- Michael Owen
Things aren’t looking good for the Union, but breaking it apart would be another self-inflicted trag
For 312 years, Scotland, England and Wales have been united in one of the most successful political unions in history. With Northern Ireland after 1801, the Union has seen an intellectual Enlightenment, sustained global influence, relative domestic peace, the Industrial Revolution and two world wars. Through good times and bad, the Union has remained, undoubtedly producing more than the sum of its parts in economic prosperity, international clout, shared culture and social harmony. And yet, this prosperous union is under increasing threat.
Scottish separatism has been around for some time: Thatcher’s use of Scotland as a test for the poll tax led to a residual hatred of the Tories and contributed to a dislike of Westminster governance. Support for devolution was strong enough to establish a Scottish Parliament in 1999. SNP victories in elections for this body led to the 2014 referendum, where Scots voted for the Union over independence by a 10% margin. This should have settled the issue, but Brexit has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing some serious issues whilst simultaneously resurfacing those that ought to be dealt with. While the UK as a whole voted 52% to 48% Leave, Scotland voted 62% the other way. Johnson’s election as PM, Ruth Davidson stepping down as Scottish Tory leader and a potential No-Deal has led to polling showing more Scots in favour of independence than unionism, and the SNP potentially gaining 51 seats in a snap election.
This is not good for those who believe the Union makes Scotland and the rest of the UK stronger. Brexit of any form is undoubtedly bad for Scotland overall, as it is for the UK. No deal would be further damaging. But the case for the Union is still far stronger than for breaking it up. The weakness of Scotland’s economy today and the difficulties of independence confound the nationalist case: Scotland’s structural deficit, at over 7% of its GDP, would be the highest of any developed state; since 2014 collapsing oil prices have seen the industry lose billions. In the case of independence, Lloyds and RBS have both said they would relocate to London, likely followed by the rest of Scotland’s financial sector, accounting for 13% of its GDP.
This is before getting to basic issues like what currency Scotland would use: if the Pound, its monetary policy would be controlled by a bank it had no influence over; if the Euro, it would still be a very small, late-coming player in the Eurozone. A border along the Tweed could also materialize if Scotland and the UK chose different immigration and customs arrangements. As for whether Brexit changes anything, remaining in the UK and the EU is the best option, but of the two unions, the UK is far more important. At £48billion, trade with the rest of the UK dwarves that with the next 10 EU countries combined. With money, as with everything, 300 years of union leaves a much greater mark than 40.
It is largely because of this that many think Scotland will never leave the UK. How could it? Even with a no-deal Brexit, all of the economics is with the Union side. And yet, wasn’t the economics with the Remain side in 2016, too? If the EU referendum showed anything, it’s that people don’t always vote with their wallets in mind, especially if they see little difference either way. In Scotland, identity seems of more importance. Not just who Scots are, but what. The narrative is of open-minded, liberal, European Scotland vs closed, conservative, Brexit England. And it’s a strong narrative: national identities rarely function without a sense of ‘other’ to pit against. It is, of course, ridiculous.
Both sides of the Tweed culture, language, history and values are fairly constant. Political attitude is far more signified by age or profession than by an artificial border. In Scotland and the rest of the UK, farmers tended to be Leave, students Remain, Conservatives Leave, Labour Remain. The narrative is also shamelessly simplistic: saying Scotland is a ‘Remain’ country must be quite insulting to the 38% of Scots who saw no contradiction between their Scottishness and desire to leave the EU. Likewise to the idea that 48% of English Remainers are somehow irrelevant.
Both referendums have caused deep divisions throughout the country and within its constituent parts. There is no need to amplify and further these divisions by having another one that would likely be just as close as the last one. Especially when it could be even more damaging to the economic, political and social fabric of this country. The Union is by no means perfect, and Brexit has amplified the limits of the UK’s constitutional arrangement. That doesn’t mean throwing away everything we have for an imaginary future however, but instead working to make our existing arrangement even better.