There are things that people say because they believe them and things they say – and may believe – because you have to say them to prosper. For most of history you had to say you believed in God and opposed homosexuality; no longer true, apparently, and a good thing too. But if you live in England you still have to say that you believe in the Union, it would seem, though I can think of no good reason for this.
Before I expand on this thought I should make clear that I love Scotland and I’ve probably spent a great deal more time there than many of the people who purport to love the union. I like the landscape, the people, haggis, whisky, the poetry of Burns – the full package. In winter I am normally seen in a tartan scarf given to me in Aberdeen and a Harris tweed cap actually bought in Harris. On our current programme of showing our four locally based granddaughters the places we love Scotland was second on the list after Lancashire-with-Cumbria. We went to Dunbar and to Edinburgh in Festival time and it was all very enjoyable and very Scottish.
But I was under no illusions that we were in our own country. A strong sense of Scottish nationality has been maintained through three centuries of union and, to the credit of the British state and in sharp contrast to the histories of the French and American states, no attempt has been made to undermine this. The family group on tour is part Irish and part Indian in origin, but we are English and not in any way Scottish. I like Scotland as I like France which is as somewhere else and I like them despite an extremely strong desire not to be part of the same polity as M. Macron and Ms. Sturgeon if that is at all possible.
One of the most dangerous forms of the irrational tendencies of human beings involves a confusion between sovereignty, property and identity. To take one of a hundred examples, could there be anything crazier than Argentinians upsetting themselves about the “Malvinas” islands which hardly any of them have ever visited and which they wouldn’t visit even if they were “theirs” and probably wouldn’t like even if they did. Imagining that an extension of territory confers a kind of property in which one can take pride is not just foolish, it has proved historically extremely damaging.
So it is worth asking what a rational English person would lose from Scottish independence. One way of answering that question is to consider the arguments against Irish independence a century ago. People worried about a repressive, theocratic government and about the repression of minorities including Northern protestants and the ascendancy, but also smaller groups (as in the Limerick anti-Jewish “pogrom” of 1904). There were also concerns that the island would prove to be hostile to Britain and a security risk. In fact, of course, all of these concerns turned out to be valid. But none of them remotely apply to Scotland in the twenty first century. We aren’t in any doubt either that Scotland is a nation and one lucky enough to have no dissenting minorities – in sharp contrast to the bitter situation in Catalonia. Nor are we in any doubt that the Scots could run an open and outward looking country and do so pretty efficiently.
But it does all depend on what you mean by “independence”. I write these words with a smile on my face because in 2014 a referendum was held on the subject during which it became clear that nobody had a clue what they meant and if there is another referendum it must surely be on the basis of a full and clear blueprint. From an English point of view there are two essential conditions which independence must meet. The first, obviously, is that the “West Lothian problem” must be dismissed forever: Scotland cannot continue to have a parliament in Edinburgh but also have representation in Westminster. The second, equally non-negotiable, is that it must have its own currency. Proper countries have currencies and by analogy with the Euro I cannot imagine anything worse for Anglo-Scottish relations than having to send commissions up to Edinburgh to curb public expenditure. To clarify, there might well be private employers paying Scots in other currencies (many people in Aberdeen are already paid in dollars) and, of course, Scots should be able to hold savings in any currency they choose, but Scottish government accounts and the payment of public employees must only be in groats (or whatever).
Naturally there should be a plethora of arrangements which represent the remaining Britishness of Scotland without impinging on the essence of independence. These should include the retention of the monarchy as in Canada and many other places. Normal movement should continue between the two countries as it did between Britain and Ireland following the 1949 Government of Ireland Act which said that the Irish were not foreigners even if they had a sovereign state. There would have to be very close relations on defence and diplomatic representation: the emergent Scottish state and its electorate are hardly likely to want to fund a modern navy or air force let alone 123 embassies and 154 consulates as Britain does. They would also be expected to be members of NATO and the Commonwealth.
But we should never forget the intangibles and the effects on our perceived identities. I understand Andy Murray bristling when interviewers fail to appreciate that he is a Scot and I feel equally indignant when the term “Brit” is used. As for the “UK” it’s a technicality that arouses no sense of allegiance whatsoever. I’m an Englishman, from England and it would be nice to be properly recognised as such – though I do like Scotland.
( An edited version of this article appeared in The Critic Dec 2019-Jan 2020)