“We can do it better”—Scotland and the West parallels

Like Scotland, American states want to gain economic benefits from their own natural resources

The world watched and waited to learn the fate of Scotland following its vote on the referendum for independence. For many other regions within the U.K. — including Wales and Northern Ireland; within Europe, including Spain’s Catalonia and Belgium’s Flanders; and states within the U.S., including Vermont, Texas, and Alaska — ScottankersScotland’s vote energized and inspired separatists’ movements, even though they were disappointed with the outcome.

While Scotland voted “No,” and chose to remain in the United Kingdom, it made enough noise and caused enough concern in London, that, in effect, it won anyway. When the race appeared to be close, the Wall Street Journal reported, Westminster panicked—the “parties went into scramble mode.” They vowed “to introduce legislation to grant Scotland’s semiautonomous government more powers if voters reject independence.”

Before the first vote was cast, “the Scottish National Party had forced a desperate British government to promise Scotland’s devolved parliament more control over its affairs than it has ever had within the fold of the U.K.”

Other groups seeking independence are studying what Scotland did. The “No” vote will not squelch other separatist groups looking for self-governance, rather, it is, as the WSJ called the effort: “a template for conflict resolution.”

Kenny Anderson, the owner of the 40-employee Anderson Construction, was a supporter of the campaign for an independent Scotland. His company painstakingly Scotrigrestored Aberdeen’s Old Town House—which was once the center of town. The building now appears in the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland’s logo. He views his company’s success as metaphor for how apparently minor players can achieve big things. He told CNN: “In a small, independent business, it’s ‘easy to change things, it’s easy to make fast decisions. I used to be a minority shareholder in a much larger company and making good decisions, and changing things is ten times more difficult.’”

Anderson’s comments reflect one of the major complaints of the independence campaigners: a government closest to the people makes better decisions than one that is far away—in the case of Scotland, that government is in London. As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum put it: “The Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign grew out of a popular demand …to make decisions locally.”

But, the story in Scotland had another—less-reported—element: energy resources.

About 90% of the U.K.’s oil comes from Scotland, and the oil-and-gas industry is the largest corporate taxpayer in Britain—but Scotland doesn’t collect that tax. Taxes are collected and paid into the Treasury’s coffers in London, which, then, spreads it around and gives some of it back to Scotland. The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) states: “Nationalists have long claimed the resources as ‘Scotland’s oil,’ and see independence as a way to keep more of the billions in oil tax revenue in Edinburgh, rather than London.”

Edinburgh’s economic advisory body, according to CNN, has argued economic policies tailored to local needs would boost growth—in contrast to lower down on the agenda where Scotland feels its unique industries are now. Supporters of an independent Scotland believe that with London in charge, Scotland is being held back from its full economic potential.

While many are reporting on the Scotland vote as a warning for Europe and lessons for separatists, there are important parallels—and encouragement—with the movement afoot in the American West’s rebellion over excessive federal control of land and resources (which was at the core of the Bundy Ranch stand-off).

In the West, the federal government regulates more of the land than the states or private citizens do. Those lands are generally rich in natural resources. Yet, the federal government makes decisions far way, in Washington, D.C., that hold back economic potential, which would benefit the states if they were allowed to be creating jobs and new wealth—resulting in an increased tax base.

As was the case in Scotland, Washington, D.C., has different priorities. If states had more autonomy, more authority over the lands within their borders, they’d make better decisions.

Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance, agrees. He told me: “A desire for ‘self-governance’ is hard wired into humans. When asked the question, ‘who should decide the things that affect your life?’, the vast majority of people will answer, ‘Me.’ This extends to the idea that local governance is better than edicts from a distant government. People have more power locally.  ‘Who decides? I decide.’”

UtahcoalThe federal government has abused—and is abusing—its ability to declare national monuments by putting massive swaths of land out of productive use. It is doing the same with the Endangered Species Act: introducing predators into active ranching regions and using protecting a lizard to prevent oil-and-gas drilling. It claims to be saving potential owl habitat by stopping logging, resulting in overgrown, unhealthy tinderboxes where we see logging resources (and protected habitat and watershed) go up in smoke—polluting the air and water. I could go on, as there are many more examples, but these are some of the causes in which I’ve personally been involved and previously addressed.

