Case builds for Scottish independence


WORLD VIEW:A UK break-up would have far-reaching political repercussions in England and here

GUS O’DONNELL’s retiring message this week as cabinet secretary and head of the British civil service contained a warning that he fears the United Kingdom may not survive pressures for Scottish independence in coming years.

As Christopher Hope put it in the Daily Telegraph:“The admission from such a senior non-political figure that the break-up of Britain is now a real possibility is likely to push the issue up the political agenda.”

It should do the same in Ireland, since the potential implications of such an event are far-reaching for Northern Ireland and the Republic. The subject is doubly topical in a week when the consequences of the UK’s veto of a new European Union treaty for Irish policy were being absorbed.

David Cameron acted without consulting any of the UK’s devolved authorities – or his closest neighbouring state. They will all have to live with the fallout from a more loosely attached Britain in Europe, if that is the real outcome.

Here it deprives the Government of leverage in pressing its case for debt reduction as the price for passing an EU treaty, since the international one decided on instead will involve only those ratifying it.

The internal and external pressures on the UK are closely linked. English and Conservative Euroscepticism feeds Scottish nationalism, which sees it as the unacceptable face of a resurgent Little England identity unwilling to recognise Scotland’s rightful place in the world.

Any UK referendum on relations with the EU would fuel demands for a timely one in Scotland on independence. A Scottish role in the EU would replace London rule.

The dynamics between these conflicting claims play powerfully to Alex Salmond’s masterful political skills as leader of the Scottish National Party. His outright victory in last May’s assembly elections reduced the Scottish Labour Party to a shadow of its former self and left the Conservatives as a small and increasingly toxic minority in Scotland.

Salmond now proposes to offer a choice between independence and a maximalist devolution in the referendum he is pledged to hold by 2016. This is a Parnellite tactic to take account of the well-established distinction voters make between support for his party in governing and voting for separation from the UK. He knows intervening circumstances and events, not least in Europe, may conspire to narrow such a choice, so that full fiscal autonomy, once achieved, could still be a platform for eventual independence. He resists suggestions that two referendums will be required, one authorising negotiations, the other on their results.

Sympathetic Scottish intellectuals talk of a clash between a post-national approach to sovereignty in Scotland, which would allow more fluid multiple identities between it and England even after a UK break-up, and the zero-sum version practised in London.

Research shows a widening crisis of political identity in the UK which intersects with other divisions that make its polity less stable. A Prospect survey found 63 per cent of UK citizens identify themselves as mainly English and 19 per cent as British; while English voters want to leave the EU by a margin of 58-26 per cent, the British ones want to remain members by 46-37 per cent. This principally reflects the English-Scottish divide.

Another survey by the National Centre for Social Research shows how deeply the UK’s two-tier educational system determines attitudes towards social cohesion, in a widening class divide that undermines Cameron’s hopes of constructing a “big society”. This intersects also with a growing social (and political) division between southeast England, where the huge financial sector Cameron acted to protect from EU regulation is largely based, and the rest of the now increasingly deindustrialised UK.

A prospective break-up of the UK deeply challenges unionists, not least in Northern Ireland. Its more far-seeing sympathisers see the dangers. Would it not weaken further their anyway slight identification with an England-dominated successor-state? How would Scottish independence affect unionist attitudes towards Irish reunification? Might it encourage a switch towards an Irish federation offering more than the failed British one? How would Northern Ireland leaders and voters react to an increasingly disengaged UK in the EU?

Scottish independence would rapidly reduce the UK’s geopolitical weight, lead to loss of its UN Security Council seat and reconfigure the distribution of voting and other powers in the EU and other international fora. It would be a catalyst for political change in a more multi-polar world.

One has to ask for how long a geopolitically reduced England would want to remain isolated from the EU and a surviving euro in such circumstances.

Alternatively, of course, if the Eurosceptic predictions prove correct and the euro breaks up, the UK is more likely to survive. Many continentals see just such a motivation behind current UK policy.

These are speculative, but not outlandish, scenarios. They challenge Dublin too. Such possible outcomes of the current crisis deserve much more serious attention here than they have had so far. My next column will address them.