By Michael Carberry
As a Scot who grew up and spent much of his adult life in England and as a former British diplomat who has worked on European Community affairs, I read with great interest the two articles by Richard Pooley and Stoker about the merits or otherwise of a possible Scottish Independence.
The idea of an independent Scotland is hardly new. As the article by Stoker pointed out, Scotland has a long and proud history as an independent nation. Indeed the Scottish Saltire is reputed to be the oldest national flag in the world. The Scots fought a prolonged and bitter series of wars in the fourteenth century to regain their independence following the usurpation by Edward I of England and that resonates with Scots even today – just listen to the words of Flower of Scotland at any international sporting fixture. Although it was a Scots king who united the crowns of England and Scotland, the Scots rejected the proposal of James VI (James I of England) to be king of “Great Britain”. As Stoker says, it was not until the Darien debacle a century later that the impoverished Scottish aristocrats living in London cooked up the plan with the English government to deliver Scottish Parliament votes for Union with England in return for indemnifying their losses. It was never a popular decision. Robert Burns immortalized the treachery in a song with the words, “We’re bought and sold for English gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation”. Even after the Union, Scotland deliberately retained many attributes of an independent country including its own legal and educational systems and its own established Church of which the British sovereign is not the head. The Scottish currency, the Pund Scots, continued to be used well into the 18th century and even today Scotland has its own distinctive bank notes not issued by the Bank of England.
But the Scots gradually became accustomed to the Union. While Scottish steel and coal, shipbuilding and textiles lay at the heart of Britain’s industrial might; and Scots administered the empire, planted rubber in Malaya, farmed sheep in New Zealand or tamed the wilds of Canada, the Scots were content to be part of “Great” Britain. But times changed and with the disappearance of the empire, and most of Ireland, the UK became ever more dominated by England and especially by London and the South East. With the rise of the SNP in the mid-1970s pressure for independence grew. By the 1990s the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, believed that devolution would help restore the balance and persuade the Scots of the continuing merits of the Union. That belief appeared to be justified by the outcome of the independence referendum in 2014 when voters opted 55.3% to 44.7% in favour of the status quo. But Brexit and Boris have scuppered any such illusions.
One did not have to be particularly prescient to foresee the impact of Brexit on the Scottish appetite for a further independence referendum and Richard Pooley was not the only one to do so. A week previously, on 3 June 2016, I myself wrote in the first of my “Reflections on Brexit”,
“One thing is clear. Whatever the economic consequences, Brexit would almost certainly signal the end the UK as we know it. The Scottish government and people are strongly pro-Europe and the indications are that they will vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. While the SNP government had ruled out any further independence referendum ‘for a generation’, a vote in favour of Brexit against the wishes of a clear majority of the Scottish people would create a new situation, and trigger demands for a second referendum now, a possibility confirmed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In that event the result would be very different. Many Scots, who voted in favour of maintaining the Union, if faced with a choice between the Union with England without EU membership or membership of the EU without the Union with England, would opt for the latter in sufficient numbers to swing the vote in favour of independence.”
That view has since been confirmed by numerous opinion polls showing a clear majority of Scots now in favour of a second referendum and independence; as well as by the last General Election where the slogan “Get Brexit Done” delivered a thumping majority for the Conservatives in England and against the Conservatives and for the SNP in Scotland. That was not merely because the Scots have been traditionally more pro-European. In both the Brexit Referendum and the subsequent General Election, the Brexit lobby, mostly libertarian conservatives, achieved their goal by whipping up nationalist feeling against what they presented as domination by the EU with slogans like “take back control”, while failing to appreciate that they were also whipping up nationalist feeling in Scotland against domination by England! The genie is now out of the bottle and cannot be put back. For most Scots today, the only way forward for their country is once again to take its place as a free and independent state in the community of nations and Scottish independence would now seem to have become inevitable.
