There’s something quite romantic about the idea of a real border between Scotland and England, which a government minister warns will be the result of Scottish independence. Maybe we could have an India-Pakistan style daily face-off, but with soldiers dressed as The Jocks and the Geordies. Or an old-fashioned war over the ‘debatable lands’, which hasn’t been seen since the Rough Wooing.
As Alex Massie warns in this week’s cover story, voters in parts of Britain may soon have to endure yet another referendum, with a considerably weaker unionist case this time around:
Neither May nor Sturgeon would choose to make their stands on this kind of terrain. But politics has to be played with the cards you are dealt. For years, SNP orthodoxy has dictated that Scots will only embrace independence if Scotland is thriving. Now Sturgeon warns darkly of job losses and economic malfunction if Brexit goes ahead. The question is not ‘Can Scotland afford to be independent?’ but ‘Can Scotland afford not to be independent?’ Yes, independence will not be easy, but the greater risk is to remain part of a United Kingdom consumed by Brexit. Or, as Sturgeon put it recently, ‘The case for full self-government ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.’ Nationalism is an existential question, not a utilitarian one.
It would also create the strange situation where a British government that had just left the European Union would be warning Scots that leaving a larger union will have catastrophic economics consequences. Surely no one involved in Brexit, or who supported Brexit, can make any argument against Scottish independence except emotional ones: that the British are a nation and for that reason should stick together. That point was almost entirely absent last time around, with the unionists instead warning that leaving would be a disaster for their economy; with many of the same people then campaigning for a Leave vote.
On a personal level I prefer Scottish unionists to nationalists, probably because I know more, but the idea that Scotland couldn’t survive or even thrive outside the UK strikes me as absurd. They gave the world Adam Smith, after all, and many countries of the same size or smaller do fine; it would almost certainly have to cut spending and the size of its government, but I imagine many nationalists would be happy with that trade-off.
It’s understandable, too, that a second referendum might go the other way, since the Leave vote was in many ways an expression of English nationalism. People who identified as English were far more likely to vote Leave than those who think of themselves as British (the reverse is true on the other side of Offa’s Dyke, where Welsh people who identity as British were more likely to vote Leave).
The New York Times keeps on running articles about how 23 June was all about nostalgia for the empire, but in my experience English nationalists tend to be quite Sinn Fein about the world – ourselves alone. They are, in the oldest sense, Little Englanders, and wish to avoid foreign entanglements.
English support for the union has also declined because they view Scottish devolution as unfair, but I would say the solution is to devolve power in England to the nine regions, obviously first giving them more poetic names, so Mercia rather than the West Midlands, as well as their own flags, such as the cross of St Edmund for East Anglia or the wyvern for Wessex. There are areas such as planning laws where London is desperate for reform but opposition elsewhere makes it politically impossible; and shifting much of the bureaucracy to other cities would probably help balance the country. But I guess the government has enough on its plate as it is.
But, since Britain depends and hopes on the EU coming to a non-punitive divorce settlement, it seems that it would be illogical to do anything else but promise the best possible break-up with Scotland if they so choose. After all, the biggest obstacle to Scottish independence is Spain, so let them be the villains this time around.
Alex Massie and Fraser Nelson discuss the battle for Scotland: