Written 6 May 2021
I’d been meaning to put something down on Scotland before now but find myself on the day of what we are told are huge elections writing in rather a hurry. It’s perhaps indicative of the state of the United Kingdom that one feels one must make an apology for writing a piece on Scottish independence as an Englishman, but never mind. I’m English (with some connections to Scotland) and a UK citizen so I do have an interest in the question.
My position on Scottish independence is that I would be rather sad if Scotland did decide to leave the United Kingdom, and even sadder if the UK broke up altogether. The United Kingdom would certainly be diminished if Scotland did leave. I think many people in Scotland and elsewhere do feel British in a real sense, it is a real identity with many years of shared history, ups and downs and endeavour in its make up. In that sense it is different to values such as internationalism, being a good neighbour and ally or the recent (and what I always felt rather confected) notion of European citizenship. Nevertheless, a union can only really be said to be durable if all its members are comfortable in it, and over the last decades this has come under more and more strain in Scotland.
Examining the arguments for Scottish independence I’m pretty much where Larry Elliott pitches himself here. There is absolutely no reason that Scotland could not be a prosperous country, I think size really doesn’t matter that much and in many ways I think smaller countries are easier to govern with just as many natural advantages (flexibility, nimbleness etc) as drawbacks. As someone who voted to leave the European Union, the arguments that small countries have to be part of bigger blocks to prosper never cut through for me, as Larry says it is institutions, governance and culture that lead to prosperity. The EU and its European Single Market are big, technocratic wonders in many ways but they also seem ill equipped to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century.
This does not mean that pro-independence campaigners are presenting good arguments, I don’t think they are. In fact, I think that any Scottish independence project is going to really struggle largely because of the mindset of the people who are likely to lead it and also because of the political culture of Scotland itself to which the SNP has hitched itself. It is fundamentally dishonest about the choices and compromises that a future independent Scotland will need to make. These are well rehearsed but the fundamental issue is moving out of a pretty successful fiscal transfer union (where SNP dishonesty about how Scotland has benefited over recent years is pretty clear), the issue of currency (where no decent answers appear to be forthcoming) and with the UK having left the EU the question of trade relations with the UK/England and the EU. The prospectus in as far as I can understand it is that an independent Scotland will be a progressive beacon enjoying frictionless trade with both the EU and the UK, with higher levels of welfare spending than now, outside of a fiscal transfer union while either launching its own currency or using someone else’s. I don’t think the SNP actually believes any of this is possible, but as I say I think they are fundamentally a single issue party that will use whatever means come to hand to advance its cause. They are also separate questions from that of independence on its own, but policies and honest answers to honest questions are needed. The SNP in trying to advance the only thing that it cares about (leaving the UK) has had to appeal to a political culture where the majority appear to want big state welfarism and have also been happy to blame the “Westminster Tories” (in reality “the English”) for all ills will run out of road sooner or later.
Stepping back from some details, I think that the current UK constitutional settlement is not sustainable. Scotland is going to have to break away or devolution is going to have to be better defined. In the years running up to Ireland leaving the UK the majority of its MPs didn’t attend Westminster. The SNP doesn’t go this far, but its presence seems to be limited to constant griping and wishing it were somewhere else. If Scotland is to remain in the UK it needs better than this. I think it is also likely that at some point the English are going to ask why exactly they put up with it. Devolution is one thing, Scotland’s majority deciding consistently to be represented by separatist nationalists where everything comes down to independence is another. It is clearly unsatisfactory, no constitutional settlement within the UK appears likely to mollify the SNP, and at some point the English might well decide whey bother at all. It is like sharing a house with a surly teenager, at some point Scotland will simply have to ship out. The SNP knows this of course, and its strategy surely includes making the English so utterly sick of the sound of them that they wave them goodbye.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the elections and how things proceed after the dust has settled, but that will have to be the subject of a later post. I have been thinking about how any future negotiations between Scotland and the UK could proceed, either in some sort of constitutional conference for the UK as a whole or in the event of a vote for independence, and I’ll try and sketch them out.