Michael Fry's conversion to Scottish independence is the greatest challenge to unionism I have seen in a long timeby John Lloyd / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
More than anything written on Scotland than I can remember, Michael Fry’s cover story in the December issue of Prospect jolted me into thinking in a new way. Fry argued that, as a Tory, his political aims and ideals would be better served within a framework of an independent Scotland than that of the United Kingdom. I had seen this claim, in a telegraphic form, at the end of Fry’s book “The Union”; a full-length rehearsal of it was even more of a shock.
Fry appeals to political reason, not to the different variants of anti-Englishism which have posed as analyses of Scotland’s crisis these past 30 years. He wants a society imbued with Tory values, and believes that Scotland, while sucking on an over-indulgent English pap and ruled by a British Labour government, will never recover enough moral fibre to develop these values. It is an inversion of the usual argument that Scots votes keep a naturally Tory England imprisoned in a British Labour straitjacket: Fry sees Labour preventing Scotland from developing a small-government, self-reliant, unsubsidised Toryism which, he suggests, could be its natural state were it not bribed into sloth. This approach has traditionally been made on the left—with, of course, a different policy programme. The Scottish Socialist party—now fragmented under the strain of its former leader Tommy Sheridan’s court case against press allegations that he had visited sex clubs—was only the most successful electorally of the various attempts to form a nationalist party of the left. The Scottish National party is itself leftish in programme and rhetoric, as Fry points out.
In accepting that Scotland, not Britain, is the appropriate forum for his programme, Fry is selling a pass which his Conservative party had guarded most assiduously. We don’t yet know if this one defection will start a trend, but the statement on its own is a greater challenge to unionism, of any kind, than I have seen in a long time. It prompts a calculation, preliminary at least, of the gains and losses of full independence.
Gains (for Scotland): a government that would set its own revenue and spending levels and have its own foreign and defence policy; oil revenues, possibly; inward investment on its own terms; a relationship with, and officials in, the EU and European commission; a revival of national pride;
(for England): the end to a large drain on tax revenues; the abatement of resentment over Scots special treatment; a revival of a purely English sense of national pride;
(for all British) a clearer demarcation of nations by the creation of a separate state.
Losses (for Scotland): loss of income; loss of international influence it had as part of a major state; risk of provincialism and narrowing of the Scots mind;
(for England): a diminishing of international importance; a possible loss of oil revenues; possible boost in support for independence in Wales and Northern Ireland; a risk of increase in hostility to foreigners generally;
(for all British) a probably inevitable falling apart of the United Kingdom; a diminution of the cultural richness and bonds of solidarity between different national groups.
The “harder” gains and losses—as revenue—are relatively easy to assess; the rest are not. Scotland may retreat into a resentful parochialism—especially if the financial settlement it reaches with the rest of Britain entails large losses—or it may undergo a national renaissance of the kind Fry hopes for. After all, the Scots Enlightenment flourished a few decades after a major constitutional change—though in that case, it was the union with England, rather than its breaking, and most of the “enlighteners” were pro-union “north Britishers.”
There are a number of variants short of independence. The current parliament is one—but satisfaction with it seems always to be predicated on Scots satisfaction with the Westminster government. Another is the Spanish model—though the much greater autonomy enjoyed by some of the regions there is certainly no more stable than the situation in Britain. The German federal system is stable—though requires constant and sometimes acrimonious negotiation between federal and state governments—but it leaves the macroeconomy, defence and foreign relations at federal level, and it is much more an alliance of equals than the lop-sided British version, with an England more than five times larger than the other parts put together. Nationalists, when they sketch the future, always come up with some variant of “proud and independent nations with friendly ties”—and that may turn out to be the case. It is the case now with Ireland—though only after eight decades of relative poverty for the Republic, and very strained relations.
A choice will have to be made—or perhaps better, is slowly being made in practice.