Francis Cardell-Oliver on why Scotland doesn’t need independence.
One could be forgiven for mistaking Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond for the leader of a small colonised state located somewhere in the Horn of Africa, some time in the early 1960s. The language of the debate on Scottish independence, at least from the Scottish side, is framed very much in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’: John o’Groats and Westminster, oppressed and oppressor, native and English. Whether he thinks of himself as William Wallace or Bonnie Prince Charlie, the leader of the Scottish National Party seems to inhabit a nostalgic fantasy land in which Scots are the hapless victims of their parasitic southern neighbours: saddled with problems not of their own making, denied a say in their destiny, living under the imposed dictates of a foreign tyranny. He seems to forget that the vast national debt and consequent necessity of deep public sector spending cuts which frustrate so many of his voter base (and arguably secured the SNP’s success in 2011 elections) accrued under the watch of two Scottish PMs (and a Chancellor) of a country of which Scotland is very much a part.
As with most political debates of the west in this day and age, it was not long before the word ‘democracy’ was invoked in favour of independence. There has been a tendency, since Fukuyama so confidently extolled the merits of the modern incarnation of the Athenian constitution back in ’89, to pay perhaps more than healthy reverence to the mere concept of democracy, in all its symbolic and linguistic incarnations. For the SNP (and a great many other English speakers) the introduction of the language of democracy lends to its context a certain gravitas – the feeling (to be expected) that where the right of self-determination is threatened something must be seriously, disturbingly and dangerously wrong, and in need of immediate, drastic and enthusiastic remedy. Of course such cheap oratorical devices don’t (or shouldn’t) work where the invocation of principle is based on a lie. That is very much true of Scottish independence. The Scottish people have, and have had for 300 years, a perfectly sufficient say in their own affairs. I have already mentioned a number of Scots at the very top of the tree; but in addition to the fact that many of the executive decisions lambasted by the SNP were made by a Scottish elected representative (Gordon Brown, member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath), they were voted on by a democratically elected legislature in which Scots had as much say as any of their southern neighbours. In fact Scottish representation in the House of Commons is a little more than proportional to its population: with 8% of the population, Scotland contains a little over 10% of the UK’s electorates. To the SNP’s argument that Scots representatives are severely outnumbered in the Commons by Englishmen the reply is simple: of course they are – there are more English voters. The assertion that this state of affairs is somehow unfair directly impugns the egalitarianism of proportional democratic representation: it implies that Scots electors are somehow more equal (to paraphrase Orwell) than English. In any case, the whole line of reasoning rests on the assumption that there is some sort of bipolar opposition between English and Scottish legislative interests: a patent nonsense, the stupidity of which is amply illustrated by the fact that 53 of 59 Scottish MPs subscribe to the same party platforms as their English counterparts.
All this is not to deny that Scotland has some significant differences from its larger neighbour, notably cultural, but also in its legal system, financial sector, healthcare and social security arrangements. But there’s already a highly developed system of devolution in place to deal with these differences. Scotland’s separate legal system survived union in 1707 fully intact: the only ‘English’ imposition thereon is the Supreme Court (formerly the House of Lords). I think we can trust the Law Lords not to oppress Scottish parties; similar institutions in the US and this country manage to judge cases from different jurisdictions without sparking too many secessionist movements. As for legislative policy differences which might be attributed to the Scottish people as a whole, and as distinct from the larger UK population, Salmond already gets to give effect to those through the Scottish Parliament. In a speech in London on January 24 he extolled Scottish policy on healthcare, the minimum wage, education, smoking, drinking, and infrastructure investment: policies which, he argued, reflected peculiarly Scottish values and sensibilities. But these changes were already quite adequately facilitated by the existing system. In 2009 the Calman Commission – a body of experts convened to discuss the future of Scotland in the Union – released its final report. It found that further devolution of certain powers would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament. The Cameron-Clegg government has committed to implementing those recommendations. But it also found that some things – defence, foreign policy and certain types of regulation, for example – were better handled at a national level. In short, a complete handover of power over Scotland to the Scottish Parliament isn’t politically necessary or advisable.
