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The United Kingdom ranks as one of the most successful marriages in history. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have survived ancient hatreds, tribal rivalry and war. Each nation has been enriched by a journey of enlightenment, empire, shared energy and enterprise.
In eight days’ time, this splendid mess of a union, to quote Simon Schama, the British historian, risks being separated into its national parts. Scotland will vote in a referendum to decide whether to stay in the UK or sunder bonds stretching back to 1707. Opinion polls suggest the result is too close to call, a prospect which has alarmed financial markets, wrongfooted allies and sent a complacent coalition government scrambling to find a last-minute sweetener to win over the Scots.
Empires and nation states are not immune to break-up, but there is little precedent for a hitherto stable modern democracy splitting apart in peacetime, in the middle of an economic recovery. This is not the time for recrimination. For the moment, it is enough for this newspaper to declare that the path of separation is a fool’s errand, one fraught with danger and uncertainty.
Scotland is a proud and vibrant nation. Scots have contributed disproportionately to the union. They have played a leading role in arts, commerce, literature, the military, politics and sport. But a vote in favour of secession would be an irreversible act with profound consequences, not merely for 5m Scots but also for the other 58m citizens of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (including 750,000 Scots living and working outside Scotland who under the terms of the referendum have no say on the future of their country).
The act of separation would diminish the UK in every international body, notably the EU. It would raise complex – and still unanswered – questions about the common defence of the British Isles, the future of the currency and political arrangements for the rest of the UK. Above all, a Yes vote would ignore the lessons of the 20th century, a chapter in European history indelibly scarred by narrow nationalism.
A union born of a now-lost empire is one entirely suited to the world of the 21st century. The nation states that prosper in the age of globalisation are ones that bind themselves together in mutual endeavour. The experience of small states in the wake of the financial crisis is far from happy. Iceland and Ireland were left cruelly exposed. Further east, the Baltic states, brave and resourceful as the Scots, are members of the EU and Nato but still feel vulnerable to the bear’s paw of a revanchist Russia.
The case against secession cannot rest on nostalgia, though the Better Together campaign has been lamentably short of passion compared with the energetic, well-funded Yes effort run by Alex Salmond, the beguiling first minister of Scotland. It must rest first on an understanding of the political forces which have made independence a tempting prospect for Scots, as well as a hard-nosed assessment of the risks involved for all concerned.
The debate about devolving power to Scotland goes back more than a century. Keir Hardie, the Scottish Labour leader, proposed home rule in 1888 but his call carried little resonance. Scots were playing a leading role in ruling one-quarter of the world’s population. Glasgow was famed as the “second city of the empire”.
The ties that bind have loosened over the past 70 years. The empire is gone, and the workshop of the world is no more. Scotland’s transition to a post-industrialised economy has been painful, though its overall economic performance over recent decades has been strong.
England and Scotland have grown apart politically. In the 1950s, the Conservative and Unionist party – to remind David Cameron’s party of its proper name – had an absolute majority of parliamentary seats in Scotland. Today, the Tory party’s representation has shrunk to a single MP, partly a legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s ill-judged poll tax and the benign neglect of a strong pound which devastated manufacturing north and south of the border. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s further reinforced Scottish nationalism.
Tony Blair believed he could stymie the nationalist movement with more devolution of powers. His Labour government established a Scottish parliament at Holyrood. In retrospect, devolution did nothing to halt the secular decline of Labour in Scotland. Too many of the party’s heavyweights treated Scotland as a rotten borough to help them to power in London. Devolution may have encouraged further divergence on policies such as pensions, social care or university education from those in England.
Mr Salmond, a seasoned operator, has exploited the populist mood. Voters are angry about austerity caused by the financial crisis and alienated from the political establishment. Mr Salmond casts himself as an insurgent representing a new brand of civic nationalism in which the Scots will have control over their fate in a fresh young democracy.
Mr Salmond can tug on the emotions of his fellow countrymen but he has given few credible answers about the challenges – economic, social and international – which would face Scotland. His Panglossian pitch is that the Scots can have the best of all possible worlds: independence, the monarchy and the pound, and that a Scotland which retreats into a narrower nationalist identity will somehow be better equipped to prosper in a world of globalisation.
His argument contains glaring inconsistencies. A currency union demands a political union. The eurozone’s travails show us as much. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, made clear again this week that political independence is incompatible with maintaining sterling as the currency of choice. Mr Salmond insists the English establishment is bluffing. This is no bluff. The currency uncertainty will blight every aspect of the Scottish economy, from commercial lending to mortgages. Without total clarity, every Scottish citizen is left exposed.
Mr Salmond claims that separation is the best guarantee of future prosperity. His calculations are based on much wishful thinking covering vital matters such as the future oil price and how much of the UK’s debt would be assumed by the Scots. He presumes that it serves no one’s interest to be unreasonable about the terms of divorce, but he underestimates the psychological shock. No one can predict the consequences.
Nor is it obvious why Scotland will gain early and automatic entry into the EU. Other European states with their own separatist movements – notably Spain – have little incentive to agree to a quick deal. The only certainty is uncertainty, at a high cost to Scotland and the UK. The shift of deposits and money out of Scotland this week is a harbinger.
There must be a better way. Britain needs a new political settlement that implements at home what it preaches in Europe: subsidiarity. For too long, the British government has imposed a “Whitehall-knows-best” policy on the nations and regions. More devolution is the answer, but not at any price. Mr Cameron and his London-based colleagues should tread carefully in the coming days. It is far from clear how England, the preponderant power, would fit into a federalised union in which Scotland enjoyed all political gifts short of independence.
Everything turns on the vote on September 18. It is not too late to remind the Scots and the rest of the UK how much they have benefited from being British. Great Britain stands for an expansive and inclusive view of the world. The union is something precious, not a bauble to be cast aside. In a week’s time, the Scots can vote with a sense of ambition to build on those successes. Rather than retreat into tribalism, they can continue to be part of a nation rooted not just in history and culture but a common destiny which over three centuries has served all so well.
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