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opinion

Scots are welcome to vote themselves a poorer and less significant future as an independent country next week.

People have done foolish things in the past, thinking with their hearts instead of their heads. After all, nationalism is more about the emotion than the cranium, as people, who form what the academic Benedict Anderson has called an "imagined community," dredge up past grievances and dream of a better future.

Scotland and England have been joined in Great Britain since 1707. This union has lasted for more than three centuries, without internal strife except the inevitable political kind. By any measurable, comparable standard – economic prosperity, defence of human liberties, political stability, international heft – it has been an enormous success.

No, Britain is not what it once was: centre of an empire and all that. As Linda Colley wrote in her brilliant book Britons, Scots played a disproportionately important role in the British Empire, as the early history of Canada demonstrates. The dwindling of the Empire and the shrinking of the military deprived Scots of opportunities. As time passed, more of Scotland's elites went inward rather than looking outward, which is what nationalists tend to do.

Breaking up an old, successful country puts the onus on those who want something different. Tearing up more than three centuries of unity for something unknown and, by definition, potentially precarious requires credible assertions that something fundamental has gone wrong.

As in: Can people not speak their language or practise their religious faiths? Are they discriminated against? Are their human rights abused? Is the economic deck stacked against them, such that their standard of living has declined or not kept pace with progress elsewhere? Is there such disrespect directed toward them by people elsewhere in the country that collective relations are uncomfortable, even intolerable?

The answer to these fundamental questions – the ones on which a breakup should hang – are all resolutely "no" in Scotland's case, just as they were (and are) in Quebec's. So the case for separation must therefore devolve into assertions that a new state would become better off in a world in which all potential obstacles are overcome and all bright scenarios are realized.

It helps small nations in a globalized world to be formally part of a wider political or economic entity, although Switzerland and Norway do suggest otherwise. Scotland has just over five million people, with whatever influence that achieves within Britain and its 60 million. If Scots feel insignificant or underappreciated – voiceless even – within Britain, how will they feel within the European Union and its 500 million?

Maybe they will feel better, even if their influence abroad will be marginal at best. They will be "standing on their own two feet," "calling their own shots," "fulfilling their destiny" and other like-minded clichés that speak to the longing to be free of the encumbrances required by being a constituent part of a larger state.

Except that, the day after separation, encumbrances would begin to reform, and not necessarily the way separatists envision, as The Scotsman editorialized Thursday. It will turn out that using the British pound, even if possible, would mean using another country's currency, without any obligation for authorities in London to give a whiff's consideration to the thoughts of the separated part of the old country.

Alternatively, Scotland could establish its own currency, which would be so encumbered by debts and uncertainty that its value would plunge, thereby making Scots poorer. Or it could try for the euro, where, once again, it would have no say and be a taker all the way.

From realpolitik and economic perspectives, the case for Scottish independence is exceptionally weak, especially when its supposedly bright future is predicated on dwindling supplies of North Sea oil. But the case is fundamentally not about international influence or economics, but rather rests on the cracked pedestal of imagined or real slights (the two blend together into mythology) inflicted by the English over the centuries, a desire to assert distinctiveness based on exaggerating differences rather than stressing communalities, and feeling somehow prouder about exercising the full panoply of sovereign powers – until some of these are yielded up, as they inevitably must be, to other international institutions.

Those of diluted Scottish heritage (Simpsons, for example, being a rivulet of the mighty Fraser clan), admittedly with no skin in the game, can only shake our heads at the folly of it all.