The economic divorce of the Union raises similar issues of practicality and principle. To start off with, it raises some basic questions of fairness. Already the SNP has come out and said what it will and won’t take of the UK’s national revenue and debt. The SNP’s preferred method of dividing North Sea oil revenues is along geographical lines. The vast majority of oil fields are farther north than Berwick-on-Tweed, so the Scottish-preferred arrangement would see 8% of the population taking 90% of what is currently a national resource. But while they’re prepared to cash in on geographical pot-luck, the SNP aren’t so keen to share accountability for the national debt. The bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland is arguably a great deal more Scottish than a few miles of sea bed half-way to Norway. But apparently that was the work of the incompetent foreigners at Westminster (that would be the Scottish PM, along with 60-odd Scottish MPs, mostly Labour members who voted for the bailout). But even the SNP’s preferred approach wouldn’t do Scotland much good. In stark contrast to their approach to the oil revenues, the SNP are prepared to countenance proportional division by population when it comes to the national debt. But that would still leave a newly independent Scotland with a debt of about 80% of its GDP. A yet thornier question is posed by the issue of currency. A few years ago, the SNP advocated joining the Euro: their models were places like Iceland and Ireland. I need hardly add that views have since changed. But staying with the pound whilst abdicating a say in Westminster policy would bring equally disagreeable fiscal problems – a complete lack of control over monetary policy set with nought but English objectives and needs in mind. Ironically, it would be similar to the fantasy of world of self-interested English domination some Scots imagine now. All this is not to say that Scottish independence would mean economic doomsday for everyone north of the Tweed. These issues may well have solutions which could be worked out bilaterally, as they have been in other partitions. But it does go to show that the economics alone do not make a convincing case for Scottish independence. Scotland’s more prosperous as it is.
All of which brings us to the question: why does Scotland need independence? The answer is not ‘freedom’. The answer is not – given the current and prospective state of devolution – political. And it’s not economic. The answer is in the second word of the ruling party’s name. And like all creeds of its kind, Scottish nationalism is based on a myth: the myth that Scottish people are different from Englishmen, Irishmen, Welshmen, or Cornishmen. Most Scots define themselves as Scottish rather than British. I’m not accusing them, or Alex Salmond, of being closet phrenologists. But perceptions of difference don’t have to rest on anything so literal as eugenics. Nationalism is what you get when you take differences – primarily historical and cultural, bolstered by peripheral political and economic claims – and elevate them above commonalities. That focus on difference is distorting; it’s what makes nationalism inherently small-minded, historically inaccurate, foolish and dangerous. That is particularly true of the case of Scotland, where commonalities with the rest of the United Kingdom so vastly outweigh distinctions. What makes someone Scottish in the first place? There are nearly half a million each of Englishmen and Scots living in each other’s geographical boundaries, so that measure seems inadequate, and century upon century of cohabitation has blurred the lines of ancestry such that one can hardly claim Scottishness by descent. I am probably a fairly typical example of the latter confusion: my mother’s side is largely Scottish, and my father’s English, but both English and Scots have added their blood to the line on both sides stretching back centuries; it’s simply impossible to disentangle the two or preference either. Religion is no longer the definitive arbiter of identity, and differences in speech, dress, pastimes or traditions seem too superficial to form the basis for any real distinction. That leaves us with ideas: values, beliefs, aspirations and ideals. And it is precisely here that we meet the strongest common ground in the Union. A passage of Salmond’s recent London speech on this topic bears quoting at length:
“But most of all, in addition to… institutional, cultural, economic and practical links, Scotland shares ties of family and friendship with our neighbours on these islands which can never be obsolete.
And when you consider our shared economic interests, our cultural ties, our many friendships and family relationships, one thing becomes clear. After Scotland becomes independent, we will share more than a monarchy and a currency. We will share a social union.”
That – from the mouth of the greatest proponent of independence – is the strongest argument for union. Scotland and the rest of Great Britain share a common model of government, a common tongue, common values, common aspirations and common interests: they have faced common adversity, shared and forged a common history, and should now be looking to a common future. No one wants to bully Scotland into a union it doesn’t want: Westminster would almost certainly have to recognise what the SNP has described as the “enormous moral and political force” of a referendum, despite its constitutional superiority. But when Scottish voters go to the polls it should only take the briefest of glances at the last two hundred years of history and the reality of the present to expose the folly of the nationalist myth of difference and inequality. It was a Scot who penned the immortal lines:
“Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down,
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
‘Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.’”
For all its jingoistic bluster, the verse does sum up some profound elements of British (not Scottish, not English) identity: values such as freedom and equality, a belief in human dignity, and a commitment to unified resistance to that which threatens those principles. Let us not forget that, for all their medieval and baroque antagonism, these are two nations which, most lately, when it most mattered – when the continent was darkened by a creed which so obscenely elevated difference over common humanity – stood together in defence of shared interests and shared ideals. Those ideals should remain the guiding light of a shared country: a United Kingdom.