Whether Yes or No triumphs, the 1707 Union is overby Neal Ascherson / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
My uncle was an officer in the Royal Scots, “the First of Foot.” The tartan trews on his long legs made him magnificent. As a child, I once asked my mother, his sister, “But what are the Royal Scots for, if it’s peacetime?” “They’re there to stop the English taking away the Loch Ness Monster,” she said. Married to a naval officer and fiercely loyal to the White Ensign, speaking a cut-glass English she’d learned in London at Miss Fogarty’s drama school, she was also the touchiest Scottish patriot.
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead/ Who never to himself hath said/ This is my own, my native land!” As children, we often heard that ringing round the kitchen. From Miss Fogarty, my mother also learned the art of outrageous, spellbinding exaggeration. It was only the outbreak of the Second World War which made me wonder if the Royal Scots really had been patrolling the Great Glen to watch for cockney monster-kidnappers.
But my mother had political instincts as well. She voted No in the first devolution referendum in 1979, declaring that “a Scottish parliament will make Scotland more English.” This extraordinary remark staggered me. Maybe she was the only voter in Scotland who thought like that. But could there be something in it—a warning against replicating Westminster arrogance and complacency? Or was it, as I now think, a deeply patronising opinion that Scots were not up to inventing our own democracy? Loveable only in our very second-rateness?
It’s easy to talk of “thoughtless nationalism.” Not thinking merely means that underthoughts are rehearsing their soundless melodies in your head. Put it like this. In every Scottish brain, there has been a tiny blue-and-white cell which secretes an awareness: “My country was independent once.” And every so often, the cell has transmitted a minute, often almost imperceptible pulse: “Would it not be grand, if one day…”
But this stimulated other larger, higher-voltage cells around it to emit suppressor charges: “Are you daft? Get real; we’re too wee, too poor, that shite’s for Wembley or the movies.” One way of describing what’s happening to Scotland now is to say that the reaction of those inhibitor cells has grown weak and erratic. Whereas the other pulse, the blue-white one, is transmitting louder, faster, more insistently. This is why the real September referendum question is no longer “Can we become independent?” It is: “Yes, we know that we can—but do we want to?”
In 1949, standing in the fish queue in Kilmacolm, I watched warmly-dressed ladies collect their haddock fillets and then sign the “Scottish Covenant,” the petition for a Scottish parliament which lay on the slab by the door. I signed too. Nearly half the adult population put their names to this painfully polite document, which began, “We, the people of Scotland…” Nothing happened. The then Labour government, concealing its alarm, told the stupid Scots to go away and learn that British politics worked through decisions by sovereign parliaments, not by referendums or petitions.
Later, I saw a lot of the empire in terminal decay, in Africa and Asia. Everywhere I met people who saw national independence—even in nations recently invented by the colonial power—as the way to join the world, to modernise and take responsibility for their own actions and mistakes. In Britain in those first postwar decades, “nationalism” usually meant that struggle from colonial status towards independence. It was only later, when most of those struggles were over, that left-wing imaginations turned towards the Holocaust and developed a vulgar syllogism: “Nationalism equals racism equals fascism equals war.”
For myself, I spent most of the 1960s in central Europe, in the last phase of the Cold War. National stereotypes and prejudices still abounded. But everywhere, under the puppet regimes of the Warsaw Pact, ordinary people made the connection between national independence and personal freedom—a connection I recognised from Scotland’s 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. For the Poles, regained independence was not just a happy end but a fateful moment of choice: “Poland yes—but what sort of Poland?” For Thomas Masaryk, the austere dominie who led the Czechs out of the Habsburg Empire, independence was about truth and high moral standards or it was nothing. “Nebát se a nekrást” (Don’t be afraid, and don’t steal) he told his people.
Back in Scotland, the bargain which supported the 1707 Act of Union was crumbling. The empire was over; the Scottish industrial economy was in steep decline even before Margaret Thatcher took her chainsaw to it in the 1980s. The centralised welfare state, for all its virtues, was sapping the autonomy of great Scottish professions—education, law, medicine. For the first time in three centuries, political nationalism, in the form of the Scottish National Party (SNP), came out of the wings and paced the stage.
Now working in Edinburgh, I supported the devolution plans which finally produced a Scottish parliament in 1997. But it seemed obvious to me that devolution was a running process, which would quite probably end in independence. The archaic Anglo-British power structure would provoke growing friction between London and Edinburgh. And sooner or later—so I guessed—a Tory government might find it best to boot Scotland out of the UK altogether. Much as Václav Klaus had booted the surprised Slovaks into independence a few years before, in order to dominate the Czech Republic without challenge.
But I hadn’t foreseen the surge in SNP popularity which led to an absolute majority at Holyrood in 2011 and now to the September referendum. Until then, my own preference for a next step would have been “devo max”—full powers for a Scottish government within the UK. The big fruit of independence, I thought, needed a few more years to ripen.
Two things changed that. The first was Tony Blair’s behaviour over the Iraq War. Suddenly, I found that I had lost the feeling of living in an independent country—a feeling I couldn’t wait to find again. The second, pragmatic, was David Cameron’s decision to strike full self-government off the referendum paper. Now the choice was simply Scottish independence: Yes or No. Everything or nothing. Can you want nothing for your country?
