The Corner

Auld Acquaintance (In Some Trouble)

Scotland votes on whether to break from Britain on September 18. It’s long been assumed (including by me) that the “no” vote would win pretty comfortably, but, particularly in the wake of a disastrous performance in the second of two big independence debates by Labour’s Alistair Darling, the momentum is now clearly with the nationalists.

The Wall Street Journal:

A poll released by YouGov on Tuesday showed a surge in support for Scottish independence, giving a boost to the “yes” campaign and its leader, Alex Salmond, currently head of Scotland’s semiautonomous government.The YouGov poll showed that the margin of voters opposed to independence over those in favor has shrunk to six percentage points, from 22 points less than a month ago.

That’s within the margin of error, and with the momentum going the way it is . . .

In the abstract, I’d be in favour of Scottish independence. As it happens, my ancestry is about forty percent Scottish, but beyond that I like nations taking control of their own destiny (Flanders, soon, please, and Catalonia too), not least because it gives the lie to the claim by Brussels that the nation-state is over (it says something that there are now more countries in the world — and Europe too — than ever before: It is the centralizing, top-down EU model that is old school). In Scotland’s case, however, I don’t think that full independence is yet the way to go. The country already has a great deal of autonomy, with more ( the misguided “devo-max“) on offer. The best next stage from here would be to move to a fully federal U.K. not least because the English deserve self-government too, something that David Cameron is too unimaginative and too arrogant to grasp. Tellingly, UKIP’s Nigel Farage does not make the same mistake: He’s sympathetic to the idea of federalism. 

The problem with an independent Scotland is not that the economics are dodgy (although they are), but it is that that is in the grip of an authoritarian leftist political class, a grasping, thuggish vulture class that should be wished on no people. There is also the little matter of the EU. If an independent Scotland wished to join the EU (the membership it “enjoys” through membership of the UK would probably not survive) its (enthusiastically europhile) leaders would have to commit to joining the single currency as soon as Scotland satisfied the necessary tests. They deny that, but the EU’s rules are clear. The euro would ruin what’s left of the Scottish economy and make a mockery of “independence.”

The problem with the “no” campaign is that it has been fought almost exclusively on pocket-book issues, while the yes campaign has played the emotional, national card deftly, dishonestly and well. There are a lot of young Scots (the voting age for the referendum has — hmmm — been reduced to 16) who believe that Braveheart is, so to speak, a documentary. But there is a case, based on the heart as well as the head, to be made for the survival of this remarkable union, but the U.K.’s politicians are, for the most part, too feeble, and, I think, too frightened of history to make it.

The Economist points to one lovely exception:

 On the Scottish bank of the River Sark, bang on the 500-year-old border between England and Scotland, a pile of stones is rising. Its structure, comprising inner and outer circular walls connected by a walkway, recalls a sort of Bronze Age chambered cairn. Yet this one, raised stone by stone in homage to the United Kingdom by thousands of patriotic volunteers, is barely two months old.

Named The Auld Acquaintance, it is the brain-child of a charismatic local politician, Rory Stewart. A native Scot, the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders was frustrated by the bloodless, pocket-book nature of the unionist campaign in Scotland’s independence referendum, which is due on September 18th. “In the end this is for me not about economics,” he said. “It’s about a long-term relationship. The union has existed for 300 years and we’d like it to last another 300 years. Relationships are about respect, commitment and love and unless England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland love each other then we don’t have a country.”

When Mr Stewart first rose in the House of Commons, in February, to make that point, his parliamentary colleagues didn’t quite know where to look. British politicians do not talk about love much, or not in Parliament. Yet he was on to something….

A Scot of empire-building stock, Mr Stewart is unusually well-able to make the case for Britain. A former soldier, diplomat and academic, who is, at 40, one of Westminster’s leading experts on foreign affairs, he has an attachment to British institutions and power which is at once hardnosed and hereditary. Yet his apprehension that an argument over independence warrants more than shopping-bill logic has hit a popular nerve. Since he laid his first stone, in a field provided by a sympathetic landowner, 15,000-odd people have visited and added to the cairn, either from a pile of locally quarried stone or with their own offerings.

A woman from Glasgow brought the last stone fragment of her mother’s house, which was bombed in the second world war. Many former and serving soldiers have come, to lay stones from the Falklands, Afghanistan, or to spend a day laying local Cumbrian granite on the cairn. Old and housebound Scots and English have posted stones to the cairn, often colourfully decorated with the union flag, or the Saltire, or with personal messages….

There is no other organised outlet for such sentiment. Britons living outside Scotland—including some 800,000 native Scots—have no vote in the referendum. And Better Together has created no comparable rallying-point. Remarkably, Mr Stewart’s pile of rocks is perhaps the only feature of the Scottish referendum campaign that starkly suggests it has any more import than a routine general election.

It is surprising, therefore, how little interest it has attracted from other politicians. The cairn has been visited by celebrities and senior soldiers—including the actress Joanna Lumley, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the former Scottish boss of British special forces, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb—but by no cabinet ministers. Better Together’s Labour Party leaders have refused to endorse it, or even provide Mr Stewart with their mailing-lists. Meanwhile it is under attack from nationalist thugs, who have sought to deface it with their slogans. That is a significant contrast with the quiet decency of the cairn-builders, thuggery and intimidation having been a consistent feature of the separatist campaign.

And that says a lot too. I wonder how many people who favor staying with the union are too nervous to admit that fact to pollsters.

So is this all just a temporary panic, a bad case of last-minute jitters? Maybe, but I am hearing otherwise from people I know who are not the panicking sort.

And I couldn’t help noting this tweet by Rupert Murdoch:

London Times will shock Britain and more with reliable new poll on Scottish independence.  If right on 18th vote everything up for grabs.

I’ll stick with my belief that the Scots will vote to preserve the union this month (longer term is an entirely different question). If they do vote to go, there will be turbulence ahead, but not for David Cameron. If the prime minister has any self-respect he will be beginning a long, quiet and preferably obscure retirement.

Presiding over the break-up of the United Kingdom should come with consequences.


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