Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Scottish independence is a wretched idea riddled with inconsistencies and ironies

The phrase "the country is falling apart" used to be uttered metaphorically by despairing old men. Today, it is literally true. Britain is falling apart. The leadership in the Scottish Parliament is determined to break away. The SNP have the advantage, whatever David Cameron might say or do in London. Give the SNP four more years of plotting and scheming in Edinburgh and the Union will have disintegrated.

Scottish independence is a wretched idea riddled with inconsistencies and ironies. Lets start with the most obvious paradox. Scottish identity is fundamentally an ethnic affiliation. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, now professes to be a multicultural and multi-ethnic state. Is it not strange that this modern reinvention of British identity was unable to purge itself of its oldest ethnic division? One would have hoped that multicultural Britain was made of sterner stuff.  If the Scots and English can't live together, one wonders about the prospect for peace among more recent ethnic arrivals.

In order to gain independence, the SNP simply need to win the majority of votes in an arbitrarily defined region known as Scotland. However, the border was, for over a 1000 years before the glorious and mutually beneficial Act of Union, a matter of violent dispute. The current delineation is a mere historical accident. What if the southern portion of Scotland votes against independence? Doesn't the border region also have a right to self-determination? The Orkneys or the Shetlands Islands didn't vote for the SNP. Can't they go their own way so long as a majority votes in favour of their own independence? Likewise, Berwick upon Tweed should be seceded to Scotland. Borders are treacherous affairs.

This principle can be taken to absurd levels. Here's another rhetorical question. Suppose the good people of Bradford or Liverpool wanted self-determination and voted to leave the United Kingdom. If it is good enough for Scotland, is it not also good enough for other regions of Britain too? In principle, is there any reason why the Island could not be a conglomeration of city states?

The SNP also assumes that future membership of the European Union is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps they are being a little too presumptuous. There are other countries in the European Union that have their regional difficulties; Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Romania. It might be in the interests of Spain to veto Scottish membership in order to dissuade Catalonia or the Basque country from exploring the independence option. Italy has its Northern league to worry about, while Belgium has Flanders and Wallonia.Romania has the nastiest separatist issue in the EU.  It has a large and frisky Hungarian minority that were arbitrarily cut off from the homeland after the first world war.  Other fragile European States might find it useful to punish Scotland in order to dissuade other regions from taking separatism to its logical conclusion. If this sounds far-fetched, it is worth remembering that Spain still refuses to recognize Kosovo because it may encourage Catalonian separatism.

Let's brush aside this potential difficulty and assume that Scotland will be a future member of the EU. Whle Scotland may have acquired the outward raiment of sovereignty; in reality it will have traded capitals. Instead of London, Scotland will be governed from Brussels. The SNP might argue that London has become irrelevant and rather than negotiating with the impotent government in Westminster it would be better to deal directly with the monster in Belgium. In truth, it is a fair point and perhaps the strongest argument in favour of Scottish independence. However, the British people could come to a better solution by repatriating powers and giving the Scottish people a genuine voice in Westminster. Regrettably, British politicians - north or south of the border - don't have the stomach for that kind of independence struggle.

The newly independent Scottish state will have some difficult decisions to make. The first one will be the choice of currency. It will have three options; issue a national currency, adopt the euro or keep the pound. The latter two options will hand over monetary control to foreigners. A Scottish pound would buttress independence but would come with its own difficulties. In particular, the costs of doing business with England or Europe would be much higher.

The newly independent Scotland would also have to do without the fiscal largess from England. The SNP might argue that Scotland would gain oil revenues from the North Sea. However, England might have a thing or two to say about that. Look closely at the border between England and Scotland on the East Coast. The last stretch conveniently points north eastwards. England could plausibly argue that a large part of the North Sea actually belonged to England and not Scotland. That dispute could become very nasty.

Scotland may find answers to these immediate questions, but it will remain a minuscule economy on the fringes of the North Atlantic. Scotland, with its fetish for socialism, its overpaid stroppy workforce and large intrusive public sector will be an unattractive place to invest. Cut off from England, it will be marginalized economically. A post independence Scotland will stagnate.

The SNP might harbour the illusion that separation will be amicable. Certainly, it will be peaceful. No one in England wants to hold Scotland in the Union against its will. But once they are gone, that is it, they are on their own. There will be no bailouts from London. There will be no special relationship with Edinburgh.

Objectively, Scottish independence makes no sense whatever. England and Scotland have lived together peacefully for over 300 years. Both countries have prospered in the Union. Geographically, Britain is a small island. It is united, linguistically, culturally, and historically.

