An impending referendum in Scotland could bring about the end of a 307-year-old union—and the most successful nation state in history
An impending referendum in Scotland could bring about the end of a 307-year-old union—and the most successful nation state in history
On a drizzly evening last month, I joined a crowd of mild-mannered, good-humoured Scots at a church in Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland. A simple place of worship, with a great stained glass window above the altar, it was once the family shop of Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and son of a Church of Scotland minister. There was a bagpiper playing ‘Amazing Grace’ at the church doorway. It felt like a gentile, provincial cultural gathering, not an insurgency; but that is what this was.
The crowd had come to hear Tariq Ali, the Lahore-born Trotskyite and, in the words the Rolling Stones allegedly penned for him, a ‘street fighting man’. One of a clutch of foreign lefties—Ali is British, but not Scottish—supporting the campaign for Scottish independence, he had come to tell them why. Once extricated from the neo-liberal British state, Ali argued, Scotland would be a more democratic, fairer and more prosperous place. He was hazy on the details of the reindustrialisation he envisaged for Scotland; but that is an advantage when making the economic case for its separation from the 307-year-old United Kingdom. His audience was rapt, nodding at every point.
Ali has not won many of his myriad causes, but he might, just conceivably, win this one. On 18 September, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom. Most opinion polls suggest that, by a margin of roughly 59-41, they will decide not to. Yet, there are reasons to fear that the numbers understate support for the separatist ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign, including unusually wide disagreement among the pollsters, one or two of whom predict a much closer contest. There is also uncertainty over the effect of what is likely to be the biggest turnout in any British vote of recent times. That will include many disaffected Scots, from the tough public-housing estates of Glasgow and Edinburgh, who have recently not bothered to vote. Having little love of the status quo, they are most likely to vote ‘Yes’ to secession.
It is hard to exaggerate how momentous a ‘Yes’ vote would be—for Scotland, Britain and beyond. The five million residents of Scotland would have launched themselves on a most risky experiment. For there is little agreement on how the UK would be broken up or on how an independent Scotland would organise its affairs—including the small matters of what currency it would use, what central bank would guarantee it; or even whether it could join the European Union or NATO, as the leader of the separatists, Alex Salmond, says it would. Its finances would also be a worry; an independent Scotland would have a large, though declining, North Sea oil industry—and one of the idlest, sickliest and most welfare-addicted populations in Europe. Scots consume roughly 15 per cent more public spending per head than the British average.
Perhaps more significantly, the reputational damage for what would be left of Britain would be immense. How could it—a declining, medium-sized European power—presume to exert influence in the world if it could not even keep itself intact? How could Britain persuade other countries to bend to its will if it could not persuade the Scots to remain part of it? No doubt, many would appreciate the schadenfreude—Britain’s history of imperialism, exceptional achievement and intrusive or interventionist foreign policy has inspired plenty of justified resentment and envy. Yet the end of the United Kingdom—the most successful marriage of nations in history—would be a discomfiting precedent for many countries. In the rich, somewhat jaded West, it would inspire other separatists—in Catalonia and the Basque region of Spain, for example—and generally highlight the dangers of neglected, disaffected voters, of whom there are millions in Europe.
In even more fissiparous places—and India is one—a Scottish split might be even more foreboding. Indeed, listening to Ali in that church in Kirkcaldy, I half-smiled to recall the last time I had discussed Scottish independence with a Lahori. While jawing about Pakistan’s troubles in Baluchistan, with its Seraikis, and in the north-west, I mentioned to my friend Najam Sethi, the journalist and polymath, that if Scotland’s nationalist urge was any clue, Pakistan would have a job to stick together. “Scotland breakaway from Britain?!” he said, as a look of amazement, then mischievous delight, and finally horror crossed his face in rapid sequence. “Then we’re buggered!”
Why is this happening? The answer is not straight forward and, again, contains lessons that are relevant far beyond Scotland.
Scottish nationalism has a long history. On 24 June, Scots, some waving the blue-and-white Scottish Saltire, others no doubt waving swords and smeared in woad, celebrated the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when their forebears under Robert the Bruce defeated a much bigger English army. Yet modern Scottish nationalism is of a much different and more recent generation. It emerged as a political creed only in the 1960s, as Britain was retreating from the last of its colonies.
This was no coincidence. Scotland’s place in the union had long been justified and burnished by Scottish feats of empire- building—especially in India. Through their early prominence in the East India Company and colonial civil service, Scots were enormously influential on the Subcontinent. In the late 18th century, almost half the writers of the Company were Scots; at least 20 of Calcutta’s biggest 19th century merchant houses were in Scottish hands. Between 1885 and 1939, a third of Britain’s colonial Governors-General were Scots. James Wilson, founder of The Economist, was just such a Scottish adventurer. A hat-maker from Hawick, in the Scottish border region, he was sent to rebuild India’s financial system after the 1857 Mutiny, and died in Kolkata, where he was buried (but not in the city’s Scottish Cemetery, where lie the remains of at least 1,500 of his compatriots). Wilson’s grave was recently rescued from obscurity by CP Bhatia, an assistant commissioner of income tax, while he was researching a book on the Indian tax code.
It is no wonder Scots felt the end of empire. It left them fewer opportunities to shine. And as the British institutions that had sustained the empire—the army, the colonial service and so forth—proceeded to shrink, so did Scots’ feelings of British identity. Asked for their nationality, in 1970, 39 per cent of Scots said they were British; by 2013, that had fallen to 23 per cent. The retreat from empire and subsequent rise in Scottish national identity is the essential context for the rise of Scottish nationalism. Yet it was more obviously fuelled by socialism.
