England and Scotland became a single country in 1707. The Union was freely entered into by both countries and has undoubtedly been of great benefit to both. It was never a complete fusion because Scotland and England have each always retained a strong sense of national identity, with their own legal systems. To this day, asked their nationality, many if not most inhabitants of both countries, will reply “I am English” or “I am Scots”; the concept of Britishness has never entirely caught on. Nevertheless we all know, and have known now for three hundred years, that we belong together.
Long may it continue so, and it almost certainly will. Surely such a successful partnership could only be dissolved as it started – by the free agreement of both sides. The present fuss and bother about so-called ‘Scottish Independence’ has been manufactured by trouble-makers in both countries. We English, as the bigger partner, must bear the brunt of the responsibility for it. In the course of the last hundred years, we have allowed our national mood and our ruling class to degenerate, to a point where our Union flag is not flown, patriotism is a dirty word and any grievance which any other country may claim to have against us is always given, prima facie, the benefit of the doubt. In that spirit we gave away our Empire. In that spirit we gave away our parliamentary independence to the EU and our military independence to NATO. In that spirit we now encourage trouble-makers, small minorities in Wales and bigger minorities but still minorities in Scotland, to assert their supposed right to drag their constituent parts of the Union into pointless and mutually-damaging separateness.
The original pattern was set by Ireland. But with Ireland, the situation was entirely different. Ireland had been conquered and was never properly assimilated. The majority of the Irish people clung stubbornly to their separate national identity and hated the British connection. The Irish aristocracy knew which side its bread was buttered and often preferred to call themselves English rather than Irish. Britain’s greatest soldier, Wellington, was an Irishman but he did not call himself one. When the spirit of fairness and equality spread in Britain in the nineteenth century and the Irish were allowed proper representation in the Union Parliament, the Irish members formed a separate party and constantly disturbed Parliamentary business. In the end, after trouble and bloodshed and despite disunity and much party hatred in Ireland itself, the Irish created an Irish state. It had never previously existed but it now included most of their island. Except in Ulster, the resulting division was by agreement and was of benefit to both sides.
It was the Irish, not Gandhi, who had developed the hunger strike as the perfect political weapon against the soft-hearted British. It would never have worked against any other imperial power. India followed Ireland into independence. Under pressure from the USA, the rest of the British Empire became independent too. It was not all loss to Britain; some of the colonies had been as much liabilities as assets. But the habit of giving way has now become a standard pattern of national behaviour. Bit by bit, devolved power has come into existence wherever a noisy minority perceived an opportunity to create jobs for themselves, and at each stage it is always assumed that what is given is merely a stepping stone in an inevitable process of giving more.
Until the reductio ad absurdum. A separate Scottish state is not going to happen. It makes no sense and everybody knows it makes no sense. Alex Salmond is a canny Scot and a truly independent Scotland is his slogan rather than his real objective. He wanted the Scottish referendum to include a maximum devolution option. If this compromise option had been allowed on to the ballot paper, that’s probably the way things would have gone. It looks as if the Establishment Coalition are going to give it him most of it anyway, and he will be saved the terrifying responsibility of coping with a flight of capital southwards and actually setting Scotland on its feet as an independent country, complete with a financial deal with the UK, a good slice of our Army, its own Navy and Air Force, its own currency, its own relationship (or non-relationship) with the EU, and everything else that goes with being a modern state.
Of course, maybe ‘Yes’ will win. But then the process of negotiation will commence. And then Salmond has to be a statesman, and statesmen have to be willing to compromise, and he will; and Scotland will be relieved to be brought back from the brink, and his own party will be handled as probably only he knows how. Or perhaps he will no longer be in power in Scotland anyway – there may well be a reaction after a ‘Yes’ vote – and the resulting Scottish Labour government will arrange things to suit themselves.
Why then this strange phenomenon of hysterical Independence demands in Scotland? Surely we English can feel a lot of sympathy with it. The motivation behind the SNP is essentially the same, if in a misguided form, as the motivation behind UKIP. On both sides of the border (and the Welsh border, where I live, too) we are all very, very disillusioned with the current political set-up. It’s an easy knee-jerk reaction in Scotland to blame the problem on England. It won’t be an easy task and will require much energy and courage (perhaps sheer physical courage) to divert Scottish reactive energy in the right direction. But it’s starting. A ‘Yes’ vote, and the disillusionment which will inevitably follow, are probably just what is needed to move things further in the UKIP direction north of the border.