“THE Breakup of Britain”? It sounds like a fantasy fiction title. To many people across the world, including the English themselves, it is inconceivable that this deep-rooted United Kingdom, the oldest royal democracy in the world, could split apart.
In the last few weeks, however, official London has panicked over the rising clamor of voices from all over the British Isles suddenly agreeing that the archaic structure of “Great Britain” is overdue for a shake-up – even a breakup.
Nowhere are these voices in better harmony than in Scotland. If “Britain” is more than a word on a passport, why do most Scots now feel their primary identity is not British? What would it mean to be English if the Scots walked away? And should the Welsh follow them? A fresh wind of new ideas is blowing from Scotland and tempting all the queen’s subjects to reimagine their identities.
Last month Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, introduced a “consultation document” on a referendum to decide his nation’s future. After an unexpected triumph in last year’s elections to the Scottish Parliament, the party is now fulfilling its promise: a vote to declare independence.
If Mr. Salmond has his way, the vote will take place in 2014, just shy of 700 years after King Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn. And he wants only one question on the ballot paper: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
This hasn’t sat well with the British government. From the coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats led by Prime Minister David Cameron – and from opposition parties in Scotland – comes an indignant but muddled roar of protest. Mr. Salmond’s legal right to call a referendum is challenged; the wording of his simple question is called unfair; bankruptcy and isolation are predicted for an independent Scotland.
But so far the protests have backfired disastrously. The number of Scots wanting independence, which for some 40 years held at around 25 percent, is rising sharply: some recent polls set it at nearly half the electorate. In the week following Mr. Cameron’s threat to set the date and question of the referendum himself, overruling the Scottish Parliament, more than a thousand Scots joined the S.N.P.
Still, London can take some comfort in the fact that Mr. Salmond’s either-or question ignores the biggest slice of the Scottish public, which holds that Scotland should stay within Britain but take control of almost everything except foreign policy and defense. Whether Mr. Salmond succeeds may depend less on how well he sells independence than on how poorly his opponents do in selling the union.
The roots of this crisis lie far back in British history. After co-existing under the same monarch for a century, in 1707 a poverty-stricken, failing Scotland agreed to enter an “incorporating union” with England, in which Scotland gave up its independence in return for access to English markets and to the widening English empire overseas. But there was a fateful misunderstanding between two very different constitutional traditions. The English regarded the union as irreversible; the Scots, then and now, regarded it as a treaty that could be modified or even ended by mutual agreement.
Scotland prospered in the subsequent two centuries, from the profits of empire and then from the industrial revolution that those imperial profits and markets made possible. And yet the awareness of past independence never quite faded. The most basic political feeling among Scots, pro- or anti-union, is the memory of statehood. It’s an instinct, rather than a formed idea, that the nation still retains a “residual sovereignty” that cannot be taken away. The poet Robert Burns wrote that Scotland had been “bought and sold for English gold.”
But between the last Jacobite rising in 1745 and the end of World War II 200 years later, there was no serious political challenge to the union. It took the cumulative effect of the Depression, the decay of Scotland’s industries and the collapse of the British Empire in the mid-20th century to reignite and spread a sense that the bargain was no longer paying off.
The arrival of the postwar welfare state and its centralizing bureaucracies gave Scottish professionals a dismaying sense that more and more decisions about Scottish life were being made in London. In the 1970s the Scottish National Party, seen until then as an eccentric tartan irrelevance, suddenly began to win electoral victories.
To undercut the nationalists, alarmed Labour governments in London invented “devolution,” the plan for an elected Scottish Parliament and executive, which would control some internal Scottish affairs – health, education and transport, among others – while leaving foreign affairs, defense, social welfare and taxation “reserved” to London. The restored Scottish Parliament, which began to sit in 1999, can’t raise its own tax revenue; rather, it depends on an annual cash grant from the Treasury in London.
Critics of devolution, both Tory and Labour, wailed that the scheme would prove a “slippery slope” toward independence and play into the hands of the S.N.P. They were right, but for the wrong reasons. Devolution itself was a success; most Scots are satisfied with their new Parliament. But they lost faith in the all-British parties that formed the first Scottish governments, especially the local version of “New Labour,” led from London by Tony Blair.