So much for the small biography of one “Yes.” The big argument for Scotland’s return to independence has a positive part and a negative one—a pull and a push. I have to say that on a journey across Scotland that I made in May in the company of a group of artists and musicians (the “bus party”), only a handful of the hundreds of “Yes” opinions we heard were about “push”—in other words, about the threat to Scotland if we remained in the union. Instead, our audiences described for us the better, fairer Scotland they wanted to build. They hoped for more generous self-government at local level, for a Scotland open to more immigrants, for an outward-looking Scotland helping other people on the planet, for “a listening Scotland where we can air uncertainties, where my son can grow up and have prospects…” And so on.
On that journey between the Pentland Firth and the Clyde, we talked to several hundred people. Strikingly, none of them (and very few were committed SNP types) assumed that their hopes could be realised within the union. They weren’t always right about that. Some, at least, of their demands could be carried out by a determined Holyrood under current devolution arrangements. But their assumption confirmed the almost terrifying failure of the “Better Together” campaign to make an attractive case for the union—as opposed to its often humiliating and sometimes farcical “Project Fear” offensive against independence.
“Yes” may well not win the referendum vote in September (an opinion poll carried out by YouGov in mid-June had “No” on 53 per cent and “Yes” on 36 per cent, with 9 per cent “Don’t knows”). But it has already, overwhelmingly, won the campaign. In the long term, that may come to matter more.
Whatever happens, the 1707 union is over. The treaty became history in 1999, when the “reconvened” Scottish parliament met in Edinburgh. In its place, we have a lower-case, informal union which London and Edinburgh make up as they go along. Nothing is fixed now, nothing is stable, and the accelerating torrent of Scottish debate and self-questioning set off by this campaign will not be checked by a No vote. For the first time, independence is coming to be seen by many as sober commonsense—a way out of increasingly sterile wrangles with Westminster.
Some of the advantages of full independence are obvious, if not precisely quantifiable, and can be listed. First, control of resources, oil and gas above all. Talk of “peak oil” is misleading. There is more than enough left to finance the heavy-lifting jobs facing an independent Scotland: the planning of a sounder, more diversified economy; the rescue of “abandoned” post-industrial communities; regional repopulation of remote areas and wider land reform; a coherent offensive against Scotland’s shocking health problems.
Another heavy-lifting job is institutional. For three centuries, the loss of a parliament was replaced by various blocs of largely unaccountable power—often benevolent but seldom democratic. This is a problem that England does not know. Among such blocs today are the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Faculty of Advocates and the Educational Institute of Scotland, the high-minded but monopolistic union of teachers. Some would add the Church of Scotland to the list. Devolution has failed to dent the massive immunity of these oligarchies. Only an independent Scottish government could—I don’t say would—find the guts to face them down and integrate them into a democracy.
Second, an independent Scotland rejoins the world. Scotland would have its own European Union membership, appropriate to its special needs and priorities, and direct access to all global institutions. (Absurd bluff is a fair description of the threat that the EU, facing its worst crisis of public trust, would expel one of its most loyal, wealthy and longstanding participants. All the same, a temporary suspension would allow Scotland to perform some of those heavy-lifting, state intervention tasks, ignoring the EU rules against subsidies.) In Europe, Scotland would join a large group of small nations with populations around the five million mark. It would be more prosperous than most of them, but would share in a non-nuclear membership of Nato.
Third, independence would transform and revive party democracy. Freed from London control, Scottish Labour would probably purge its leadership. It would back sharply away from post-Blairite neoliberalism to the more statist, social-democratic line which suits its traditions. This liberated Scottish Labour could reasonably hope to evict the SNP from power within a few years of independence. In the same way, Scottish Conservatives —once relieved of the unionist stigma—could reconnect with the largely unrepresented mass of Scottish right-wing opinion.
Fourth, an independent Scotland—guaranteed always to have the government it voted for, in contrast to the constant “democratic deficits” of union—could reconstruct its constitution. The people would become sovereign in the normal European way (in contrast to England’s weird doctrine of parliamentary absolutism). This would allow the entrenching of much stronger local government powers (“subsidiarity”), which would suit Scotland as a country of acute and touchy regional differences. There would be a supreme law (“Lex Rex”) in the shape of a justiciable written constitution—again, normal European stuff, but alien to traditional English jurists.
That’s some of the pull, the positive case for independence. But there’s also the push. This is the “negative” case for independence as a defence against threat, as a “lifeboat option,” an escape route from approaching doom. It’s a powerful case. So it’s surprising, touching even, that the official or unofficial “Yes” campaigns have not launched a “Project Fear” horror-saga of their own.
