Talk of Scottish independence turns minds to Irish unity

 

WORLDVIEW:Just as Scotland marks the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union with England next year, its voters will go to the polls on May 3rd to elect a new Scottish Parliament. Opinion polls show the Scottish Nationalists have a very good chance of becoming the largest party.

They are pledged to hold a referendum on independence, which also enjoys majority support there by a margin of 52 to 32 per cent. More surprisingly, Scottish independence has strong support in England - 59 per cent according to a Sunday Telegraph poll on November 26th. These facts have led to a flurry of speculation in British media about the likely consequences were the United Kingdom to break up. Concluding a survey of the issue in the Financial Times this week, James Blitz and Andrew Bolger note that Britain's constitutional settlement is delicate, containing many rough edges and contradictions. For 300 years English-Scots rivalries have been largely about culture and sport, but "if they were now to become nakedly political, the UK would move into a new and dangerous period in its history".

Recent political rhetoric bears out this judgment. At the annual meeting of the Scottish Labour Party last month, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown excoriated the Scottish Nationalists. Blair ridiculed the party's over-reliance on oil revenues to justify its economic case for independence. He insisted that its plans for a nuclear-free Scotland are unrealistic, since the effects of an attack on England would not stop at the border. Brown repeated his well-established argument in favour of a renewed Britishness capable of accommodating both identities. But more Scots now feel exclusively Scottish than before, much more so than the English or Welsh.

Part of the edge in this debate is added by English commentators increasingly impatient about being ruled by a supposed "Scottish raj" - soon presumably to peak when Brown takes over from Blair - and a public opinion less willing to tolerate Scottish fiscal exceptionalism. The latest official figures from 2004-5 (which the Scottish Nationalists dispute) show the Scots received £11 billion more in total government expenditure than they give back in revenue. Devolution allows them to spend it distinctively on free elderly care and university education. There is now more support for refusing Scottish MPs a say in English expenditure.

This new strain of English nationalism is arguably more important than Scotland's. As with Ireland, the smaller Scottish entity is always more aware of attitudes in the larger than vice versa. Thus remarks such as this by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, "I would not lose any sleep if the Scots voted to repeal the 1707 Act. It would do Scotland nothing but good to learn that public money does not grow on English trees", are quickly noticed by Scottish commentators like Ian McWhirter. He observes that, "Like the Czech Republic before the velvet divorce from Slovakia, the momentum for dissolution is coming from the senior partner in the union".

Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford University says that since the English are by far the dominant nation within the UK, "they have no need to beat the drum or blow the bugle. If they do, they will strain the devolution settlement, which rests fundamentally on restraint by the English, to breaking point".

Among the factors making for a decline in common feelings of Britishness, the Scottish historian Tom Devine lists: the waning of Protestantism (a key ideological British resource for earlier generations); the end of empire and Britain's fall for a time to the status of a second-rate power; the increasing importance of Europe and the parallel decline in the authority of the British state; and the ebbing of respect for the institution of monarchy.

But like many others he is sceptical that these dynamics will actually lead to the disintegration of the UK. Those three centuries have made for multiple familial, personal, economic and cultural connections between the two nations and much movement of population amongst them. While nationalist feelings have flowed in recent times, this is partly because there is no alternative opposition in Scotland. The pragmatic strain among voters and leaders is likely to reassert itself closer to elections. And while Alex Salmond, the Scottish nationalist leader, is a highly capable public speaker and tactician, he knows his credibility would be lost in a defeated referendum.

But even short of independence, there is a volatility in UK politics just because the issue is raised so clearly. Labour's UK majority depends crucially on Scotland. It suits the new Conservative leader David Cameron to stress that fact as the Tories ride higher in opinion polls; they are ahead by eight points in the latest Guardian one - not enough to guarantee a majority, but close enough. A nationalist victory in Scotland coinciding with Brown's move to Number 10 Downing Street would be inauspicious to say the least. A Tory victory in the UK would reinforce Scottish demands for independence.

And Blair is right to focus on oil and defence. Salmond has been to Norway to check out how they use an oil bonanza based on higher prices, foreseeing a £90 billion trust fund for Scotland's development. Most of the UK's nuclear military capacity is based in Scotland. Independence would strip the rump UK of its UN seat and much of its international clout, including in the EU.

The consequences of these potential developments for Ireland merit attention. It would be a great irony if the UK were to be destabilised just as a Northern Ireland Executive took office. If the effect of this political identity crisis was to deepen devolution towards a more federal UK, it would help a Northern settlement bed down. And would a move towards Scottish independence hasten Irish unity?