Understandably, voters eventually turned to the one party whose base was exclusively in Scotland. In the 2007 elections, the S.N.P. narrowly emerged the winner and formed a minority government under Mr. Salmond. Last year, in a spectacular breakthrough, his party routed Labour and secured an absolute majority of seats. The independence referendum became inevitable.
BUT is independence what the Scottish people – as opposed to the S.N.P. – really want? In spite of the recent political fireworks, Scotland is a deeply conservative country (with a small “c”: the Conservative Party itself has been reduced to a tiny rump). And for the last 40 years or so, the preference of the Scots has hardly changed: most want Scotland to take charge of its own affairs as other small nations do while, if possible, staying in the United Kingdom. Their general view of devolution follows logically: A Parliament isn’t worth much if it can’t change the lives of ordinary people – if it doesn’t have full control of the economy.
And yet no party is offering the Scots that middle course. Though the Cameron coalition government is still split on how to run a Unionist “no” campaign in the referendum, Mr. Cameron himself boldly declares that there can be no question of giving Scotland control of its own finances – which plays straight into the S.N.P.’s hands. If the only way for Scottish voters to win that full self-government is through independence, then many of them, however reluctantly, may vote to leave the union.
Only in recent weeks has a campaign for that second question begun to emerge: Future of Scotland, which wants the referendum to offer not only a yes-or-no question on independence but also something along the lines of, “Do you want full self-government for Scotland (so-called devo-max) short of independence, leaving only foreign affairs and defense to the United Kingdom?”
The group is still getting off the ground; its first rally won’t take place until next week, in Glasgow. But its backers insist they are voicing the wish of the largest single bloc of Scottish opinion. Indeed, it has already attracted powerful social lobbies: the trade unions, the churches, the council of voluntary organizations. In Scotland these are big players who provided the muscle behind the successful campaign for a Scottish Parliament.
The Unionist camp is utterly opposed to any second question, but Mr. Salmond is relaxed about it. He knows that the step from that sort of “federal” autonomy to complete independence is a short one.
To help make that step even easier, Mr. Salmond promotes an uncannily cool version of sovereignty: call it “independence lite.” He would keep the queen as monarch and retain the pound as currency. There would be no customs or passports at the border. And the “social union” of family and business bonds that tie the English and the Scots together so intimately would stay intact.
Which doesn’t mean things wouldn’t change. An independent Scotland, Mr. Salmond claims, would be a “fairer” society than England. Mr. Salmond enrages Labour by promising that Scotland will become “a beacon for progressive opinion.” The Scottish National Party, once seen as right-wing and romantic, has made a steady leftward transition to social democracy since it began to gather support. Now, ironically enough, it can be seen as the most “British” of parties: since 2007, successive S.N.P. governments have fought to preserve what remains of Britain’s postwar welfare state.
They have barricaded Scotland against the privatizations and “market” reforms imposed on England and Wales by Conservative and Labour administrations over the last 30 years, from Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to David Cameron. Unlike the English, Scots don’t pay for prescriptions, home health care or university tuition.
And of course, even though there are only five million people in Scotland – against 57 million in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – its departure would have huge consequences. What would the southern state be called: “the United Kingdom of England and Wales,” or just “England,” or the horrible term of political scientists, “Residual UK,” often shortened as “rUK”?
Even larger questions would loom. Would there still be a place called “Britain”? Would Scottish independence finally force the English to rediscover their own national voice, instead of hiding their problems under the cloak of “Britishness”? Would a reduced “England” still rate a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council?
It may not happen. The referendum is more than two years off. Mr. Salmond is prone to fits of wild over-optimism; one major blunder and the S.N.P. bubble could deflate. And his nightmare must be the “Quebec syndrome”: that, as in Canada’s “French” province, people would go on voting for the Nationalists as their best government but narrowly decline to vote for independence at a referendum. The Scots are a canny, wary people.
But if Scotland votes “yes,” the responsibility will fall less on Mr. Salmond than on the incompetence of the Unionist campaign. Its tactless bluster has been hardening the Scottish impression of near-colonialist arrogance and deafness to their wishes. Paradoxically, Scottish independence could turn out to be the best guarantee of a friendlier relationship between England and the ancient, obstinate little nation on its northern border.
Neal Ascherson is the author, most recently, of “Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland.”