Nevertheless, rationality and common sense is unlikely to win the day. Unfortunately 300 years of good government will count for little. There is something fashionable and radical about the idea of Scottish independence. The moment has arrived. Its novelty and glitter will win the day. The SNP need only win one referendum and United Kingdom will fall apart. Once the Union is shattered, it will be impossible to restore it.


Vodka drinker said...

Alice, thank you for saying the unsayable. The SNP must be stopped before it is too late.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of paternalistic (or should I say maternal) dross talked about independence being a "bad thing".

If a group of individuals want to separate from a current political structure and join another one, let them - through democratic means.

The beneficial union you refer to was brought about by a banking crisis 400 years ago - the Darien expedition - by the man who went onto set up the BoE. The union allowed a nation on its knees, access to the larger market not only of England but it's plantations in the US. There were also side issues of religious bigotry and pay-offs to a political elite that lost their shirts on Darien.

Fast forward 400 years and another union, seemingly more beneficial, is on offer to a group of individuals who have a separate legal system, a separate education system and separate political structures - quite different from Bradford - from south of the border.

So let the "Tartan Spring" have its head and see if the stirrings of democracy, expunged south of the border, may prompt wider political debate about the role of Westminster in the new European age.

markymark said...

I am for the union and would be sad to see a separation but i'm not sure I agree with your arguments against independence.

For starters the most stable nations are ethnic. Yugoslavia hasn't worked until its been diced up into its ethnic segments.

In the past it may have been that scotland and england shared an ethnicity of sorts - but increasingly England has been the destination for external migrants and in such circumstances London would seem more alien to the Scottish than in past times.

If Scotland was doing great you could argue about ruining a good thing. But it hasn't - Scotland has been stagnating for 50 years or more. It's possibly the subsidy from England that has enabled it to do so.

Lastly the whole concept of independence breaks down when considered in the context of the EU. Is Ireland truly independent? The Irish aren't ruled by England but they don't rule themselves either.

Also, what exactly gets decided at Westminster these days? - a lot of decisions are already either made a municipal level or at a Scottish level and most of the really big ones are decided at an EU level.

Once the English and Scottish stopped seeing themselves as "British" - which they increasingly have then a split was only a matter of time.

Nick Drew said...

an excellent essay

but in the same context there's another local situation worth noting: the UK's relationship with Ireland. Haven't we helped them disproportionately of late ? Aren't we actually getting a bit closer again ?

davidb said...

Anon above. The Darien scheme of itself was not what caused the union. Many of those who got their money back however were landowners in England as well as in Scotland. Sic a parcel of rogues. The major benefit for Scotland PLC was access to English colonies ( albeit with restrictions ) which was where it was at at the time. You could argue that if the Scots had held out then America would have opened up after their revolution, but many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Scots too. How foolish of them to think their country could survive without the mother country, eh?

There was a long period where the Scots eagerly embraced their Britishness. It was that period when the UK had an empire. Any Scot could go off to seek fame and fortune running India or Hong Kong or running Opium to the Chinese.

And that is the heart of the problem. That empire is gone. This constitutional issue is one of the last wee bits of Imperial business to be sorted. The Scots were always Scots. The English are as English as ever they were, but the bit that bound our fates was the British Empire, and that is lost.

I suspect that independence is not the goal of the SNP leadership. The party exists to promote that however. So kind of like UKIP would look a bit stupid if it had the chance to hold an EU referrendum and bottled it, so this has to go ahead. I must say that hectoring patronising stuff like calling the notion a wretched idea is playing into the Nationalists hands. The Unionist camp is not playing a good hand here, despite their control of BBC Scotland, and the Daily Record.

We have the right to self determination. Just as all those other former red bits of the map have. The Daily Mail does not bring me news every day of former bits of Britain overseas knocking on the doors of No 10 desperate to be allowed back. If Independence is such a disaster why do so many nations want it?

As to the partition threat, surely something was learned by the Ulster experience. It might be carried out by some vindictive regime, but it will come back to bite you in the end.

So like when your teenager wants to get a tatoo or stay out all night, its sometimes wise to just let them get on with it. In due course they may come to their senses, or they may leave home and take up life in a squat. You have to let them go their own way. Some kids even choose to stay home and look after their parents.

STEWART said...


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RenterGirl said...

No matter what seems like peace in England, years of Thatcherite imposed cuts, experimental policies like The Poll Tax and industrial decay have created genuine anger.

