Magazine | June 23, 2014, Issue

There’ll Always Be an England . . .

. . . but will there be a Britain too?

On September 18, the 5 million or so who live in Scotland will be able to take part in a referendum to decide whether or not their country is to be independent. Polls show that the Yes vote is steadily gaining on the No vote, with barely a couple of points between them. Three centuries ago, the English, Scots, and Welsh put in place the United Kingdom in order to stop fighting one another to the death. Britain and British were make-believe concepts in this United Kingdom, but they served so well to express the common identity that they became believable. The Irish in their island stayed apart, and the existence of Eire is a standing reproach that the British have found hard to live with. A Yes vote must bring to a head what has been a slow-motion collapse of British identity. Scotland, a significant part of the mainland, would be following the example of Eire. The folly of the present will then have undone the genius of the past.

The Scots have long since formed a very successful nation. Their culture is instantly recognizable and widely admired, with literature and speech, law, clothes, food, music and dances, athletics, and a religious enthusiasm and enduring clan system all their own. The dual identity of Scottish and British reinforced the sense of being special. Time was when schoolchildren were familiar with the example of the Scots Greys charging at Waterloo to gain a British victory with the war cry “Scotland forever!” Time was, too, when Scottish bankers, traders, doctors, engineers, and soldiers recognized that being British gave them privileges wherever the English language had spread.

Do the Scots really wish now to have a state for their nation? What conceivable benefit might that bring? These questions should be addressed in the first place to Brussels. The founders of the European Union held that the nation-state was the cause of war and therefore had to be eliminated. Because central governments over the years have been steadily ceding authority to Brussels, ethnic or national minorities everywhere are encouraged to assert themselves and claim independence. If every nation is to have a state, and every state is to be a nation, lines and definitions will have to be fudged and boundaries put at risk. Slovaks obtained their state peacefully; Macedonians and Bosnians and Croats violently; Kosovars through a dangerous manipulation of the great powers, and perhaps only for the time being; and Moldovans, Ukrainians, and now Scots are still among the undecided. In short, the hostility of Brussels to the nation-state has the contrary effect of spawning more of them, but smaller, and all the offspring of destabilizing incoherence.

Until quite recently, Scotland was a stronghold of the Conservative party. Westminster used to contain a solid bloc of Tory members representing Scottish constituencies. Friction between Scots and English was at the level of barroom jokes about supposed national characteristics. Discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1960s began the shift in attitudes. The windfall of money raises expectations that have disrupted every oil-producing country, and Scotland is no exception. Bearing comparison with the Shiite minority who feel deprived of the revenue from the oil-rich provinces they inhabit in Saudi Arabia, many Scots have come to complain that money that should be theirs goes into English pockets. In sober fact, the Treasury has had in place for years a complex formula whereby every Scot receives a larger subsidy from the central government than does every Englishman or Welshman, in effect buying off the Scots. But any benefit that this formula might have produced was lost when in 1989 Mrs. Thatcher introduced a poll tax and inexplicably tested it out in Scotland. Scots instantly perceived discrimination aimed at them and staged violent riots that spread, destroying Mrs. Thatcher’s reputation and wiping away the Conservative party in Scotland.

The Scottish Labour party looked set to govern Scotland indefinitely. Of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster, 41 are today in the hands of Scottish Labour, and just one is a Scottish Conservative. The law of unintended consequences then took over. The governments of John Major and Tony Blair both determined that only self-rule could resolve the sectarian confrontation in Northern Ireland. Appeasement of one set of nationalists necessarily meant appeasement of all. A first referendum on devolution — a move toward self-government short of independence — failed in 1979. In 1997, in the manner now perfected in Europe, a second referendum was held to reach the required decision. Assembly buildings were hurriedly run up in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Like Lewis Carroll’s White  Queen, Tony Blair believes six impossible things before breakfast, and he was emphatic that devolution was handing strictly limited powers to the new assemblies — and moreover was a final end in itself. He was indignant with whoever insisted that devolution was the thin end of a wedge and must lead ultimately to independence.

This naïveté was soon exposed. Violence has been suspended in Northern Ireland but the gunmen have not reformed. In Scotland, devolution opened the way for the Scottish National party, the SNP. For years, the SNP had been marginal, a rabble with a hint of quasi-fascism about it. Parties of the kind need a leader able to impose himself, and Alex Salmond is one such. Fifty-nine, a man of the people, he is confident, smooth, every inch a populist politician. Thanks to him, the SNP has captured the Scottish parliament and forms the government. He and his critics throw suggestions and statistics back and forth. Whether the queen will be head of his Scottish state and whether it will have the pound sterling as currency are subjects of debate. Membership in the EU and NATO may or may not be accepted. The future of Scottish banks, tariffs, Scottish regiments, the Trident nuclear-submarine base at Faslane, and passport and border controls are among issues left in the air. A socialist as much as a nationalist, Salmond plays on the unspoken grievances against the English, especially if they own property. The Scottish Milosevic in this respect, he understands that the decision to vote Yes depends on the Scots’ thinking of themselves as victims; self-pity will mobilize them as never before.

Theoretically, Conservatives and Labour both participate in the No campaign, whose slogan, “Better Together,” indicates their lack of inspiration. Afraid that anything they do or say might be counterproductive, the Conservatives are not even leading from behind. The Labour party is in the thankless position of having to defend the status quo, something contrary to its habitual political stance. Conviction is missing. Unpopular on several counts, Tony Blair does not dare show his face. The No campaign is in the hands either of former prime minister Gordon Brown or of Alistair Darling, his chancellor of the exchequer. Both men are patriotic Scots, but it is impossible to forget that these two wrecked the British economy. Since losing office, Gordon Brown, a Scottish member at Westminster, is like Achilles sulking in his tent. Darling is an unimaginably soporific speaker, and they seem more concerned to sideline each other than to rally the voters. Johann Lamont, the machine politician at the head of the Scottish Labour party, thinks it is sufficient argument to rant that the SNP’s drive to independence is “the most dishonest, deceptive, and disgraceful political campaign this country has ever seen.” The SNP does resort to intimidation, but Lamont’s argument is less persuasive than it might be because it so happens that the Scottish Labour party has just been caught in really disgraceful behavior: Rigging internal elections is the least of it.

The English are objecting that they ought to have their say about the break-up of the Union. Some hope to be rid of the Scots, and point out that without the 59 Scottish constituencies Westminster would be forever Conservative. The millions of Scots who live outside Scotland are excluded from voting in the referendum, an injustice that looks prearranged to exclude probable No voters. Anxiety about the future is already turning into dismay and outrage. “Britain” and “the British” look like they are becoming terms without relevance, on a par with “Soviet” or “Yugoslav,” of historic interest only. And it’s left to luck to save the day.

David Pryce-Jones — David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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