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Breaking the Union

The SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, and the determination and political will with which it has pursued independence has been impressive.

· 9 min read
Breaking the Union
Scottish Independence supporter wearing a saltire face mask a baseball cap. Taken at an independence political rally, Alamy Stock Photo.

The purpose of the Scottish National Party, like that of other separatist political groups, is to break the nation state of which it is presently a part. The Catalan nationalists wish to subtract Catalonia from Spain; the Parti Québécois wish to cut Quebec out of Canada; the Vlaams Blok wish to split Belgium into two separate states; the Corsican nationalists wish to achieve independence for France’s largest offshore island. Scotland’s secession is now appreciably more likely than at any time in the past. If successful, it would mean that the United Kingdom, which for some centuries has been a significant (if now diminishing) force in the world, would be suddenly and seriously wounded. It would also mark a weakening of the group of Western democracies led by the United States, and of the “Five Eyes” security and information sharing co-operation between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US.

The United Kingdom was created when England and Wales formed a parliamentary union with the independent nation state of Scotland in 1707. Spain would still be the Kingdom of Spain if Catalonia seceded; Canada would remain, simply, Canada without Quebec. But the United Kingdom could no longer claim the name without Scotland. The destruction of the state as it was would be universally evident. So, the stakes are high. In the election for the Scottish Parliament (devolved in 1999) on May 6th of this year, the Scottish National Party (SNP) remained the dominant force, adding one seat to its previous count of 63, though with a slightly reduced percentage of the vote. This left the party just below the threshold needed for a majority in the 129-seat assembly, but the SNP enjoys the support of the Scottish Green Party, also committed to independence, which just increased its vote. The eight Green seats are enough to secure a pro-secession majority of 72.

Within days of the election results, First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon repeated a demand she has made for the past four years: that Scots should be able to vote for independence from the UK in a second referendum. The first, held in 2014, returned a result of 45 percent for independence, 55 percent against. However, calling referenda is a reserved power—only the UK government can do it, and the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will refuse. Sturgeon has described this as a tyrannous position. The parliamentary result, she said, was “historic,” and “to any Westminster politician who tries to stand in the way of that, I would say you’re not picking a fight with the SNP, you’re picking a fight with the democratic wishes of the Scottish people and you will not succeed. The only people who can decide the future of Scotland are the Scottish people, and no Westminster politician can or should stand in the way of that.”

This is a key nationalist mantra—that none but those who live in Scotland, including recent immigrants, have the right to vote on a decision which will fundamentally change the United Kingdom after more than three centuries of Union government. Graham Robb is an English-born historian of Scots parents and lives in the border country between Scotland and England. Before the 2014 referendum on independence, Robb observed that “the future of the United Kingdom [is] about to be decided by one twelfth of its population.”

Support for Scottish Independence Wanes as the SNP Is Engulfed in Scandal
Sturgeon and the Scottish nationalists have been far more successful at dragging the country into a culture war than improving the everyday life of ordinary Scots.

From the 18th century Scots Enlightenment to the country’s late-19th to early-20th century boast of being “the workshop of the world,” Scots had grounds for Unionist self-satisfaction—and for the upper and business classes, opportunities for personal enrichment. The Union, wrote the Edinburgh scholar Sir Richard Lodge in 1907, was illogical and remained so but that “may well be that this is the secret of its success … the Union has satisfied Scotland only because it has permitted the conservation of Scottish nationality.” One of the many triumphs of the SNP has been to substitute Lodge’s opinion with the view that the Union has forbidden the conservation of Scottish nationality. The Union, they say, was not and is not a vehicle for the development of close common economic and social links and of a British identity. Rather, it allows the swallowing of Scottishness by an English politics antithetical to its political temper and cultural independence.

The SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, and the determination and political will with which it has pursued independence has been impressive. The manner in which it has done so has been anything but. It has posed independence and the ending of the Union as the true and natural orientation of every right-thinking Scot. When the party failed to win the referendum in 2014, its former leader Alex Salmond called for reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists. But he did so on the assumption that this could only take place once independence had been achieved. Until then, the division remained to be exploited.

Nationalists would not flourish as they do now without a welcoming soil in which to plant their ideas. That soil is a pervasive distrust, rising to contempt, for England and the English. In 1990, the drama critic Joyce McMillan wrote in Scotland on Sunday that dislike of the English “gives the nationalist movement a poisoned strength that can only lead to racism and chauvinism.” Ten years later, the English writer Charles Jennings wrote that, unlike other formerly inimical states with bigger and once-hostile neighbours which have settled on a more or less friendly co-existence, nationalist Scots see it as “an essential pre-condition of nationhood to characterise their larger neighbours always and forever as predatory, hypocritical, self-obsessed bastards.”

Carol Craig, whose book The Scots’ Crisis of Self Confidence quotes both writers, adds that “even sophisticated, educated Scots often stereotype the English as people who are morally inferior or less compassionate than those living north of the border.” During a 2013 appearance at the Edinburgh Books Festival, the Glasgow-born BBC presenter Andrew Marr said, “There is very strong anti-English feeling [in Scotland] and everybody knows it. There always has been. If you go back to the origins of the SNP, the origins of home rule, Anglophobia was as well entrenched then as it is now. I don’t think it is particularly serious most of the time, but it can become serious—it can become toxic.” Sir Tom Devine, the most celebrated of the many fine Scots historians, agreed when I spoke to him earlier this month. Scots, he told me, have a reflexive feeling of moral superiority to the English and also believe their neighbours to be less intelligent.

