If anyone had told us, only a month ago, that the Scottish independence referendum on September 18 was going to turn out as close as it looks like it might, nobody would have believed it. The saga is somewhere between an over-the-top satire and a very bad, but in its own mind entirely serious, drama.
The referendum is too close to call. Normal parliamentary procedures have been suspended to allow all three party leaders at Westminster—Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, and Labour Party leader Ed Milliband—to head north to campaign. There is talk of canceling next May’s General Election if there is a Yes vote for secession, with no elections to Parliament until everything is signed, sealed, and delivered.
We can do that over here: the General Election of 1945, for example, was the first for 10 years due to intervening events. Likewise the electorate, as such, does not choose the prime minister, and there is talk of the Tories’ decapitating David Cameron as the Lord North of the present age if Scotland is lost. The sense of already living in not merely a foreign but a downright bizarre country has become more than palpable.
Yet no part of the separatist case stands up. Despite the complete impossibility of a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, the Nationalist leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, is determined that there would be one anyway. There is no Plan B on that. He says that it would be “the sovereign will of the Scottish People,” apparently oblivious to the fact that that will count for naught outside Scotland.
Denied a currency union, it is proposed to carry on using the pound sterling as Panama uses the dollar. (Have they never heard of the Darien Scheme?) Yet under such a scheme Scotland, a country with an enormous financial services sector, would have no lender of last resort. The entire economic plan is based on the global price of oil—a single, and highly unpredictable cash crop—making Scotland akin to a banana republic.
Dear to Salmond’s activists’ hearts is the removal of the Trident nuclear submarines from their base at Faslane, north of Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland. But Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) have said they wish a sovereign Scotland to obtain membership in NATO—something to which they used to be opposed—and thus they would be signing onto the principle of a nuclear-first strike alliance. Applying to join NATO having just disposed of Trident would be a level of gall remarkable even by the very high standards of Alex Salmond, who also expects financial institutions to lend Scotland money even if she has defaulted on her share of the British national debt.
In any case, Scottish independence would not just happen on the day after a Yes vote, nor would it happen purely on the SNP’s terms. There would have to be a treaty with the rest of the UK. That treaty would guarantee a British nuclear base exactly where it is now for as long as the United Kingdom wanted one, even if that base had to remain under British sovereignty and cease to be legally part of Scotland. Despite what Salmond imagines, the only way to get rid of nuclear weapons, as very many of us in England also long to do, is within and through the state and institutions, above all the Parliament, of the United Kingdom.
The realities of domestic policy are no less discrediting to Salmond than those of foreign policy. The SNP’s claim that the London government’s National Health Service privatization program might be extended to Scotland—which the present devolution settlement between Scotland and England in fact renders impossible, or else it would already have happened—is central to the Scots Nationalist trump card that independence means no more Tory Governments, ever. And thus, crucially, no return to Margaret Thatcher.
But she is dead. And where is this “Tory England” from which Scotland needs so urgently to secede for her own protection? With 85 percent of the population, England returns the overwhelming majority of members of the House of Commons, yet the Conservative Party has not won an overall Commons majority in 22 years and counting. Labour is lately polling ahead by seven points, which would translate into a landslide victory at the next election. There is all of a one-point difference between England and the country as a whole.
Labour has practically never needed Scotland in order to win a general election. In 1964, MPs from Scotland delivered Labour an overall Parliamentary majority of four when there would otherwise have been a Conservative overall majority of one that would not have lasted a year. In October 1974—after a general election in February had been inconclusive—members from Scotland turned what would have been a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party into an overall Labour majority so tiny that it was lost in the course of that Parliament. And in 2010, members from Scotland turned what would have been a small Conservative overall majority into a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party and with David Cameron as Prime Minister anyway. On no other occasion since World War II have members from Scotland, as such, decided the outcome of a general election.
And where is this “left-wing Scotland” that so needs to secede? The above facts, and the garden-variety neoliberalism of the SNP—its vote concentrated suspiciously in places that used to vote Tory—tell a very different tale. As does the rise of the Labour Movement simultaneously in England, Scotland, and Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If there really was some proto-Socialist paradise rooted deep in Scottish culture, then why did anyone in Scotland feel the need for that movement?
All polling shows that political attitudes in the constituent parts of Great Britain are practically interchangeable. The difference is that Scots think that other Scots are well to the left, even if individual poll respondents say they themselves are not. The English, by contrast, think of their own views as out of step with a right-wing polity at large. But in fact, individuals’ views are effectively identical on both sides of the border.
Labour voters will decide this referendum, and the single most telling indicator of being a Labour voter in Scotland is being a practicing Catholic. There are pre-Reformation Catholic enclaves in the Highlands and islands, where their existence alongside very old school Calvinism does not translate into the sectarian hatred that is so often characteristic of the Lowlands, especially in and around Glasgow, where the huge majority of the Catholic population lives. The sectarian split in the West of Scotland has a relatively recent, sporadically ongoing history of extreme violence. Soccer games between the ardently Protestant Glasgow Rangers and the green-striped, shamrock-badged Glasgow Celtic (uniquely pronounced “Seltic”), jointly known as “the Old Firm”, remain a matter of international concern, policed like military operations. Known little, if at all, in the rest of Scotland, the Orange and Hibernian Orders are both active and visible in the highly populous West.
As I suspect is not generally appreciated abroad, the Catholic Church is the single largest body of weekly worshippers in each of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Her adherents in England, Scotland, and Wales have no more reason to wish to go down the road of who is or is not “really” English, Scots, or Welsh than Ulster Protestants have to go down the road of who is or is not “really” Irish.
In all four parts of the Kingdom, ethnically Irish Catholics, thanks to their disproportionate involvement in the Labour Movement, have benefited disproportionately from a British social democracy heavily informed by Catholic social teaching. All eyes are now on their Scottish branch to save everything that they have created. Though it may not appeal to American Conservative readers, only social democracy is capable of safeguarding British sovereignty—One Nation, to cite both Disraeli and the present Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
David Lindsay is Founder, Proprietor, Publisher and Editor of The Lanchester Review.