Britain’s post-war industrial malaise also hit Scotland hard. Its economy was based on ship-building, textiles and other industries, some of which had been dependent on imperial trade. As they declined, left-wing unions battled to save them, and the former empire-builders developed a new national story: the pioneering Scots were now bruised, working-class and socialist.
This reinforced what was already a discernible polarisation of British politics, whereby the post-industrial north voted for the Labour Party and the prosperous south of England for the Conservatives. And from this grew the new nationalist creed, which is that, to simplify, Scots are different from the English because they are more left-wing, and that Scottish independence is necessary to give them the socialist government they crave.
The discovery of North Sea oil, in the late 60s and early 70s, provided more converts to this cause. It provided Scots with another grievance—‘It’s Scotland’s oil!’ proclaimed the Scottish National Party—and a compelling reason to think they could go it alone as a nation. This led to a campaign for home rule which, by the 1990s, when Tony Blair was plotting to bring Labour back from the wilderness, had become cacophonous. A devolution referendum was held in 1997, at which Scots voted overwhelmingly to have their own parliament, which was duly convened, under Labour steerage.
Most English thought that would be the end of the matter; only around 20 per cent of Scots wanted full independence. Yet the English underestimated the political skills of the Scottish National Party’s leader, Alex Salmond.
A chubby-cheeked, twinkly-eyed lover of the turf with a reputation for ruthlessness, Mr Salmond is arguably Britain’s most effective politician. As Labour’s grip on Scotland weakened— in particular, because of Scottish opposition to Blair’s war in Iraq—Salmond capitalised. The SNP formed a coalition government in Scotland in 2007, and, after running a halfway decent administration, recorded a stunning victory over its hapless Labour main rival in 2011. Having formed a government of his own in Scotland, Mr Salmond was able to demand the looming independence referendum.
He has added sophistication to the separatist case, too. It is not only about oil revenues and hating the English. In fact, Mr Salmond has downplayed Scots’ centuries-old resentment of their southern neighbour. He describes a vision of a future Scotland that is more nimble economically, like the Scandinavian countries that it would resemble in size, more socially democratic, and which would enjoy excellent relations with its neighbours. Mr Salmond is a big fan of the European Union, as are all Scots compared to the Eurosceptic English.
He even promises better relations between Scots and the “plain folk” of England once the imperial yoke of the British state has been lifted from their shoulders. This conciliatory, not to say visionary, message has sanitised the separatist cause. It has made it possible for delicate, middle-class Scots, wary of rabble rousers, to describe themselves as secessionists, though not nationalists.
There are, nonetheless, a few problems with Mr Salmond’s vision for Scotland. The most obvious concerns the ‘Yes’ campaign’s economic plans, which are full of holes. The separatists stand accused of seriously overstating Scotland’s future oil revenues—to roughly double that of independent estimates. There is, contrary to Mr Salmond’s claims, little prospect of Scotland squirreling away oil money for the future as Norway does. It would barely cover the Scottish state’s current costs; and these will rise—by 3 per cent a year, the SNP admits—as the oil industry declines.
There are other economic uncertainties: in particular, concerning the currency. Given the problems in the Eurozone, Mr Salmond wants Scotland to retain the pound—with the Bank of England, ironically, as its lender of last resort. No chance, say the leaders of every mainstream British political party: in the event of a banking crisis, that could put the rest of Britain— the state Scots had elected to forsake—on the hook for Scottish debts.
Unionist politicians have spent most of their time attacking the idea of an independent Scotland on this basis. They claim Mr Salmond is trying to sell the Scots a ‘pup’, that they should expect to be £1,200 per capita worse off in an independent Scotland. And this is a powerful argument. Yet the uncomfortably close unionist lead in the polls suggests its shortcoming. The truth is that even Scots who buy the economic case for the union resent the insinuation that Scots are terminally dependent on England for assistance. What is missing is not, as the unionist campaigners seem to think, a clinching pocket-book case for Britain; but a more imaginative, even emotional, one.
This should not be so hard to make—because Mr Salmond’s characterisation of modern British identity is a travesty. Far from being an outworn shibboleth, laden with the institutional tatters of empire, Britishness rises above the more exclusionary national identities of Britain’s constituent parts. That is why ethnic minorities—including over three million Brits of South Asian extraction in England and Wales— are more likely to call themselves ‘British’ than ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’. I have met many British Indians, even British Punjabis; I have never met an English Indian or English Punjabi.
To be British is to have the freedom not to choose between multiple identities—and to be free of the more strident nationalism that is rising in England and that also underlies Mr Salmond’s conciliatory rhetoric. It is to be part of a country with an interesting, sometimes glorious past; and which, though diminished in relative terms, remains rich, diverse, and tolerant. So why are Scotland’s unionist politicians finding Britain so hard to argue for?
The big, historic forces behind Scottish nationalism, deindustrialisation, political polarisation and so forth are only part of the answer. The more worrying part is the failure of British politicians to make a compelling socio-economic case for Britain’s future— and not only in Scotland. The result is a growing disillusionment with the established order, right across the UK, which English Eurosceptics are tapping, just as Mr Salmond is.
In all likelihood, the Scottish leader will still fail to break up the union, this time. But Scottish nationalism will not die in the event of a narrow ‘No’ vote. And in other disaffected parts of Britain too, including Wales and northern England, growing regional disparities of wealth and political allegiance are weakening British democracy; almost every election, the turnout falls.
As they grapple for solutions to these structural problem, in a venerable but rather tired democracy, British politicians need to remember what it is to be liberal, visionary and bold. Or they must accept the old slur, which Mr Salmond has revived, that Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.