Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ©Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

Scottish independence isn't going away

Learn from history, and plan for a practical, working divorce
April 13, 2017

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.

We should always remember that UK disintegration originated not in Dublin or Edinburgh, but in London. At the end of the 19th century most Irish leaders, including Charles Stewart Parnell, would have settled for a devolved parliament and internal home rule, without a total breach from London and the crown. They were denied it. Most observers believe the same applied in the case of Brexit. Had British voters been offered greater distance from Brussels without the risk of “hard Brexit,” they would likely have said yes.

If that was the case over Ireland and the EU, what hopes now over Scotland? One difficulty is that Britain, unlike America, is an ingénue at constitutional reform. Since 1999 and especially during the 2014 referendum campaign, desperate efforts were made by London to appease nationalist opinion. A parliament was established in Edinburgh and occasional “powers” were devolved to it. Scotland is now largely self-governing, but with the massive exception of its welfare benefits and public finances, which remain dependent on England. The result is to distort Scottish politics, ironically towards a nationalism sustained by London-subsidised state spending.

"'Control' is a multi-layered pastry of fractures, agreements, treaties and deals"
England has no cause to oppose a Scottish desire for “greater” independence. A vague, quasi-imperial nostalgia is not enough, nor are bonds of history, geography, family or familiarity. A few months before the 2014 referendum, a YouGov poll found the English split 60-20 in favour of continued union. But in the 1990s, Serbs felt likewise towards Bosnians and Kosovans. The issue is not the opinion of a dominant neighbour. The issue is the geography of self-determination.

Whatever David Cameron thought sufficient to buy off the Scots in 2014 was clearly not enough. Nicola Sturgeon may seem irritating, not to say reckless, in demanding a post-Brexit referendum, but her party will not be silenced. Without a settlement that opens clear constitutional water between Scotland and England, Scottish politics will not revert to normal bipolarity. Partition will be its relentless cacophony. If the Scots wish to “self-determine” every three years—and stand ready to pay for the consequences—that is their democratic right and their business. Theresa May should accept it. But what she could do is pre-empt such a vote by asking the Scottish parliament to set out its proposed form of independence in advance, and negotiate on it there and then. Ask Sturgeon not whether she wants “independence,” but what she means by it. May would perform a service by calling a halt to these Manichean referendums, and asking that voters be given clear, feasible options.

Sensible politicians know that “independence” and “take back control” are all but meaningless slogans in a complex polity such as modern Europe. If Brexit has taught no other lesson, it is that control is a multi-layered pastry of fractures, agreements, treaties and deals. Whenever “devo-max” and “indie-lite” were debated in Scotland in 2014, the closer they came to seem. In March, Gordon Brown floated what he called “a third option,” somewhere between the status quo and independence. It was a disappointment, a wallowing of cliché and partisanship, avoiding all the tough questions—demanding only that Scotland get its share of EU budget savings, while not resolving the £10bn question of what happens to the Treasury subsidy, let alone to Westminster’s Scottish MPs. It was like the SNP’s Alex Salmond promising every Scot would be £1,000 better off if they voted for independence. Separatism drives politicians mad.

Where Brown is right is that there has to be a third way. Were Scotland to leave Westminster and enter some semi-detached commonwealth—as I believe one day it will—there will need to be a regime for regulating the movement of people and trade. It will need to cover, as the 1986 Single European Act showed, the murky underworld of product standards, economic areas, trade preferences, nods, winks and skulduggery. It is one thing to fly the saltire over Edinburgh castle, quite another to eschew the passport office, the Bank of England and the post-Brexit tangle of commercial relations.

The lesson of European separatism is consistent. Ukrainians, Slovakians, Basques and Catalans do not see autonomy as a passing fad, to be bought off with devolved powers and subsidies. It is a visceral response to an over-centralised superior power that has become alien. It is indeed a yearning to “take back control.” Now that Westminster itself is enveloped in just such a yearning, it can surely recognise it in others.

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