Politics & Policy

Scotland Remains British — for Now

(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scotland’s rejection of national independence in Thursday’s referendum has been greeted with deep relief by the current cross-party establishment in Westminster in accord with Churchill’s maxim that there is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result. But though an 11 percent lead is a better-than-expected result, it is not the unqualified show of support that a healthy nation-state should usually be able to command. And it has opened more of Pandora’s constitutional boxes than it has closed.

It has also taught us a series of important lessons about the ideological drift of the modern world. 

The fact that a referendum on withdrawing Scotland from a stable and prosperous U.K. was held at all is an unacknowledged tribute to the continuing power of the national idea. In this case it was allied to the strong and continuing appeal of socialism, which the ideologically ambiguous Scottish National Party adopted cannily to win over a Scottish Left disillusioned by the rightward drift of New Labour under Blair and unconvinced by new Labour leader Ed Miliband. This leftist nationalism also drew on a disaffection from Westminster’s central government, which spans the U.K. and in England swells support for Nigel Farage’s conservative UKIP. And it aroused Scotland’s working class, especially its young men (and, according to some reports, its over-16s still in school), from a political apathy that has now lasted a generation and produced low election turnouts. By contrast, yesterday’s turnout was massive — more than 80 percent voted.

That is a powerful cocktail of passions and discontents. It explains why the referendum reached the point of being held. So why did it fall at the last ditch?

One reason is that the SNP’s case for independence was incoherent and thus ultimately unpersuasive. If Scotland were to survive and prosper as an independent state without England’s subsidy to its public spending, it would need to turn itself into a low-tax, low-regulation, workfare economy on the free-market model of, say, Singapore. But SNP leader Alex Salmond was promising that an independent Scotland would be an even more egalitarian welfare and regulatory state than the U.K. The European Union, even if it were to admit Scotland, would not play the role of Sugar Daddy to Scottish socialism. So Salmond could never explain how he would pay the bills for a Scottish socialist utopia that ran up against the lingering power of Scotland’s thrift mentality — and the No campaign hit hard, repeatedly, and successfully at this weakness.

With ten days to go, however, the No campaign ran up against its own failings. It was unrelievedly defeatist and pessimistic. It assumed that Scotland could never survive outside the U.K. It treated Scots as people interested solely in money and otherwise without pride. That insulted people and gave the Yes campaign a late fillip. But when it seemed that the SNP would win and Scotland depart, another nationalism suddenly emerged — a slumbering British nationalism woke up in the souls of ordinary Scots. Unionists of the street suddenly appeared and started talking the language of patriotism, history, and fellowship in war and hard times, matching the SNP’s optimistic and idealist language with a noble one of their own. They prevailed. It was that upsurge of British identity patriotism — not the “vow” of devo-max by the three Westminster party leaders — that turned the tide. 

Yet, despite today’s all-round agreement that independence will not be discussed again for a lifetime, it isn’t over. The result was not a whisker, but it was close — too close for younger Nats to abandon for the next 40 years a cause they think sacred. The Yes vote was a passionate and committed one. In particular, as noted above, it won the support of the young, the artistic and bohemian constituencies, and organized Left political groups — in other words, most of those whose life is politics and who stay at meetings to the end. All that the No contingent had on their side was money, the establishment, and ordinary people. But money is timid; the establishment is both hated and incompetent; and ordinary people leave meetings early to cook dinner or practice the piano. 

Nor may the defeated Yesses lack good arguments. Only a few days before the referendum, a panicked Westminster establishment made needless promises of virtual Scottish independence within the U.K. that are contradictory and cannot be kept. There is no way that “fairness” for England can be reconciled with a permanent subsidy to Scotland from the U.K. taxpayer of more than $2,000 per capita per annum. So someone will be disappointed, maybe all will, and the someone will feel betrayed. If past experience is any guide, the Scots will come out ahead. In the past the English were the guys who always ended up paying the bill with only minor complaints. They kept calm and carried on. But that outcome is less certain in the aftermath of the referendum. The slumbering British nationalism that awoke in Scotland risks becoming an angry English nationalism south of the border if the three “mainstream” parties try to preserve the right of Scottish MPs to vote on legislation for England while English MPs enjoy no such authority over Scottish laws.

Such a contradiction is more than a little logical difficulty. England and Scotland, considered separately, have different political spectrums. England is more conservative, more free-market in economics, more robust in foreign policy, more defined by the “muscular liberalism” of the English-speaking world than the other constituent countries of the U.K. It won’t accept socialism imposed on England by Scots MPs who are protected by devo-max from English free-market policies — especially if Scotland continues to be generously subsidized by England into the bargain. Until recently the Tory Party would have represented these interests and sentiments. But when the prime minister signed on to the “vow,” he tied his hands. His party will be instructed to comply. The “vow” would normally become law — in this case, on an absurdly accelerated timetable. Unfortunately for those who might prefer this cozy stitch-up, UKIP — which is increasingly the party of English nationalism — has broken through the three-party monopoly south of the border precisely in order to press such causes. Most Tories will sympathize with UKIP on this. A constitutional settlement that ignores fairness for England will therefore be fought.

Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg (with former Labour PM Gordon Brown pulling the strings) have issued what Gandhi once called “a postdated cheque on a failing bank.” Scotland and England will both try to cash it. No outcome — not even Scottish independence — can be ruled out. That realization should temper our relief at the wisdom of Scottish crowds.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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