The Beginning of the Break-up of Britain:

The Consequences and Potential of Scottish Independence

National Library of Iceland Lecture, January 20th 2012

1. Introduction

I am going to talk about the following:

  • What is the United Kingdom?
  • How did we get here: a short backstory
  • Independence: Constitutionally
  • Independence: Practically
  • Independence: Politically
  • Wider Context

2. What is the United Kingdom?

The UK is a state comprised of four nations.

Not technically speaking a nation, but a state. This is a situation which gets mainstream UK politicians into linguistic trouble all the time; Gordon Brown and his fascination with ‘Britishness’; David Cameron today.

UK is a hybrid – clearly not a federal state, but nor is it as is often claimed a unitary state.

The UK is now increasingly accepted in political science thinking as a union state – or even in some accounts as a state of unions (Bogdanor, 2009; Mitchell, 2009).

3. How Did We Get Here?

There is a Scottish, UK and wider global story about why we are where we are.

Two distinct, inter-related dynamics are at play in Scotland.

The first is the long-term Scottishing of Scottish administrative and political space (Fry, 1991).

In late Victorian Britain the administrative making of a distinct Scottish political sphere began with the creation of a separate government department, the Scottish Office.

This led to pressure for more political influence and the creation of the cabinet post of Secretary of State for Scotland and then its transformation under the tuterage of Tom Johnston who held the post from 1941-45 and then Willie Ross who occupied it from 1964-70 and 1974-76. Ross can now be seen as the last powerful figure of the old pre-devolution order before it began to break down under pressure and scrutiny (Hassan and Shaw, 2012).

There then followed greater demands for democracy – the Assembly devolution plans of 1979 – and then the Scottish devolution proposals and referendum in 1997 and subsequent establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The second factor is what has happened to the Scottish economy over the 20th century with huge changes in the early and middle years of the century as traditional industry and manufacturing such as shipbuilding, steel and mining went into serious decline. This happened elsewhere in the UK, but there was a particular concentration of these industries in Central and West Scotland.

This made the case for state intervention, planning and corporatist solutions even more attractive across society from the 1930s onwards, becoming even more explicit and entrenched in the post-1945 era (Knox, 1999). This led to a Scottish state which had far-reaching influence over society. It was a Scottish version of the British post-war state, but in time its Scottish characteristics would come to the fore (Finlay, 2004; Mitchell, 1996).

The combination of these two forces were given a flip by the right-wing drift of British politics post-1979 under Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher and then John Major (Torrance, 2009; Hassan, 2012).

Politically an element of this push in Scottish nationalism and social democracy, saw the Scottish dimension as much more a force for continuity than change – of continuing the settled order of 1945-75 – for the period of the post-war consensus, for social solidarity and collective citizenship. And this has been shaped by yearning for an age of security and palpable distrust with the trajectory of the British state.

4. Independence: Constitutionally

Firstly, Scotland is a nation.

Secondly, it can exercise the right to self-determination. The question is how and why.

First, the UK is a paradox; one of the most centralised states in Western Europe; where local government has no guarantee in law. And yet the unwritten nature of the British constitution – while allowing for abuse by governments – also allows for adaptability and flexibility.

British Governments have consistently said if Scotland wanted independence the UK would not stop it. Thatcher said this as PM; Malcolm Rifkind as her Secretary of State said the same; Donald Dewar passing what became the Scotland Act 1998 – said there could be ‘no glass ceiling’ on Scotland’s aspirations, i.e.: meaning no constitutional restriction on independence.

There are practicalities in the debate. ‘Constitutional matters’ are a ‘reserved matter in the Scotland Act 1998; this means that to some the subject of a Scottish independence referendum – can only be called by the UK Government.

This argues that the Scottish Government does not have the legal powers to call a referendum.

Then we get into the difference between a legally binding referendum and a consultative referendum; the UK Government calling the first; the Scottish Government only capable of the second.

This is constitutional literalism and illiteracy. The UK is meant to be a parliamentary sovereignty where Parliament is sovereign and all referendums merely advisory. When I studied British constitution at ‘A level’ you were taught that referendums as an expression of ‘the popular will’ were a threat to parliamentary sovereignty.

Thus this difference between UK and Scottish Governments and binding and advisory referendums is a diversion – for a struggle for power.

And this is as much about politics as legal interpretation. Scotland will have an independence referendum. It will be held by the Scottish Government, probably after an agreement with the UK Government.

It will be held in the autumn 2014 and it will be a momentous, historic occasion for Scotland and the UK, whatever the result. And whatever way Scotland votes, things will never be the same again in both perception and reality.

5. Independence: Practically

Scottish independence will involve a lot of negotiating and hard bargaining between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Fundamentally, does Scottish independence create one new state or two new states? British politicians argue the former and that an independent Scotland is the one new state. But this ignores history and how the UK was created; as an equal partnership of Scotland and England in the Treaties of Union of 1706-7.

Two new states – Scotland and the rest of the UK – would have consequences for membership of the European Union, NATO, international bodies and more.

Real politick may come into play here; the rest of UK will attempt to assume in negotiations the position of the successor state (see Murkens et al, 2002).

Then we come to some of the detail of independence.

  • Membership of the European Union.
  • Currency; euro; British pound; Scottish pound.
  • If British pound then there would be the issue of the role of the post-UK Treasury in an independent Scotland setting interest rates.
  • National debt.
  • Bank debts.
  • North Sea Oil.
  • Defence and in particular Trident.

Scotland has claim to 91% of North Sea Oil; and would take approximately 8% of the national debt. Already some centre-left English voices – such as Channel Four News – have decided that this is ‘unfair’ (Channel Four, January 11th 2012).