Michael Fowke said...

Let's see an independent England!

Peter A Bell said...

"In order to gain independence, the SNP simply need to win the majority of votes in an arbitrarily defined region known as Scotland. However, the border was, for over a 1000 years before the glorious and mutually beneficial Act of Union, a matter of violent dispute."

Here we have illustrated for us very clearly one of the reasons why the union has failed and one of the reasons why the efforts to preserve it will not succeed.

Referring to the nation of Scotland as an "arbitrarily defined region" very effectively exemplifies the contempt in which the country has been held by the British state in which we we were supposed to be an equal partner.

And phrases such as "glorious and mutually beneficial" are characteristic of the jingoistic romanticism which is the British nationalists' only argument for preserving the corrupt, anachronistic and redundant union. It is a wholly inadequate argument against the progressive pragmatism of Scotland's civic nationalist movement.

Stevie b. said...

@ Michael Fowke

Not to put words in your mouth, but let's perhaps actually ask the English if they want to keep supporting Scotland - and I speak as a Scot who left for better opportunities in England - but that's what makes the world go round. If Scotland had been independent, I doubt I would as a result have had the opportunities available in London.
Maybe independence would have made more sense decades ago before England benefitted from all that Scottish North Sea oil. My gut feel is that the UK benefits from being the UK. We will all be diminished if we split up.

Kingspan said...


By referring to Scotland as an "arbitrarily defined region" – it is also clear that England must also be an "arbitrarily defined region" .. I think you are interpreting this in a way that suits your perception of the “contempt of the British State”.

Anonymous said...

Great - let's have an independent Scotland, and they can all work for half a century to pay off RBS debt - the days of 'canny Scots' and their worldwide usefulness are gone - just bad bankers like everywhere else, except the ridiculous expansion of Edinburgh puts them even close to Iceland than geography suggests. Just go away, please!

dearieme said...

"the border was, for over a 1000 years before the glorious and mutually beneficial Act of Union, a matter of violent dispute": wild exaggeration. Apart from the extreme eastern end (i.e. Berwick) it was remarkably stable for much of the period when both Scotland and England existed. For much of your 1000 years, neither did in any recognisable sense.

Davd Farrer said...

I've followed your blog for quite some time but this piece is very upsetting.

Let's start with this: "Scottish identity is fundamentally an ethnic affiliation." I'm sorry, but that's completely wrong. How does one explain all of those English born SNP activists not to mention the various English born SNP members at Holyrood? Our SNP education secretary was born in Kent. And what about the SNP's Asian politicians and the fact that the SNP deputy leader represents what's probably the most ethnically Asian place in Scotland?

Also let's note that the SNP wants the independence referendum to be based on those who live here. It's the unionists who want it to based on place of birth.

The desire for independence is connected with Scotland's different civic society, not on ethnicity.

Your students take A- levels; ours take Highers. Your degrees take three years; ours take four years. You have barristers; we have advocates. The head of your national church is the Queen: the head of ours is Jesus Christ. Your chartered accountants are ACAs or FCAs; ours are CAs. Your architects are in the RIBA; ours are in the RIAS. Your teachers join the NUT; ours the EIS. Your cup final takes place at Wembley; ours at Hampden. You have twelve-man juries; we have fifteen. Your National Portrait Gallery is in St Martin's Place; ours is in Queen Street.

And so on and so on.

It's the existence of our own separate civil society that's the key to understanding Scotland.

The idea that Bradford and Liverpool are in any way similar is risible.

By the way, this separate Scottish civil society is not the result of devolution, but rather its cause. And it may well become the cause of independence if its existence continues to be ignored by England. The "presumption of the English norm" is what will most likely end the Union. A Union of which I am actually quite fond.

The Scottish (and English) border has been established for centuries. Does anyone think that Germany can't be clearly defined despite its several boundary changes in the last century? Then I wonder why you mention "The Orkneys", a sure sign of not knowing much about Scotland. Ah, it's the oil, isn't it? If I had a pound for every English person who told us that the boundary didn't go due eastwards, I could buy all of the oil in the North Sea for myself. We do study geography up here you know. As it happens, international law applies the equidistance principle in these cases, not the angle of entry into the sea. As it also so happens, the equidistance principle also means a northeasterly boundary. Universities, think tanks, economists, and yes, oil companies know all of this full well. All revenue calculations are based on the internationally accepted northeasterly boundary. Of course, if some of our English friends get their way and Hadrian's Wall is rebuilt things would be very different…

On the EU, I'd love it for an independent Scotland to be out of the whole thing. But I take it you haven't heard of recent Spanish government pronouncements rejecting claims that they'd blackball Scotland, the EU's biggest source of oil and a major supplier of fish to Spain. There are plenty of European lawyers who accept that Scotland and the RUK would both be regarded as successor states to the UK. That's historically logical, is it not? On that basis, both would have to re-apply or both would automatically continue as members.