So would the Scots fare better or worse? Certainly, as Richard Pooley points out, there have been many mutual benefits from the Union; but he fails to see the irony, that almost all his arguments apply even more so to membership of the EU. The fact is that the EU is the United Kingdom writ large and all the arguments in favour of Britain leaving the EU could apply equally to why Scotland should leave the Union – with the added bonus that it could then re-join the EU where most Scots would prefer to be. Far from being “a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond”, as a full member of the largest and most powerful trading bloc in the world with its own a seat on the Council of Ministers, (and in the UN) Scotland would have much greater international clout than as a mere province of a medium-sized country isolated on the fringes of Europe. It would no longer be dominated by its nearest neighbour and on a much more equal footing with its partners; fully half of EU member states have populations less than 10 million.
The arguments about trade and currency do not hold water. As others have pointed out, the current UK single market would continue unless and until such time as Scotland joined the much bigger EU single market, at which point its trade with the rump UK would benefit from the current EU/UK agreement. Similarly Scotland would continue to use sterling unless and until it adopted the euro – an even stronger currency but with much greater advantages for international trade and travel. Likewise, the problem of a possible hard border between Scotland and England has been greatly exaggerated. Of course there would be costs and increased friction to trade – Brexit has made that inevitable - but only if and when Scotland joined the EU and then no worse than that in Northern Ireland or at Dover. Moreover, unlike for England, that would be more than compensated for by the resumption of frictionless trade with the other 27 EU member states and there would rapidly be a re-balancing of Scottish exports in favour of European destinations. Not least Scottish fisherman and sea-food producers would have unfettered access to their principle markets on the Continent now denied to their English counterparts!
The Scottish economy would also benefit from free movement of labour. Unlike England, Scotland positively welcomes immigrants especially Europeans who are often well-educated or skilled workers who are easily assimilated and who are vital to sectors like hospitality and tourism. Moreover, such immigrants tend to be young and enterprising, setting up new businesses and generally making a net positive contribution to the economy. Since devolution Scotland again has its own government and a modern parliament, more efficient and more representative than that in Westminster, responsible for most domestic legislation. So Scotland would slip easily into full independence without any major disruption.
But will Boris Johnson allow that? It would be supremely hypocritical for someone who pushed Brexit through because it was “the will of the people” to repeatedly refuse the will of the Scots people by rejecting calls for a further referendum. Indeed, given that the Scots had already rejected Brexit, it would be to insult them twice over. But the Scots are used to Boris’s hypocrisy. One of Nicola Sturgeon’s greatest strengths is that her perceived competence, transparency, seriousness, honesty and integrity are the complete antithesis of Johnson who is loathed by most people north of the border. Repeated attempts by the government in London to frustrate the will of the Scottish people will merely be seen as further evidence of English domination and drive more of them into the independence camp.
Why should that be? Because the will of the people matters in Scotland. If he can find the time between dressing up in yellow visi-jackets and hard hats, playing ping pong with firemen, driving tractors through walls, or re-decorating his Downing Street apartment, the Prime Minster should take the trouble to read some Scottish history. The Declaration of Arbroath of 6 April 1320 is one of the key Scottish constitutional documents. This letter to Pope John XXII, signed by 39 Scottish nobles but delivered on behalf of all the “other Barons, Freeholders and all the common people of the kingdom of Scotland”, asserts Scotland’s status as an independent sovereign state with the right to defend itself against aggression. The document also asserts the right of the Scots people to choose Robert Bruce as their king because of his role in liberating the country from English rule. But then, in what seems today like a remarkably early example of popular sovereignty, it goes on to say,
“But if he should cease from these beginnings, wishing to give us or our kingdom to the English or the king of the English, we would immediately take steps to drive him out as the enemy……..
Because, while a hundred of us remain alive, we will not submit in the slightest measure, to the domination of the English. We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”
That spirit is alive and well in Scotland today.
Please go to the Readers Opinions page for views about the pros and cons of Scottish independence from our readers.