Largely unnoticed south of the border, the idea of Scottish independence is once more promising trouble for the union, and just in time to cast a pall over next year’s 300th birthday party for Britain (and Gordon Brown’s ascent to its top job). On the face of it, this is rather odd. Since the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, most complaints have run in the other direction: English grumbles about Scotland’s political over-representation and its unfair share of public spending. Isn’t the Edinburgh soft left supposed to run both Scotland and England? There does, indeed, seem something rather shallow about this latest nationalist surge—more an expression of bored, postmodern identity politics than of serious political or economic grievance. And the fact that fewer people in Scotland (and Wales and England) call themselves British these days does not negate the quietly important work that the multinational state achieves: whether through distinctively British institutions, such as the BBC and the army, or through the reinforcement of a post-ethnic idea of national citizenship and even, at least for the British left, through acting as a social democratic bulwark against Anglo-Thatcherism.
And there, for Scottish historian Michael Fry, is the rub. The case for independence, this former Tory argues inside, now belongs to the right. It is rooted in a conservative Calvinism and in the rejection of a politically correct public sector culture which benefits neither English taxpayers nor dependent Scots. Fry’s argument is not yet accepted by many of his compatriots. But if next year’s Scottish election does bring independence closer, the English will have to consider—more seriously than at any time in the past 300 years—what the union means for them.
One distinctively British combination turns out to be a mixed blessing in the battle against Islamic terrorism, according to former security official David Omand, writing inside. The British triad of a global intelligence service, an adversarial court system and human rights legislation means that ministers are given a constant flow of alarming information which they are often unable to act upon. The case for some sort of French-style “special court” is surely becoming stronger.