Divided kingdom

Breaking up Britain would be bad for the West, bad for England and bad for Scotland. Scottish independence must be rejected.

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Holyrood Palace
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Richard Cashman
On 24 May 2011 10:20

The multi-election results of May 5, were bitter-sweet. While the British electorate responded with a resounding “No” to the constitutional mischief that was the referendum on the Alternative Vote, its Scottish portion delivered a boost to the Scottish National Party (SNP) quite beyond anything it could have hoped for.

While, under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament must first get Westminster’s consent for a referendum, the majority now held by the SNP means that a vote on full independence within the next five years is almost a certainty. It is often the hubris of contemporary societies to believe that, next to their predecessors, they have the better view on given issues simply by virtue of being contemporary.

Yet it is highly likely that all the best arguments to be made for or against the Union of 1707 were already made three centuries ago. Nevertheless, they now need updating. 

In 1999, the New Labour government made good on its promise of devolution and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood was inaugurated by the Queen. The sovereign was really the only candidate to do the honours. Who else, after all, could aptly signal the conferment of a parliament while at the same time representing the Union?

Under the devolution formula, the Scottish Parliament has since legislated exclusively on issues affecting Scotland with the sole, but pivotal, “reserved” exceptions of tax, defence and foreign policy. Yet the SNP professes that only full independence will allow Scotland to unlock its potential, currently fettered, they say, by its membership of the Union.

The economic benefits of independence for Scotland, however, are not readily appreciable. Within the UK, England is the economic powerhouse with 52 million people compared to Scotland’s 4.5 million. Far more money goes north than comes south, even once North Sea oil and gas is taken into account -- roughly £11 billion to Scotland compared to £6.5 billion to England last year.

These are significant figures when one considers the additional cost for an independent Scotland of setting up a new treasury, a defence ministry, armed forces and a foreign service. Yet if those are the objective points, the SNP’s actual economic case for independence is just bizarre. In the 1970s the party had campaigned on the economically sound basis of exploiting UK North Sea resources in Scottish territorial waters, but today its economic policy is profoundly weaker than 40 years ago.

It plans, apparently, to maintain its economy entirely with green energy. The nuclear option is out the window because of the SNP’s aversion to anything nuclear in general, and inability to afford new nuclear power stations, in particular.

Nor does Scotland enjoy Mediterranean levels of sunshine, which leaves it with wind, wave and hydro power, none of which can produce anything near the country’s energy requirements, even had it the capital for the initial outlay, which is stratospheric.

On top of this, the SNP’s commitment to green energy precludes it from exploiting its only realistic economic trump card – North Sea oil and gas. Although the party could change horses on this policy, it would fall foul of the EU subsidy system, whose tutelage is the most likely source for propping up an independent Scottish economy over the long term.

Internationally, although it is likely that the rump of the UK would be the legal inheritor of Britain’s seats in international institutions, its membership at some would be brought into serious question.

One of the only reasons it continues to hold its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is its nuclear status.

Yet Britain’s nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland at Faslane on the Clyde. Relocating it, and the many other facilities across Scotland, would be eye-wateringly expensive, both for the UK treasury and for the Scottish employment market, ultimately leaving UK-Lite with a less credible nuclear deterrent.

It is also the SNP’s policy to be non-NATO and non-aligned, leaving an air cover hole over the key strategic theatre of the North Atlantic. Then there are the lower level defence issues. About 70 percent of the elite SAS regiment, for example, is Scottish. Yet army regiments and units would have to be completely sundered. And the corollary is not that Scotland can have its own elite forces, because it cannot afford them.

If the economic and material arguments for independence are weak, the political and philosophical ones are plain backward.

The Union does not represent some constitutional happenstance. Rather, it was designed and agreed upon by two independent nations. And this is the critical point: political unions are progressive instruments. Save for the provision against Catholics marrying heirs to the throne (designed to avoid accepting authority from Rome) there are no restrictions on the aspirations of Scots within the Union; nor, indeed, on those of Welsh and Northern Irish origin.

This is not just theory; it is clear to see in practice. Gordon Brown is fresh in the memory, but do not forget Lloyd George, or, indeed, the numerous Scots-derived English prime ministers - Cameron, Blair, Callaghan, MacMillan and MacDonald.

Scotland was not simply part of the English empire; it was one of its chief executives. Before the Union Scotland had tried to go it alone as a trading powerhouse, much as the SNP would like it to do today.

The result was the ill-fated Darien expeditions to Panama in the 1690s. Their failure left the Union as the only realistic option for Scottish entrepreneurship. The synergy effect was almost immediate. Indeed, a disproportionately high number of the men and women who actually went out and built the British Empire were Scottish.

In short, Scots thrived in the Union and the Union thrived with Scots. Alone, both states were riddled with mutual jealousies that wasted resources on the one hand, and presented weaknesses vis-a-vis foreign powers, on the other.

The SNP’s regressive campaign for Scottish independence today is primitive nationalism, pure and simple, and not much of a cut above that which plagues places like the Balkans.

Although it would be scaremongering to suggest a return to violence, it is certain that antipathy would increase on both sides of the border. Scotland’s secession would, to all intents and purposes, sound the death knell for the United Kingdom; a union many generations in the making, and which was at the heart of the process that spread Western values around the globe.

Richard Cashman is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and barrister of the Middle Temple, London

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