Now that Brexit is accomplished, more or less, we face Scoxit; the liberation of Scotland from the clutches of the United Kingdom. The English owe a great deal to the Scots. For a small country it has been a generous and constant support to its neighbour; in political ideas - the enlightenment, the development of liberalism; in economic ideas - Adam Smith, Hume, Law and many others (Wikipedia adds “Alex Salmond” but we will pass quickly on); architecture - the Adam father and sons alone would grace any country’s architectural reputation; art, music, literature, business, entrepreneurship, and not least, military prowess. England provided much of the manpower of the Navy, but it was Scotland’s fighters who led, and fought, in the Army. At least until the First World War, after which Ulster seemed to take on that role. But note; in truth, Ulstermen of Scottish descent.
It is obvious why England might not want to let Scotland drift off in separate nationhood. But it ought to be obvious also, that with that record, the Scots should have no fears that they will thrive and prosper as an independent country. The population of Scotland is about the same size as the Republic of Ireland, of Norway, and of Finland – to name countries which are cold and wet and where the temptation to sit in the sun is limited, thus encouraging hard work and accumulation of material goods for long winters. All countries who are economically and socially happy and successful (all of them, incidentally, having fought for and achieved independence from their neighbours).
There is one good reason to be very doubtful about supporting the urge of the Scots to be an independent nation once again, as they were until the Act of Union of 1707. Let us deal with that now: the poor quality of the current crop of Scottish politicians. Any sensible person must have doubts about marking their ballot paper for almost any of the current lot, of any party. A dreich** shower they are and no mistake. But worry not, they will pass and when the new nation has to make important and long-term decisions the hour will produce the politicos. Maybe not immediately, the triumphs of new freedom might cast a too rosy glow over those that had been sitting in Holyrood at the time it was achieved, but the right ones will appear when needed.
The most nervous types about the economic and social direction of a newly free Scotland must surely be conservatives, internationalist liberals, and those of a libertarian bent. For all of them, their current choice is a Conservative Party which does not want independence, the LibDems who also advocate continued union but barely exist, and then three socialist parties – the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens, and Scottish Labour. The latter is currently controlled by the unionist camp but historically had a strong element who wanted Scottish independence. And then there are the followers of Mr Salmond and his new creation, Alba, who sit firmly on the red side of the scales. Vote for independence and it seems you get socialism as a free gift.
The Conservatives, who ought to have seen the light after Irish liberation a hundred years ago and become supporters of independence movements everywhere, are sitting firmly on the wrong side of the fence and are much to blame for letting a popular cause get in dangerous hands. But once Scotland is free, that problem will surely sort itself. Socialism is usually disastrous anywhere in the long run, but in the Scottish context would be doubly disastrous, given the country’s existing problems. The Scots are intelligent folk; the leftish urge would soon be gone as that nation of hard-working natural entrepreneurs started to compete in the world. It was a lesson the Irish Republic finally learned, and it will be learned much faster in Scotland.
There’s another group who will not be happy with Scottish independence: Brexiteers. The First Minister and Scot Nat leader Ms Sturgeon has made it clear she wants to join the European Union as soon as Scotland is able. “Remain”, had at the time of the 2016 Brexit Referendum, and still has, majority support north of the border, not least, cynically, because of the current parlous state of Scotland’s economy, dependent on funds sent at frequent intervals from Westminster. Not only that, the Scottish domestic outlook is a bit grim; the financial services industry is drifting south to London, North Sea oil and gas reserves are running out (the Green Party wants to stop the drilling anyway) and Ms Sturgeon is not business friendly. And tourism and whisky can only get you so far. Scotland would in normal times not begin to meet the EU’s core tests for joining. These are not normal times though. The EU would probably welcome the Scots with open arms if only to spite the English; so cross border controls at Berwick and Carlisle are a real possibility. The Scots may find they exchange a friendly neighbour for a very bossy one, and that the centralising instincts of the EU are not to nationalist’s tastes, but that’s for the future.
None of that sounds as though it makes a strong case for a free and independent Scotland. It is not meant to; there are numerous risks and dangers in leaving home at any time of life and that is no different for a nation than for an individual. But all those readers who have at some point begun their personal voyage into independence will have clambered over those risks and emerged stronger and finer people at the other side. Scotland after all only surrendered her independence in 1707 as a result of the Darien Scheme, a huge and disastrous investment in the 1690’s to create a new Scottish colony in the Panama isthmus. The Scottish Treasury was practically bankrupted by this, as were many of Scotland’s leading commercial families. The easy solution seemed rescue by that lot next door, which brought an underpinning of Scottish national debt, a merger of the currencies, and a united parliament and government in Westminster. Had it not been for Darien, Scotland would have remained independent, albeit under one crown, much longer. But the self-identity of the Scottish people as being just that, Scottish people, remained and grew. Scotland thinks of itself as different to England, and those of our readers who have had the great pleasure of visiting there will know that it is, in many subtle ways, very different. And the greatest reason, the best reason, to become an independent nation is because of the sense that you are just that, a separate nation well capable of making your own way in the world. That is not racialist. Nationalism should not be unpleasant; it should be about pride in history and identity and uniqueness, without scorning other peoples or countries. A fight for independence can lose sight of that balance and alas, to some Scot Nats, dislike of the English has almost become stronger than the cause of a free nation. That happened in Ireland too, but gradually the two nations either side of the Irish Sea have become fond of each other once more. The lesson, indeed, is for the English to be very respectful and understanding toward the possibility of a Scottish nation, not to obstruct a friend who wants to leave a party that has gone on perhaps too long.
Nationalism is primarily an emotion; many of the reasons cited by opponents of independence are to do with economic viability, standing in the world, the problems of defence, the nature of the currency. These are perfectly proper considerations of course, but they are capable of solution; they have been solved by newly independent nations over the centuries. Most importantly, they are of no meaning, no importance to people who no longer identify with their old constitutional arrangements but want a government that is closer to them, more responsive, simply, Scottish. Proponents of continuing union are often accused of failing to make any case which might persuade Scots to reject a vote for independence, when the time comes. The reason for that is surely obvious. Compared with an emotional attachment to freedom, self-government, the adoption of the symbols of nationhood, none of the unionist practical arguments are in the slightest compelling or convincing.
The only way to overcome that sense of being Scottish would be to make a stronger case, emotionally, for being British. The Scots have tried that for three hundred years and it has not worked. Now the time is coming, as it did for Eire, to take that big bold step away from Nanny England; and for England to understand, to behave with generosity and friendship, and to be a good neighbour respecting its ancient and yet new friends in the north.
*With apologies to Jules Holland
** “dreich” – Scots for grimly grey and wet