How do you unravel a 300-year-old state?
Opinion: Scottish independence will be portrayed as the rebirth of a nation – but it’s also the death of something else
‘Better Together has generally declined to make an argument for the United Kingdom. It is against independence, but not for anything. This, more than anything else, has been its gravest blunder.’ Above, British Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned plea yesterday to keep Scotland part of the union, saying he would be “heartbroken” if the UK was torn apart. Photograph: Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool /Getty Images
On the morning of May 1st, 1707, the Edinburgh air was alive with the sound of bells ringing out the news that the act of parliamentary union between Scotland and England had, at last, been signed. At St Giles’s cathedral on the city’s High Street, the choice of music was significant. The bells at St Giles’s asked How Can I Be Sad on My Wedding Day?
From the beginning, the union was marked by ambivalence. The earl of Stair, signing the treaty, observed that it marked “the end of an auld song”. Next week another old song, that of the United Kingdom itself, may be ended too. The latest opinion polls suggest the referendum result is impossible to call or predict. Anyone who says they know what’s going to happen is a fool or a charlatan.
What is certain is that the nationalists are enjoying themselves and unionists are downcast. How, they ask, did it ever come to this? How was a 20 point advantage in the polls frittered away? What’s more, can anything be done to halt the Yes campaign’s march towards history now?
In many respects this is an accidental referendum. It wasn’t supposed to happen. The SNP won the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election but, governing as a minority, made only a token effort to hold a referendum on independence. For a moment Labour pondered calling for a referendum to settle the matter at a time when the nationalists looked likely to lose. The idea was nixed by Gordon Brown and the chance was lost.
The electoral system at Holyrood was designed to thwart Labour, not the SNP. It was supposed to prevent any party winning an overall majority. Nevertheless Alex Salmond won just that in 2011. At a stroke, he had the votes to pass a referendum bill. The Union would be tested in the court of public opinion for, really, the first time ever.
Salmond won his victory, at least in part, because the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed. The unpopularity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster allowed Salmond to boast that, in a time of austerity, he would “stand up for Scotland”. The SNP would shield Scotland from the worst effects of public spending cuts imposed by a government that, Salmond argued, lacked legitimacy in Scotland.
Imagine, he has asked, what Scotland could do if only it were freed from the shackles imposed upon it by an unrepresentative and out-of-touch Westminster “elite”. Salmond could scarcely have designed better opponents – from his perspective – than David Cameron and George Osborne. Add a dollop of Nigel Farage and it became easy, if meretricious, to claim that Scotland and England (in particular) were now on such diverging political paths that they could no longer sensibly be part of the same state.
Then again, the idea of Scottish independence has always tugged on Caledonian hearts even when there was no practical political constituency for the idea. The benefits of trade, security and opportunity once guaranteed by union are now, in the 21st century, available in other forums. Scottish independence is, in some senses, a reaction to globalisation. As the playwright Peter Arnott says, “Scotland has always been a nation; it is past time we became a democracy as well.”
That is the essence of the Yes campaign’s emotional pitch for independence. Perhaps you didn’t thirst to be asked the question but now you have been are you really going to turn down the invitation to build a new country from scratch?
In response the Better Together campaign has offered little more than more of the same. The same questions about risk. The same queries about uncertainty. The same suggestion the Scottish government’s independence prospectus is too good to be true.
It may be, but it is at least a prospectus for the future. Better Together has generally declined to make an argument for the United Kingdom. It is against independence, but not for anything. This, more than anything else, has been its gravest blunder. For all that independence will be portrayed as the rebirth of a nation it’s also the death of something else. The gains – and there must be some – accrued by independence must be offset, at least to some extent, by the losses that inevitably accompany divorce. This is a liberation – if it be considered such – that’s tinged with sadness; a deliverance that reeks of a kind of failure. An old song ending with a whimper.
No wonder that on September 19th we may awake to a country, and even a world, in which all is changed, changed utterly. Alex Massie writes for the Spectator