Special Reports




by Martin Woollacott



“.... how small the stakes are for the Scots, as opposed to how large they are for the wider world”

In twelve months time, Scots will vote on whether or not they wish to separate from England. The two nations voluntarily united in 1707, after being under the same monarch for the previous hundred years, so the outcome could undo the work of centuries. It will be a democratic vote, in the sense that all adults resident in Scotland will be able to take part. Yet in a broader sense it will be less than democratic, since Scots, and Scots alone, will be deciding the future not only of their own nation but of a vastly more populous England and Wales, and they will be affecting the future of an even more populous European Union.

To put it arithmetically, some two million Scots ‘Yes’ voters -- that is just over half of those registered to vote in that country, assuming nearly all vote -- could initiate a change of of critical importance to 53 million English people, 3 million Welsh, and over 500 million Europeans.

That is a pretty awesome responsibility, which none of those concerned seem to have yet entirely grasped. The impact of a ‘Yes’ on England's self-esteem, its identity, and its political landscape, could be profound, while the effect on Wales would almost certainly be to take that country out of the United Kingdom as well.

The end of the United Kingdom, for a long time the most successful multi-national state in Europe, would be no light matter for the peoples of these islands, and it would rebound through Europe. Spain, for example, would feel a chill wind as Catalans and Basques took up the precedent. But Europe as a whole would be destabilised if Scottish independence strengthened the ‘little England’ political forces which want to take the English out of the EU and which may have a referendum where their case will be tested (to look forward to in 2017, or possibly before). For all the talk of Britain being on the margins of the EU, the truth is that the United Kingdom is essential to the balance of the union. A British or English departure would be a hugely regressive development, perhaps even the point where the tide could be said to have turned against the European project.

Nor is a Scottish ‘Yes’ vote the only outcome which could have dangerous consequences. A narrow ‘No’ vote might be almost as grave. There is nothing more debilitating in political life than an unresolved issue of this kind. It can sap energy, polarise opinion, feed the sullenness of the losers and the arrogance of the winners, and above all, take attention away from the real social and economic issues which societies face. Where independence is the dominant question, other things get neglected. And where an independence oriented party dominates politics, as the Scottish National Party does today, ideological choice is blunted, since independence movements involve a truce between right, left, and centre, until such time as the battle is won.

Partition is such a hugely traumatic and damaging process one wonders why politicians anywhere would embark on it, except in extremity. When violent, as it was in the Indian sub-continent and more recently in the Balkans, it leaves a bitter legacy which lasts generations. Even today, India and Pakistan regard each other with suspicion and hostility and are, at some deeper level, still at war. The states of what was once Yugoslavia, have hardly begun to recover from the brutalities they inflicted on each other during the nineties, and may never completely do so. But even where partition is intended to be orderly and non-violent, the damage can be truly serious, both where it is successfully achieved and, equally, where separatists fall short of their goal, but not so far short that the issue can be regarded as settled. That is why the Scots and the English, in the year which remains before the former vote on the issue of independence for Scotland, should look well beyond the borders of today's United Kingdom for guidance.

In particular they should look toward the two states which were once united as Czechoslovakia, and which separated, as it happens, ten years ago; and toward Canada, where Quebec separatists have taken the people of that province into two referendums on leaving Canada, only narrowly missing their aim in the second, in 1995. What should be marked most clearly is that partition, whether completed in the Czech and Slovak case, or still a work in progress, as in the Canadian case, has made almost nobody happy. Czechs regret their separation from Slovakia. Slovaks are more sanguine, yet both peoples are still perplexed at how and why they dissolved their union. The reasons did not seem sufficient at the time, and seem even less sufficient in retrospect. The banal truth may simply be that two ambitious politicians, one from each nationality, found it to their temporary advantage to split the country, and pushed through the change without real popular support, or with only fleeting support. In the process this forced out of political life Czechoslovakia's outstanding statesman, Vaclav Havel.

Quite an achievement. Relations between the two countries are fairly good today, and there is no political movement for re-union, but a kind of melancholia is evident in discussions of what happened. At a recent conference in Prague, a roomful of Czech intellectuals were asked whether they regretted the change.(1) Virtually every hand went up. But the resignation that was also apparent in Prague underlines another aspect of voluntary partition. Coercive partitions done by outsiders, like that of Poland in the 18th century, or Germany in the 20th, can be reversed. But partitions that have been voted through are another matter. Once Humpty Dumpty is off the wall, he can't be put back up again. If Scots vote against staying with England, they are highly unlikely to be able to vote themselves back in five years down the road, if they were then to decide it wasn't a good idea after all.

The Canadian example is also a cautionary tale for the Scots. It is true that Canada has stayed together and that it remains a successful state. Yet there is a very cold marriage at the heart of the Canadian polity. It is as if an alienated couple had come close to divorce again and again, but are still trying to project the image of a happy marital life, while going up the stairs each night to separate bedrooms. The irony is that at a time when the differences of religion and allegiance which once divided English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians have been much reduced, the open sore of separation has been inflamed by old politicians, whose views were formed in another era. The problems of English-speaking Canada, meanwhile, are made more difficult by the constant need to do nothing which would complicate the Quebec relationship. The probability is that French Canadian separatism will never again reach the high water mark of 1995, so Canada will remain one state, but it is a state with the political equivalent of a geological fault line running through it.

Recent polling suggests that the Scots will reject independence by a large margin (2) but many believe that the polls may not clearly reflect the number who are stating a tentative preference and who could later change their minds (3). So it would be foolish to assume the outcome is certain. What has puzzled many in both Scotland and England is how small the stakes are for the Scots, as opposed to how large they are for the wider world. An independent Scotland would not have much more room for manoeuvre in economic and social policy than it does now, and advocates of independence have already announced that its foreign policy would be entirely conventional. There is, in other words, little, if anything, to be gained for the Scots, and a great deal to be lost by a damaged England and Europe.

Scotland has not in modern times been oppressed or colonised. Indeed Scots played a disproportionately high part in colonising others, as enthusiastic and ambitious soldiers, administrators, and merchants, in the expanding British Empire. Scottish politicians, writers, and businessmen have risen to the highest levels in Britain. The joint life of the Scots and the English has been an intricate one combining elements of rivalry, affection, and condescension in equal measures. There is absolutely no parallel with the story of the English and the Irish, where the oppressive relationship of the past proved to be a burden that could not be overcome. Many students of the matter would include another date among those often cited in connection with the referendum. To 1314, the date of the battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots defeated the English and restored the compromised independence of their then separate state; 1603, the date when James VI of Scotland came south to assume the English crown; and 1707, when the Act of Union brought the two countries together legally, should be added 1995, when Mel Gibson's “Braveheart” was released. “Braveheart”is a prime example of how a good film which is also bad history, can influence real events.

At a time when the teaching of history in Britain has declined, both the English and the Scottish grasp on the story of their long journey in time together, has slackened. To a muddle of present discontents was added a highly coloured and highly tendentious tale of evil English occupation and heroic Scots resistance. But the real story has not been one of oppression and resistance but of co-operation, intimacy, and mutually beneficial intellectual and political interaction. That story needs to be rescued, and celebrated, in the time remaining before the referendum.

(1) Prague press Forum, May 2013

(2) Lord Ashcroft's poll, reported in The Scotsman, September 14th, 2013

(3) Alastair Darling's warning, reported in The Guardian, September 13th, 2013

Martin Woollacott