Tony Blair has got out of Downing Street just in time, leaving a whole range of crises, any one of which might well scupper Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister. Scotland is one of the issues with potential for immediate and lasting harm. Blair initiated a process of devolution that gave the Scots limited powers of self-government. At the time he was warned that this threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom, and so it is proving. This summer, the Scottish National Party won elections to the Scottish parliament, though by a very thin margin. The SNP’s sole purpose is to break away from the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent and sovereign country. Its leader, Alex Salmond, has just completed his first 100 days in office, and with a mixture of ability and guile he is playing the independence card long. It so happens that Brown is himself a Scot, and it is the rawest of ironies that he has to confront the SNP. This duel of the two Scots will decide whether Britain continues to exist in its historic entity, or becomes as obsolete as the Soviet Union.
Opinion polls suggest that almost two-thirds approve of Salmond’s administration so far, and also that independence one day is inevitable although under a quarter of the respondents actually were in favour of it. I have just spent some time in Scotland, and pretty well everyone I spoke to there confirmed the broad outlines of these polls. However unenthusiastic they might be at the prospect, almost everyone considered that independence was the virtually certain outcome of devolution. And that would be Blair’s irreversible legacy.
One Scottish grandee, a Unionist, had an interesting angle. The Scots, he said to me, have a very strong sense of their own identity, and do not take kindly to others coming to live among them, or telling them what to do. This is tribalism, with its plusses and minuses, and it means that when they look at Britain they see that immigration is out of control, and there is a diminishing sense of identity, and even less national pride. The Scots hope to avoid such a fate. In a nutshell, then, repudiation of multi-culturalism is the motor driving Scottish independence and the ultimate break-up of Britain.
Arbitrary divisions loom, involving all sorts of unquantifiable confrontations and losses. More Scots live abroad than at home. What nationality is theirs to be ? What about the many English who live in Scotland ? How are long intertwined commercial and industrial interests to be sorted out in a just and peaceful manner ? In the event of Salmond having his way, the Scots look set to become the Palestinians of Europe.