6. Independence: Political Context

This is one of the most difficult areas to explore, namely, the political context of an independent Scotland and independent rest of UK.

Two prevalent arguments used by pro-union forces are:

First, Scotland is subsidised by the rest of UK and could not afford to go on its own.

Second, Scottish independence would condemn England to being governed by England – and so it goes produce perpetual Tory Governments.

Both are negative and about fear – which will have an important influence in the debate over the next few years.

And both might make you surmise that Tory and centre-right voices would be happier to see Scotland go – producing lower taxes and Tory Governments in England/rest of UK. Some right-wing opinion does think this. But most Tories don’t because politics and nationalism are much more subtle and nuanced than the above calculations.

It is also important that the above calculations may be wrong.

It is not clear that Scotland is subsidised once we take into account North Sea Oil and look at all tax and expenditure. On official UK figures the Scots represent 8.4% of the UK population and pay 9.4% of UK taxes – a gap of something like a £1,000 pounds for every Scottish person (New Statesman, November 6th 2011).

More easily dismissed is that Tory Governments would run England forever. Tories have only won a majority of the vote once in post-war England, the same year they won a majority of the vote in Scotland (1955). They just happened to be very popular that year.

What aids Tory dominance in England is the First Past the Post electoral system and a centralised political system; change these and the Tories become one minority amongst many.

The politics of an independent Scotland would be influenced by the new political environment created. We can make a good guess they would be:

  • Centre-left;
  • Broadly social democratic;
  • See a new interest in the North and Nordic matters (Smith, 2011).

But we are not as social democratic as we like to make out; nor are we that different in many public policy preferences from England.

Independence would be:

  • A massive cultural, political and psychological shock to the Scottish system;
  • Would call for a maturing of our public life and sphere;
  • And the need for greater resources, creativity and imagination in how we think of policy, ideas and public matters.



7. Wider Context

I want to conclude by looking at the wider context.

Firstly, the nature of statehood and independence.

There are 193 nations which are full members of the United Nations; but there are numerous other arrangements.

Greenland – is not an independent state but is a self-governing nation.

Puerto Rico – is neither a state of the USA but nor is it an independent state.

Then there is – relevant to Scotland – the evolutionary development of the dominion status of the self-governing ‘white settler’ nations of the British Empire.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand all gradually progressed on the road from self-government to independence. It begs the question in each: when did Australia actually become Australia? When did it become independent? In the case of Canada the answer with regard to full independence is 1982.

Even the case of Ireland is instructive. It became independent as the Irish Free State in 1922, but remained a ‘dominion’ and part of the Empire. It was not until 1949 – twenty-seven years later – it became the Republic of Ireland – and withdrew from the Commonwealth.

Not ungermaine to our discussions – Ireland had the Irish pound until they entered the euro; pegged to the pound sterling for the first sixty years and then entering the European Monetary System in 1978.

All of these examples are relevant. Britain is a post-imperial state with an Empire State mentality at its core; a mentality, outlook and over-confidence in its political, economic and historic role.

And SNP policy on self-government was originally at the twilight of Empire in the 1940s for Scotland to assume ‘dominion status’ – self-government and an evolving relationship with the rest of the UK. A kind of post-nationalism before the term was invented (see Hassan, 2009; Mitchell et al, 2011).

If Scotland becomes independent there wont be an Independence Day in the way we traditionally understand it. What there wont be is a Hong Kong style closing ceremony with pomp and circumstance where the union flag is lowered over Edinburgh Castle and some royal figure oversees the end of British rule. It just wont be like that because British rule and the union flag were joint inventions of the Scots and English. It is even plausible that the union flag could continue flying in an independent Scotland.

What is happening is – as I flagged up at the start of this presentation – the continued evolution and development of a distinct Scottish political space and environment. This is one where increasingly the Scottish Government is seen as being the level of government most Scots want to run domestic services and policy. And in relation to an independence referendum only 12% of Scots want the UK Government to run and control this (Channel Four News, January 16th 2012).

Finally, I want to acknowledge the context of globalisation, the power of capital and markets. The UK has in the last thirty years become an outlier and advocate for a view of the world associated with market deregulation and fundamentalism (Barnett and Hutton, 2011).  The City of London, legal and accountancy advice, business services and consultancy, the tax haven industry – these are just some of the manifestations of London as a ‘world city’ supporting a narrow elite view of the world (Shaxson, 2011); this has contributed to the UK becoming the fourth most unequal country in the developed world – after USA, Portugal and Singapore (Dorling, 2011).

The Scottish journey to statehood is a significant challenge to this; to British post-imperial delusions of pretensions to Great Powerism. It is part of the democratisation argument and movement of the UK – which aims to make common cause against the centralist state.

The Scottish self-government experience is about a small, social democratic nation attempting to find a degree of shared, partial autonomy and sovereignty in an age of globalisation and uncertainty; independence in an inter-dependent world: interindependence if you like.

In the coming months and years many of us in Scotland will want to conduct a public debate about independence and the union – in a climate which reflects some qualities and characteristics that you here in Iceland would understand.

This includes: that there are benefits and disadvantages of being independent; and advantages and disadvantages of being part of a bigger union; and that what the difference between these two visions amount to – are shades of gray rather than absolutes.

Autonomy is partial, fluid and liquid – and constantly compromised. But at the same time self-government, mission and purpose and institutionalising the values you share as a society matter.

There is a romantic side to this Scottish story and a practical one; an intrinsic and instrumental side to self-government. Both matter; but ultimately part of this is about who ‘we’ are, defining what that collective ‘we’ means, and giving voice to an account – which includes romance, folklore, identity and governance.


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