The only thing for certain about this week’s Independence Referendum in Scotland, is that when the votes are counted, millions of people will be heartbroken. Whose hearts should they be?
In 2012 the current government of Britain concluded the Edinburgh Agreement, which established a legal framework for a vote by residents of Scotland on whether that country should exit the United Kingdom. There are rules of procedure, a very specific question that cannot be misunderstood and the voting age has been dropped, for this occasion only, to 16 so as to enfranchise more future citizens. Ballots are cast on September 18th. It is all frightfully civilized, something which this son of Brits feels both proud of and infuriated by.
Proud, because civility and due process are the hallmarks of British political and legal decision-making. Because the process accords respect to the rights of Scots to self-determination. Proud because the whole process itself is illustrative of what is best about Britain. And because agreeing to this was such a sign of confidence in the value of British unity.
But also infuriated. Infuriated because the United Kingdom is a wildly successful nation which has shown, among its many virtues, that diverse populations and distinct countries can not only co-exist but prosper under a single sovereign. There is no economic rationale for Scotland to quit the UK. There is no political oppression. There are political differences with the rest of the nation – a plurality of Scots vote Labour more often than the English do – but devolution, existing and promised, eradicates any real complaints about Westminster imposing itself on Edinburgh.
National identity in Scotland and in the diaspora of Scots, to which I loosely belong, is impregnable: no-one has any doubt about who is Scottish and what that means. The historic knock on Scots (that they are tight with money) is, in fact, a secret point of pride north of Hadrian’s Wall. There isn’t even a language issue. Although you may not believe it, if you struggle with the accent, the Scots speak English better than many of the English. The absence of a language issue, weirdly enough, means that even Quebec has a more tenable case for independence than Scotland does.
What Scotland has, as a case for independence, is a grudge. First, a longstanding chip on the shoulder about being second to England in the union. Why this ever surprised anyone, when Scots represent less than 10 percent of the population, eludes me. More recent events – the rise of Thatcherism and the new version of Conservatism governing the UK in coalition with the Liberals, is a tired complaint, going back thirty years. There is a gripe about the loss of North Sea oil tax revenues to the UK, although no-one complains about the advantages being the UK delivered to a host of Scottish industries including oil. And there are dreamy promises of vast untapped oil reserves, promising each citizen of an independent Scotland a lush life of unearned wealth.
And then there is the ugly truth: that at the bottom of any nationalist movement, is bigotry. The only way to fire up a Scottish independence movement is to stoke dislike or hatred of the English, and to cultivate local pride into a form of local arrogance. There are countries on the earth which have been necessary to the protection of particular ethnicities, faiths and languages; no such threat faces Scotland and the only way to get Scots to choose separatism is to foment memories of past humiliations and false beliefs about the status quo. Ethnic nationalism is almost always noxious, no less so among my own people.
The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has milked these grudges since I was a boy and has, until very recently, deservedly lived on the margins of political life. But with the creation of the Scottish parliament and the steady convergence of Blairist Labour with post-Thatcherite thinking, the SNP surfaced as a possible governing party. At the last election it was successful enough to seize control of the Scots assembly and to deliver on its promise of a referendum about independence.
Which takes me to the second thing I am infuriated about, which is the stupidly nonchalant and arrogant approach of the pro-union forces, to the referendum. First, there is the process. Recognizing that the principle of self-determination is a worthy one and has been accepted by Parliament in this case, that does not alter the fundamental weirdness of the process:
- There are about 64,000,000 citizens in Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Island and a few specks of land elsewhere)
- Scotland’s total population is about 5.3 million. Or less than 10 percent of the UK total
- The voting population of Scotland (persons aged 16 and up) is about 4.3 million
- A majority (50% plus 1) will decide the Referendum
- Thus, around 2.2 million people can decide to bust up the union, notwithstanding the wishes of the other 63 million
This process, as it plays out, holds the potential that Britain, inarguably the most influential nation state in human history, could be dismembered – voluntarily or not – on Thursday, by dint of votes cast by people who number less than five percent of the total population of the nation.
Of course, the pro-union types at Westminster, who apparently cannot imagine people having a different paradigm than their own, simply assumed that the sensible people of Scotland would stick with Britain. The Scots are very good at counting and have been uncommonly successful within the UK (Scotland has always punched way above its weight) so how, in heaven’s name, could they even come close a majority vote for independence? Everyone assumed that the majority would vote “no” in resounding numbers, sending the SNP “Yes” people off to the same pathetic future now enjoyed by Pequistes, Basque separatists and certain resilient factions of the slaveocracy in the U.S. South.
Based on that arrogance, the UK entered into a very congenial dance with the Scots separatists, establishing a protocol for the referendum that is all very civilized. All the voters had to do was play along, vote “no” and everyone at Westminster (and throughout the UK) could lapse back to a mentally onanistic self-congratulatory snooze. All the voters had to do was play along.
So tonight the UK is less than 48 hours away from a vote which is genuinely unpredictable and which, given small variations in weather and whatever happens tomorrow, could tear apart the most successful nation in the history of human affairs – to the profit of no-one, with the possible exception of flagmakers and, ultimately, Russian investors pouring in to pick up the remnants of the Scottish economy at fire sale prices. Once Russia is out of the penalty box, that is. Maybe China will get there first.
If an elected government has any responsibility at all, surely it is to take every reasonable step to prevent the destruction of the body politic? The Tory-Liberal coalition, which in reality is David Cameron’s government, has botched it gloriously. Even if the “No” manages to eke out a win, the wind is in the sails of the separatists and a repeat performance would seem guaranteed, in the not too distant future.
Those of us who have lived through this miserable experience in 1995 (the second Quebec Referendum, which came down to the wire and as nauseatingly close) do not wish it upon anyone else, and for me – the son of a Scot and an Englishman, who sees true value in a union and very little, or none, in an ethnic enclave separatist country, shake our heads at how these events come to pass. Democracy is beautiful and self-determination is sacred – yes. But democracy exists within the framework of a constitution, whether written or adopted by practice, and the parts of a nation should not be so easily permit to fly off into orbit at the sound of a starter’s pistol.
The official position of the UK is that half of whoever turns up to vote in Scotland – that half numbering no more than 2.2 million people, can destroy a nation that has had the deepest psychological, cultural, legal and economic imprint on the face of the earth; a nation which is among the most civilized, democratic, rich, organized, engaged, free places on the planet. This simply makes no sense. We need some other way to measure the case for splitting up an existing union. I am not sure that I adopt the stance of Abraham Lincoln – that the union is indivisible and must, by armed action if necessary, be preserved – but wise people must ask themselves if acceding to an easy, sloppy separatist referendum procedure like the one in the UK is the way to treat the legacy which has been handed to them.
The only decent outcome on September 18th would be if every single ballot cast was “no.” I hold out no such hope, of course.