of Britain for most of history. As far back as Roman times, even though Roman conquest extended far North, most of the towns and production were in the Southern Lowlands. And here’s an interesting thing; when the Roman legions left and Britain’s South East ecnonomically collapsed, it took the rest of the British Roman economy in non-conquered areas with it <i>simultaneously</i>. Even back then, Britain was economically dependent on the South East. It is easy to see why; good agricultural lands, a more benign climate, and excellent, easy transport links across the relatively low, flat landscape, compared to struggling over hills and mountains and across windswept uplands in the Highlands. Highland Britain, whether in England, Wales or Scotland, is at a natural disadvantage economically.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, that suddenly changed, and for one simple reason. Here is a map of Britain’s coalfields-

“King Coal”- the power source of heavy industry- was located in the central, northern and western highlands. The result was obvious. For once, those areas had the productive advantage. It was cheaper to move finished goods a little further and more awkwardly than to shift millions of tons of raw coal from the North and West to the South. Britain’s political and financial centre remained in London (money is easy to move) but industry located in the upland areas.

With the end of industrial greatness, and the end of the dominance of King Coal as a power source, those highland areas now had no advantage. The economy shifted South again. With the reliance of the new post-industrial economy on State-supported hyperfinance, the situation was enormously exacerbated as a permanent bubble developed in the South East around London. People seeking a fortune go where the money is, as with a Gold Rush. Not just the money miners themselves, but all the support industries they need.

The result is that the old geographically balanced economy, with multiple centres of production and wealth far from London, died. Upland citizens with no need to dig coal, no industry to power with the coal, and thus no other advantages, were left with nothing to do. The only logical conclusion would have been either to think up some new great industries that those areas could dominate (but nobody can) or for many of the residents to move south- but few of them want to do that, and the Southerners anyway prefer to import foreign migrants for various reasons much discussed elsewhere.

It is no wonder therefore that since the 1980s the “north/south divide” has magnified towards open, if verbal, aggression. The old industrial areas blame the Tories who presided over the demise of their industry and find rule by the Tories thus intolerable. They dream that freedom from London will produce an economic revival. Maybe it will. It would probably, though, make more sense to be economically than politically independent, to free themselves from the draining effects of the ever-bubbling Pound Sterling firing out of the money cannons in the City Of London; but that ironically is the one thing that the Scottish Nationalists did not want to do, and neither presumably do the Welsh Nationalists or the disaffected in Northern England.

But King Coal, the source of former regional wealth, is dead. There is no obvious replacement. It is thus unlikely that a resolution of economic disparities and the resulting regional resentments is going to be easy. Libertarian government would, of course, help enormously by pricking the financial bubble in the South East which, as I mentioned earlier, grossly exaggerates the disparity. But that, sadly, is not going to happen any time soon.

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