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To be a Nation again

January 11, 2014

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There is no prize for guessing the most important political moment of 2014.  Unquestionably it will be the referendum on 18th September to decide whether the Scots wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Whatever your view on the issue, it is a striking political achievement for Alex Salmond to have delivered the opportunity for this question it to be put to the vote.  Despite the current state of the opinion polls, it is too early to guess the outcome.

As a Welshman, the Scottish Independence Referendum is an unsettling event.  It’s like watching an older brother grow up and prepare to leave the nest while you are still stuck with the old folks at home.  In their hearts many Welshman share their same yearning for independence but, in reality, it is unlikely that Wales will have the opportunity to secure it in the foreseeable future.  However the prospect of the United Kingdom, without Scotland, is a disturbing one.  I am, personally, a supporter of the Union but the Scots are a crucial part of what gives it its character and without them, and with talk of the possibility of leaving the European Union, the prospect of Wales as an appendage to an inward looking England is not attractive.

To understand the Independence vote it is necessary to look on three levels.

The first is the Tartan question – the emotional attachment of the Scots to their own identity and history.  There is no doubting the strength of that feeling, much less diluted than in parts of Wales with significant levels of immigration from England.  Compared to many other campaigns for independence in the last 100 years, the basis for Scottish independence is indisputable.  In relative terms (1707) Scotland has recent history as an independent country (even if sharing a monarch), there is no dispute about the location of the frontier and it has range of independent institutions which would be fit for purpose in separate nation.

The second question is the analysis of whether Scots feel they will be better off, in the short or longer term, if they were to become independent.  This is a much more open question.  Scotland is big enough to be independent (I was fascinated to be reminded as a result of recent interest in Borgen that it’s population is much the same size as Denmark) and it still has some oil.  More generally though, many will be doubtful that, without subsidies from London, Scotland will be poorer off.  All of this appears further complicated by arguments of what currency Scotland would use and whether it would be allowed to join the European Union.  It is worth remembering that Scotland, unlike Wales and Ireland, was not united with England through conquest but as a result of a failed colonial enterprise which left the country bankrupt.

The final question is that of the attraction of small nationhood and the ability to establish a national and international character which is different from that of the United Kingdom.  For me that might be the most attractive aspect of independence which might even be worth some measure of short term economic sacrifice.   To be a nation that didn’t have nuclear weapons on its soil, that didn’t think it had to intervene in every international conflict, that had a realistic sense of its own place in the world and was n’t besotted with the “special relationship”.  To be nation, also, that took a different perspective on the balance between the collective and the individual and perhaps tried to forge a different relationship with international capitalism than England seems to want to do so.  These, it seems to be me, to be genuine reasons to vote yes although of course they may be easier to dream and talk about than they are to implement in reality.

Like all democratic questions negative factors play as much a part in determining the outcome and, without doubt, antipathy towards the English, and in particular, the well-heeled southern English, will influence many Scottish voters.  There is a real challenge for English politicians such as David Cameron in determining the tactics they should best follow in the Referendum campaign and much wisdom in picking a Scottish politician like Alastair Darling as the front man for the No campaign.

If I was to make a judgement the Scots will probably vote no but by a closer margin than the polls would currently suggest.  The lesson however of the Referendum is not however to force the argument in favour of the Union as it currently exists but to use it as a spur to rethink, more widely, the model of politics in this country so that the Union going forward is something which, intrinsically, more Scots, more Welsh and indeed more English feel more comfortable in belonging to.

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