Can cosmopolitans vote for Scottish independence?

A cosmopolitan nationalist is a contradiction in terms. Yet I want to suggest that in some cases consistent cosmopolitans may be justified in supporting nationalist causes – in particular, voting ‘yes’ in independence referenda like the ones anticipated in Scotland and Catalonia in 2014.

Cosmopolitanism is the moral or political theory that insists that nationality is morally arbitrary – that we have no greater reason to promote or care about the welfare of our compatriots than people of any other country. This is, almost by definition, antagonistic to nationalism, which insists that we woe at least some loyalty to our nation and its inhabitants. Cosmopolitanism means, literally, citizenship of the world. Nationalism seeks to carve out a slice of the world, and put it above others.


So cosmopolitans and nationalists are certainly unlikely comrades, but if circumstances conspire in the right way, I think they can end up on the same side.


The first point to make is that while cosmopolitans embrace global citizenship in a moral sense, few major cosmopolitans have called for its institutional corollary – a world state. Thomas Pogge offers perhaps the most prominent discussion of an ideal cosmopolitan global order, and maintains an important role for nation-states, as part of a ‘multi-layered’ order, with power diffused down to regional institutions and up to global organisations. Moreover, Pogge sees secessionist referenda, as in Scotland or Catalonia, as part of the “cosmopolitan ideal of democracy”:

“The inhabitants of any contiguous territory of reasonable shape, if sufficiently numerous, may decide-through some majoritarian or supermajoritarian procedure-to form themselves into a political unit of a level commensurate with their number”

Even commitment to a world state does not necessarily entail opposition to secession. After all, voters are being asked to choose between Scotland and the UK, or Catalonia and Spain – ‘World State’ is unlikely to appear on any ballots. On the face of it, World Staters are likely to oppose secession as it represents a move further away from a World State – greater fragmentation, rather than unity. But it could be that a more indirect route to global unification seems more likely – for example, if one of the new states is more open to multi-national institutions (as Scotland appears to be more supportive of the EU than the rest of the UK). More likely, neither option will make a World State substantially more likely, in which case the World Stater is in the same position as other cosmopolitans, forced to fall back on other considerations.


So what considerations should guide a cosmopolitan voter? While Pogge suggests that cosmopolitans should accept the decisions of referenda, he does not offer any guidance on how to decide which side to support once a referendum is called. One possibility is that this falls within the legitimate sphere of compatriot preference that some cosmopolitans accept – that this is one area where it is OK to give voice to nationalist sympathies. If this is the case, then the decision is simple – the cosmopolitan is free to vote for whichever country they feel most emotional attachment to.


But suppose we want to deny it is ever legitimate to show compatriot preference, or perhaps that we genuinely have no emotional preference? In that case, there are three relevant considerations that a cosmopolitan needs to account for:


1. Will secession leave the new country (ie Scotland/Catalonia) better off?

2. Will secession leave the rump/original country (ie ‘rUK’/Spain) better off?

3. Will secession be better for those from other countries (eg Spain, Romania, Somalia, Niger)?


This might seem trivial, but it is important to bear all three considerations in mind when reviewing the arguments for independence. For starters, notice that the vast majority of the debate addresses only consideration 1.


The cosmopolitan must therefore be indifferent to any zero-sum nationalist claims. If Catalonia claims it will be richer with independence because it will have to share less of its wealth with Spain, then the cosmopolitan will not see this as positive, since it will make Spain worse off. Moreover, they must be alert to knock-on effects. If an independent Scotland would be a fairer, more equal place than rUK, this good must be balanced against the harm to the rest of Britain of losing Scotland’s moderating influence (and, for example, embracing neo-liberalism more fully). Cosmopolitans are also likely to pay particular attention to domains like foreign and immigration policy which impact people of other nationalities. Thus an independent Scotland’s more pacific stance in international relations and greater openness to immigration is likely to strengthen the cosmopolitan’s appetite for independence (assuming, of course, that this does not significantly affect rUK’s policy).


Thus a cosmopolitan’s reasoning on the independence question is likely to be more complex and more pragmatic than most. other voters. There are more interests to be considered, certain arguments that must be thrown out, other arguments that must be given greater emphasis. But it is entirely possible that independence may be the course that best promotes cosmopolitan values.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s