The nationalists’ leadership object to this characterisation. Sturgeon, in particular, is at pains to describe overt displays of anti-English feeling as unacceptable and to invite the English to settle in Scotland (which many have). A retired Scot who formerly served as a very senior UK diplomat while remaining a nationalist in opinion, spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “The SNP,” he observed, “now never say anything anti-English. In the Yes [to independence] movement they policed themselves—any racist or anti-English speech was out. Anyone who has moved from No to Yes is welcomed, not regarded as a traitor or coward.”

But this is simply public relations. The undertow of dislike is well understood. The characterisation of the Westminster government—most of whose electors are English—is relentlessly negative. Leading nationalist figures seek to convince Scots that English parliamentarians are “condescending,” and that they remain transfixed by nostalgia for Empire. Sturgeon, in her leader’s speech to the SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen in March 2017, characterised the Conservative government as “dominated by the likes of Boris Johnson … deluding themselves about rebuilding the Empire and re-floating the Royal Yacht Britannia. It seems they want to go back in time. But it’s not just nostalgia for Empire that they are keen on. They clearly long for the days before we had a Scottish Parliament.”

The Scots nationalists are keen to distinguish themselves from the nationalist groupings of Europe, such as the French Rassemblement National, the German Alternativ für Deutschland, or the Swedish Democrats. And, in one sense, they are right to stress the differences. The European movements aim to take over the governments of France, Germany, or Sweden, respectively. The SNP, like the Catalan secessionist movement, wishes to leave the nation state of which it has long been a part, and form a new one. Both the Catalan and the Scots’ parties see themselves as centre-Left, with broadly liberal positions on economic and cultural issues, while the other European movements have often emerged from the far-Right, and retain conservative cultural positions, with a bias towards statist economic planning and ownership. Scotland’s nationalist government shares some of their bias to statism. But, otherwise, it is progressive, even radically so, especially on transgender rights and on what constitutes “hate crimes”—a very broad definition indeed, even when slightly modified before legislation passed in March. The nationalist administration is, as Stephen Daisley wrote, “one sceptical of nothing that can crowbar the words ‘Scottish’ or ‘progressive’ into its synopsis.”

When reproached with their horror of sharing power with the Westminster government, nationalists point out that the SNP has proclaimed its desire to be part of the European Union for nearly 40 years, a position that has moved to the centre of its policy platform since 2016—the Scots voted to stay in the EU, while votes for Brexit in England and Wales committed the UK to leave. But the European Union offers nothing like the advantages to Scotland which the present UK Union does. Even if—and it’s a large “if”—Westminster were to approve a second referendum and a majority for secession were achieved (for the SNP, 50 percent plus one would be enough), the nationalist government would face years of negotiations to split from the UK, and years of negotiations to rejoin the EU as an independent nation state. The grim determination of the SNP to ignore the pressing issues of governance in favour of achieving independence, whatever the price and whatever the loss to Scots’ living standards, comes as polls conducted immediately after the May 6th election showed an equal split between those for and against independence. Only one-in-10 respondents said that independence is their top priority, easily beaten by issues of health, education, and employment.

The EU, meanwhile, is conflicted on Scottish membership. On one hand, it does not wish to encourage secessionist movements in other member states. Every member would be keen to underscore this principle, especially Spain. Catalan separatists would use the Scots’ example to argue that a split from Spain would be followed, sooner or later, by EU membership and access to the single market. On the other hand, the EU would want to welcome the Scots back as a country that refused to be pulled out of the Union, and would no doubt see its application as a sign of confidence in the European project itself. The former president of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has said, “Emotionally, I have no doubt everyone would be enthusiastic here in Brussels and more widely, more generally also in Europe.”

The drawbacks, however, are formidable. Most obviously, over 60 percent of Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK, and flow freely within a UK common market area. But EU membership would require a hard border between Scotland and England “entail[ing] the need for new infrastructures on the land border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, to ensure that checks are carried out on goods and to protect against illegal activities such as smuggling.” In response, Scots government ministers point out that the EU single market (with a population of nearly 450 million) is much larger than that of the UK (with a population of 65 million). But Scotland’s present exports to the EU account for only 17 percent of the total. And competition, post-Brexit, will be ferocious. A report from the London School of Economics in February showed that “the costs of independence to the Scottish economy are likely to be two or three times larger than the costs of Brexit, and rejoining the EU following independence would do little to mitigate these costs … From a trade perspective, independence would leave Scotland considerably poorer than staying in the United Kingdom.”

The level of integration of the UK—to which Northern Ireland is now a partial exception—is, as you would expect from a Union as venerable as this one, very high. It is much more integrated than any of the members of the EU are with each other: regulations, common infrastructure, professional bodies, trade unions, transport and communications networks, common taxation systems, and crucially, a common currency are all shared.

But we—in the Kingdom while still United, and especially we Scots—may see the departure of part of our history and present disappear in the future. Not from its place bounded by the Atlantic and the North Sea, but from that which had always seemed to me to be one of the great gifts of our birthright: the ability to be citizens of the United Kingdom while our nation remained Scotland. Soon, perhaps, we will have to choose between them.

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