What follows if Scotland votes No, even narrowly? Quite probably another Tory-led government after 2015, followed by a referendum that would drag Scotland out of Europe against its will. The resumed demolition of what is left of the welfare state down south—the transition to a “Serco state”—would soon cripple public services in Scotland. (The block grant allocated to Scotland according to the so-called “Barnett formula” is calculated as a proportion of UK public spending, so that English cuts reduce expenditure in Scotland). The proud but expensive achievements of devolution—free tuition, home care and prescriptions—would all become harder to maintain. So, critically, would the independence of the Scottish National Health Service, which has kept at bay the chaos of artificial competition, internal markets and privatisation which has demoralised healthcare in England.
The unionist parties promise “more powers” for Scotland after a No vote. Scottish opinion is sceptical. Even if the parties can agree on what “devo more” should comprise, their various ideas offer only marginal tinkering with the minor tax discretions already decided by the 2012 Scotland Act—and already dismissed by most observers as hopelessly behind the curve. But, knowing Westminster, I predict its politicians will say: “Well, that’s that: the Scots have had their whine. Now we can forget about them and get back to what matters: London’s housing bubble and who might replace Ed Miliband…”
The strength of the “push” factor is a combination of real fear and moral horror. It’s an almost cultural revulsion from the sort of Britain the coalition government and its predecessors are trying to create. The Scots, in their majority, do not want to live in permanent job insecurity, in a society of growing inequality, declining real wages, zero-hours contracts, food banks and beggars jostling on the steps of every bank. The warning against “private affluence, public squalor” still resonates in Scotland, where equality and “fairness” are held to be national values.
Gordon Brown, as he marched off on his search for “British values,” once suggested that patriotism should centre on the NHS, the greatest of all British achievements. The late Tony Judt thought that the “trente glorieuses,” the 30 years in which western Europe experienced peace, social security, growing prosperity and increasing equality, were one of the supreme triumphs in human history. Since devolution in 1999, Scotland has set out to protect and nourish what’s left of that postwar British settlement in one part of the island. In this sense, the SNP is the most “British” party of all.
Thatcher, John Major, Blair and Cameron have all been complicit in trying to dismantle that settlement. It’s no wonder that Scots sometimes quote Gore Vidal’s comment on American politics: “We have one party with two right wings.” Thirty years ago, the largest bloc of voters wanting independence were loyal supporters of Labour—a solidly unionist party. Class came before nation, in those days. But the shattering Labour losses to the SNP in 2011 were a token that this self-shackling mindset was coming apart—mostly in reaction to policies perceived as “Thatcherite” and ordained in London, not Scotland.
All over Scotland, I keep meeting men and women who say: “I don’t trust Alec Salmond, I couldn’t be SNP. But I’m having to rethink my old ideas. I’m not sure. But I don’t easily see how I could vote No.” These are natural Labour voters. And these are the people the No campaign really fears.
Is “social democracy in one country” conceivable in the Europe of 2014, cowed by the crash of the banks and emaciated by the austerity that followed? Is it even what the Scots want, or do they just yearn for a protective state and a large, well-padded public sector—grandfather’s Scotland restored?
I think the mood is much more dynamic than that. The people we met have been energised in a way nobody can remember, and they want a new country. They plied us with innovations, ideas for change, new approaches to energy, the sea-bed, immigration, justice. The things they wanted to overcome were Scottish, not “British”: we are too judgemental of one another, too self-righteous; we prefer “aye been” (it’s always been done so) to trying anything new. Nobody hated the English. Instead, it was “Westminster doesn’t show it knows or understands anything about me or us” (Clydebank), “We should no longer be tenants in our own land” (Inverness) and “We are a world apart from London, they just don’t understand us” (Alexandria).
The mood of what we heard was modernising, risk-taking; not at all protectionist. Could a British federation contain it? Gordon Brown says so; David Marquand, in an article in the June edition of Prospect, thought so. But it’s a non-starter because a federation invented merely to head off a secession wouldn’t survive, and wouldn’t deserve to; and because a federation in which one nation has 85 per cent of the population is an in-bed-with-an-elephant nonsense. It might work if England consented to break itself up into federal-state-sized chunks, but the English have shown that they prefer a unitary state and direct rule from London. Heaven knows why, but that’s their right. Lastly, the soul of a federation is its duty to level up living standards in all of its members. But can you imagine a federal government in London invoking the constitution to make Oxfordshire transfer millions to the budget of Tyne & Wear? How un-British!
Two final points. First, Scottish constitutional wishes have been incredibly steady over the last half-century. The biggest section of opinion simply wants Scotland to govern itself as other small nations do—if possible, within the United Kingdom. But if that’s not possible, then so be it—independence may be the only way to reach proper self-government. “Devo max”—full autonomy, less foreign policy and defence—roughly corresponded to that wish. But it’s not on the ballot paper this September, so unknown numbers of people will vote Yes without wanting independence for itself.
Second, I have watched and taken part in the two previous referendum campaigns on self-government, in 1979 and 1997, but this one is different. Not just because of the immensity of the decision, for the generations to come, but because this campaign has turned into a spreading emancipation, drastically and permanently changing the way Scotland’s people assess their small nation and feel empowered to change it.
As a woman in Clydebank declared, “The genie’s oot the bottle, there’s nae puttin’ it back.” Whichever way the referendum vote goes on that Thursday in September, Scotland on the Friday morning will already be living in some form of independence.