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Karl Marx was right about one thing. History, in the form of secessionist nationalism within the UK, repeats itself – first as tragedy in Ireland and then as farce in Scotland. With his saltires and swagger, Alex Salmond has brought Scotland to the nationalist boil and shifted the very axis of democratic politics to a simplistic Yes or No.
Great things lie ahead in the Scottish National party’s promised land. No more Conservative governments. No more Westminster rule. No nuclear weapons (but continued membership of Nato). An English pound that is somehow also a Scottish Pound. Immunity from foreign economic woes in a global economy regardless of the declining oil reserves. And the arts, too, will flourish. Let 1,000 thistles bloom!
But who really knows what the future brings when you are ending a 300-year-old political union?
We do have one good historical model of what it is like to carve out a nationalist state from within the political union of the UK but it is not one the SNP is keen to cite.
For Ireland’s nationalist leaders Padraig Pearse and Eamon de Valera, nationhood could be hewed out in blood and rebellion. But the Irish Free State that arose in the 1920s was a parochial disaster – a backward step even from English rule, which was far from benign.
In creating its new Gaelic-Irish identity the Free State cremated its own twin British-Irish identity, constructed out of 400 years of colonisation and cultural exchange. Whole chapters of Irish history, such as the 200,000 Irish who fought in France in the first world war, just disappeared. And the Irish Free State turned in on itself, its politics reduced to a continual squabble over the lost battles of a civil war – who had betrayed whom; who was the faithful, who the traitorous.
Single-party misrule was to last for decades. Economic fortunes sank. Irish Taoiseachs – prime ministers – such as Charles Haughey almost openly looted the state’s treasuries. Far from being economically independent, the Irish punt was slave-pegged to the English pound. In all but name Ireland remained an economic vassal of the UK Treasury.
But that was not the worst. From the 1920s to the 1970s, millions of Irish were forced to flee – ironically to the UK, in search of work and social freedom. Amid that stream of exiles were Ireland’s greatest artists and writers, figures such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Edna O’Brien, refugees from the suffocating social prohibitions of the new nationalist order. Rather than bloom, the shamrock withered.
A minor rebellion on the streets of Dublin in 1916 spawned a terrible beauty and an abysmal failed state. The Irish Free State did not make the Irish people free. It bound them in chains. It has taken nearly a century for Ireland to recover and for a real democracy to emerge from the ashes of the Easter rising.
For all his bluster and his mesmerising appeal, Mr Salmond is merely re-enacting the same empty farce in the would-be Scottish Free State.
There is no obvious merit in the SNP’s economics. Scotland can no more break free of the economic pull of the rest of the UK than the moon can break free of Earth’s gravity. This is physics, not philosophy. Actuarial tables do not lie and it is self-evidently true that sharing future risk across a nation of 60m rather than 5m will always be a safer option.
For nationalists, either Irish or Scottish, such economic uncertainties do not matter. Worrying about the welfare of ordinary Scots is beside the point; once Scotland gains her “independence”, the world will ipso facto be a better place. This is a self-evident moral truth. Those who deny it are misguided, malign or treacherous.
For a Scot like me, born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, Mr Salmond’s version of “independence” is a truly frightening project. Like its Irish antecedents, an independent Scotland will be founded not on the future promised land but in the flames of the pro-union Scottish identity. Already under the SNP government there has been a heavily felt redefinition of Scottish culture.
Scotland is a small country and the hand of the SNP is felt in every arts funding round. Who can afford to break with their masters in Holyrood and speak up for the union? What has happened in the arts is a sign of things to come.
So-called cybernats prowl social media, trolling anyone who dissents. The referendum debate has collapsed into a slanging match where the best lack conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Are you for us or against us? A traitor? Or one of the faithful?
After 300 years of political union, who defines “true” Scottishness? If you cannot be a Scot and a unionist then whole parts of our identity will have to disappear – or flow into exile just like the Irish.
Mr Salmond would no doubt like to be remembered for leading his people into the promised land. In his hubris, he is leading Scotland into the sterile wilderness and the chains of another empty nationalism.
The writer is a chronicler of Northern Ireland’s Troubles and playwright of ‘The Confessions of Gordon Brown’
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