It would seem that you are unaware that government figures regularly show that Scotland is financially a boringly average part of the UK and indeed of Europe, and that it has recently been doing better than the rest of the UK.

I have little doubt that the most likely cause of the break-up of the UK be southern misunderstanding.

Electro-Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Electro-Kevin said...

I thought that this was a great piece - quite possibly your finest. And then I read David Farrer's comment and thought perhaps that my own views on this are too strong.

All I can say is that as the impetus for independence seems to be seated north of the border perhaps the Scots feel that to be ruled from London is to be ruled BY London.

Indepedence ? Is this the right word ?

I feel that there has been a basic misunderstanding about how this country is managed and by whom. Much of our system: Parliament, Lords, legal, religious ... have a high proportion of Scots within them.

I'm proud to be BRITISH. I'm proud of the Union and our collective history.

I'd support Scotland if they were left in the World Cup and we weren't.

I believe that I think typically of most English. I fail to understand the antipathy directed towards us by so many Scots - stoked up by the likes of Mel Gibson I think.

Anonymous said...

I find the attitude of the Scots disgusting.

They talk about being ruled by London, when in reality Scots basically ran the British government for most of the last 14 years.

Cameron - Scotish
Liam Fox

Blair - born in Scotland, mixed ancestry.
Robin Cook
Alistair Darling
Alistair Campbell
Gordon Brown
John Reid
Prescott - Welsh

Menzies Campbell
Charles Kennedy
Danny Alexander

and many many more.

It seems like the more Scots dominate British politics the more the Scottish people complain!

I know there were many English in there also, but not in the top positions, the Scots and Welsh punched way above their weight.

Which is why they didn't give England the choice of devolution.

Farrer: "The idea that Bradford and Liverpool are in any way similar is risible."

No it isn't.
Bradford at 20%+ Muslim (but vastly more amoung the young) is probably more different to the majority of the UK than Scotland.

Some Muslims have already asked for a devolution settlement similar to Scotlands.

People from the SNP and such want to pretend this is a small issue between England and Scotland but the reality is the effect will be much bigger, there are a lot of places even day that are considered -
Crown Dependencies
British Overseas Territories

Where will they stand?

AgainsTTheWall said...

Many English delude themselves that the Union is one of affection when really the Scots have only ever been in it for what they can get. These Empire-less days thats very little.

dearieme said...

"the Scots have only ever been in it for what they can get": and the English?

AgainsTTheWall said...


Twas the Scots who wished to get into bed with the English. I believe that money was at the root ie the English had it and the Jocks wanted it.

dearieme said...

AgainsTTheWall: you've got the history wrong.

Anonymous said...

The Scots bankrupted themselves trying to compete with other European countries in building overseas colonies, France, England, The Dutch etc.

England then took advantage and bribed the bankrupt Scots into the union.
Which they wanted to do for a long time because the French used to use the Scots to help them attack the English..

That was all a very very long time ago and our people have mixed a great deal since then.
Huge numbers of Scots living in England especially London.
And Scotland has approx 7% 'other white British' ie mostly English people living there.

Scotland at the time of the founding of the Union only had approx 1 million people, today it has 5.5 million, many of which have no connection whatsoever with pre union Scotland.

Anonymous said...

As an Irishman ive been watching this debate unfold and ive somewhat mixed feelings on the issue. While it does not directly impact upon myself and the republic i do see several issues arising from an historical point of view.
Alt of the arguements been used above and in general by the unionist side are the same ones that were used against Irish home rule in the 1880s till around 1912, its eventually what drove most Irish people into indepence and supporting formally fringe parties rather than the Irish Parlimentary Party.
As an outsider i can see several benefits to maintaining the UK as one entity, and to a degree the loss Ireland had from losing that link, but I also see the same underlying English arrogance that destroyed any possibility of Ireland remaining, and is now driving the Scots to possibily leave as well.
My suggestion for the pro-Union side would be to make positive arguements for maintaiing the UK. And gag the primarily Tory party arguements which been honest are wrong.