Much like Scotland finally had enough of being under the thumb of British rule, the Bundy Ranch story—with total strangers converging in Nevada in defense of a rancher they’d never met—gave voice to an anger that has been building up in the West.  Nevada has more federally managed land than any other state—more than 80%.

Utah has led the way by becoming the first state to pass legislation that called on the federal government to begin to work with Utah on transferring federals land to the state—as was the ultimate intent of the Enabling Act that called for the federal government to “dispose” of the lands. More than 60% of Utah’s lands are managed by the federal government, and those lands are often rich in natural resources. Because the majority of the lands in Utah are managed by the federal government, with much of them off limits to development, the State doesn’t get the benefit of potential economic activity. It doesn’t get the full, possible tax revenue. To help with the loss, the federal government “gives” the state “payment in lieu of taxes”—which are being reduced due to budget challenges in Washington, D.C.

The Sutherland Institute’s  Coalition for Self-Government in the West has a report: Opportunity Lost, which provides an excellent overview of the situation in Utah. Regarding energy resources, it points out: “The geologies of oil and gas reservoirs on federal and private lands in the Rocky Mountains, including in Utah, share many similar features. Indeed, most of the production growth of crude oil has occurred in well-established oil fields. These production gains are realized from the application of new technology, such as three-dimensional seismic, directional drilling, and hydraulic fracturing. The Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies are developing new rules for the use of these technologies on federal lands that may impact the ultimate production, and therefore potential economic benefit, of these lands. In addition to the existing layers of regulatory hurdles and related litigation, delays in the implementation of these rules may have contributed to the relatively slower growth of oil and gas production on federal lands already.”

Through The American Lands Council, Utah Representative Ken Ivory has spearheaded Utah’s effort to force the federal government to honor its promise to “dispose” of certain federal lands. The Utah legislation calls for the lands to be turned over to the state as a proposed remedy to Washington’s failure to perform on its obligations under the contract. Utah lands would then be managed for greater access, health, and economic productivity. They could be added to the state tax base and would allow Utah to manage these lands for their best use. Ken told me that at a recent debate on this matter, opponents tried to spread fear about self-governance—much like that spread in Scotland: “The ‘Better Together’ campaign …at times uses scare tactics.” (CNN) But reports show the self-governance approach is legal, and it can be done.

AlaskaoilbearThe movement is growing. Several states, like Nevada, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have created task forces to study issues surrounding how public lands controlled by the federal government would be managed if they were transferred to the state. Others, like New Mexico, Arkansas, and Alaska, are working on legislation and/or resolutions. Additionally, legislators in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado are looking closely at the issue.

Representative Ivory, and others like him, is pushing for victory. But, even if, as happened in Scotland, the self-governance of federal lands doesn’t happen, a groundswell of support could bring about policy changes that would benefit the West and help states develop their “full economic potential”—which would benefit all of America.

The CSM closes its Scottish independence story with this: “Scotland requires a new approach to economic policy development and implementation, with government working collaboratively with business and others to identify and pursue competitive advantage.” The same could be said for the West.

A report about Scotland, and other separatist movements, in the Business Insider states: “From early on in the campaign they also focused more on making it less about all the things the U.K. is doing wrong and more about how they can do it better.” In the West, we know we “can do it better.” Let your state and federal elected officials know that you support state management of public lands and that you want decisions made at the local level—because we can do it better.

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About the Author: Marita Noon

Marita Noon

CFACT policy analyst Marita Noon is the author of Energy Freedom.,

  • StephenWilde

    What happens when such an autonomous region runs out of resources or if its resources lose value ?
    The point of joining a larger unit is to smooth out the risks from such variables.
    Suppose ‘Scottish oil’ becomes less valuable as result of vast fracking potential under England.
    Will the Scots be changing their tune or will they accept relative poverty ?