Learn from history, and plan for a practical, working divorceby Simon Jenkins / April 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Scottish nationalism will not go away. Once separatist glory is embedded in the subconscious, it becomes a badge of honour. As long as independence is the cry of Scotland’s dominant party, the Scots seem happy to indulge it, even if not fully support it. But Brexit has been a lesson to us all. Who knows what independence really means?
The continued appeal of nationalism is no mystery. Half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin adapted Kant’s image of the “crooked timber” of mankind by describing nationalism as “the bent twig.” He attacked those who dismissed it as “a passing phase… a pathological inflammation of a wounded national consciousness.” To relegate nationalism to past history was, he thought, to play with fire. Berlin was right. In 50 years, the number of independent nations has not shrunk but doubled. They may have been born of imperial collapse, civil war, partition or, sometimes, peaceful negotiation. But the seeds of separatism swiftly take root and do not blow away.
Opposition to independence is usually drenched in hypocrisy. Even as they oppose Scottish separatism, British governments have spent blood and treasure promoting the break-up of Yugoslavia, Libya and Iraq. At home, the long-standing hostility of London to self-rule within the “first British empire”—that of the British Isles—has long rendered this union unstable. Ireland broke away in 1920, and ended the real “united kingdom” there and then. Just under half of Scottish people now wish to follow suit, to the fury of London, which is now fighting to sustain the Scottish union with one hand and end the European one with the other. Just as the EU divorce was instigated by bureaucratic heavy-handedness in Brussels, so Scottish separatism resulted from heavy-handed centralism in London. Scotland was solidly unionist until Thatcher imposed a poll tax on the Scots (before England) in 1989.