At first the Scottish referendum was regarded as a bit of a joke. It was being called, if anything, to put the matter to bed. Yet in recent days the first polls have emerged suggesting that the number of Scots preparing to vote for secession may have just surpassed those wishing to remain in the union. This has caused a sudden sense of panic in Westminster. Some have already called on Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, or at least call an election, should Scotland vote to exit the United Kingdom. Even Henry Kissinger has weighed in and voiced his opposition to Britain “getting any smaller.” But the truth is that, very suddenly, the UK looks dangerously close to splitting in two.
David Cameron insists that he is a staunch defender of the union. Yet, as many have pointed out, losing Scotland wouldn’t be all bad for someone of Cameron’s outlook. For one thing, no Scotland could well mean no more Labor governments for the foreseeable future. All of the close elections won by Labor would have gone to the Conservatives had the Scottish vote been discounted. Then there’s the fact that, when it comes to public services, Scotland takes out far more from the national budget than it contributes. Lastly, while Scotland is more pro-European than England, should Scotland leave, it is hard to imagine the remnants of the United Kingdom having the appetite for going it alone and leaving the EU as well, something which Cameron also opposes.
In many ways Scottish independence looks almost insane. Geographically, culturally, and politically Scotland is a big part of Britain. But in reality there are less than five and a half million people living there—the UK has far more Londoners than Scots. An independent Scotland would have to renegotiate countless international treaties, including membership of the European Union. Brussels has made clear that this would require Scotland to adopt the euro. Naturally, the Scots want no such thing. But the problem is Westminster is insisting that the continuation of fiscal union wouldn’t be an option. Economists and big business alike have warned Scotland that independence would be economically disastrous. Many corporations are threatening to move south of border. But even assuming the economy didn’t take a hit, Scotland faces a massive deficit regarding what it spends on public services and what it could realistically raise in tax revenues. Scottish nationalists claim they will plug the gap with profits from North Sea oil and gas, but it’s a fantasy to think that Scotland is going to survive as some kind of Gulf state on the North Atlantic.
Really, Scots have never had it so good. Since the end of the 1990s Scotland has been self-governing with its own parliament and government. This means that not only is England subsidizing Scottish public services, but Scots get twice as much political representation. Indeed, ever since devolution to Scotland, Scottish MPs in Westminster still vote on all British matters, but they have also been able to vote on laws only effecting England and Wales. Nor should they forget that Britain’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown, was Scottish.
Yet devolution actually appears to have exacerbated, and not calmed, the Scottish thirst for increasing autonomy. And to understand that thirst you have to go back to Tony Blair’s first government, when New Labor was in ascendancy. Because devolution, for both Scotland and Wales, was very much a policy of New Labor at its most radical. For many involved in that revolution, breaking the UK down into its component parts, paralleled with rapid integration into the EU, was supposed to achieve nothing less than the eradication of Britain as we’ve always known it. Of course, the kind of flag waving, Balkansesque micro-nationalism being encouraged in Scotland and Wales hardly looks in keeping with the progressive post-nationalism of the EU. Yet, in a sense, Scottish and Welsh nationalism was just another aspect of the identity politics championed as part of New Labor’s heady multiculturalism.
By the late 1990s, what you really didn’t want to be was British. Britain was Empire, militarism, backwardness, and bigotry. The first years of New Labor saw a wave of outlawing of traditional British customs. Fox hunting, children’s Punch and Judy puppet shows, and–in certain cities–even Christian imagery in Christmas decorations all went. On the other hand, there was nothing more coveted than having an “alternative” identity. Just as immigrant communities were encouraged to explore their heritage, so in Scotland and Wales, alongside the glistening new Parliament buildings, a cottage industry developed of books and television programs celebrating Scottish and Welsh history. Equally, there was a renewed emphasis on reviving Gaelic languages, particularly in schools.
No doubt there is a human need for identity and belonging. A sense of being part of something ancient enough to be beyond the merely mortal. The left in Britain has systematically eroded British identity and so it is hardly surprising that people have sought alternatives. British Muslims have become more Islamic, just as Scots have become more Scottish. Reacting with alarm, conservative writers and politicians have declared the antidote is for Britons to regain belief in the greatness of their country. The problem is they advocate this as if it is simply something that other people should believe, and more to the point, a generation has been raised to regard such attitudes as parochial and primitive.