Sunday, August 24, 2014

Scottish independence.

My ancestral homeland is debating independence. Here's a Scottish-American historian's take on the whole thing.

The eve of two great independence referendums are upon the British. There is the referendum of Scottish independence, set for September 2014; and there is the as-yet-undetermined referendum on European Union membership promised by Prime Minister David Cameron in the event of a Conservative majority after the 2015 elections. Both promise to dramatically remake the body politic of the United Kingdom.

For the layman, a couple basic premises need to be established. First off, the United Kingdom is scarcely older than the United States, having been born of a union of England and Scotland in 1707. Its chief purpose for England seems to have been the facilitation of the pre-existing worldwide English Empire, and for Scotland the creation by proxy of a Scottish Empire that failed to take hold in the jungles of Darien. It should be added that Scotland was bribed and cajoled into the Union; the English actively opposed the Darien scheme and stood by as Scots, fellow-subjects of their King, were harried and killed by the Spanish. In an era where overseas empire was the only guarantee of safety in Europe, England made Union the only way to empire for the Scottish.

It has therefore become accepted in mainstream British historiography that the United Kingdom and the British Empire were inextricably linked. The United Kingdom was the "inner empire" that permitted the "outer" British Empire. The British Empire, in turn, was and possibly is a necessary precondition for the creation of British nationhood, where people associate their nationality with the geographic area of the United Kingdom before England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. With the comparatively peaceful, enlightened and orderly breakup of the British Empire, that still-embryonic sense of nationhood may not be able to stand on its own. We'll see in September.

Therefore, the Scottish referendum is not the potential breakup of a nation, but the potential breakup of a multinational state into component nation-states. This happened in other times and places, in much more violent contexts: the dissolution of Habsburg Austria-Hungary, the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of Yugoslavia. Whatever happens in September, widespread interethnic violence is not on the table.

It should also be mentioned that with the end of the British Empire, Britain has looked to two separate paths for its future at the same time, attempting to follow them both at once. This isn't the first time Britain has done this; the vacillation between Catholicism and Protestantism initiated under Henry VIII and not fully completed until the deposition of my ancestor Charles II quite resembles Britain vacillating between the former Empire and Europe at the same time.

By "the former Empire" I mean the current Commonwealth of Nations, but especially those countries that still claim Elizabeth II as their Queen; as well as the United States of America. The strongest recent exponent of this ideal was Margaret Thatcher, who plainly stated her view "We have much more in common with the United States than with Europe as has been shown time and again in war and peace. The transatlantic relationship with the United States must remain at the heart of our foreign policy."

Similarly, at the other end of actual political power, the manifesto of the United Kingdom Independence Party advocates not simply the abandonment of the EU, but also the resumption of a sort of Empire: a free-trade area in the former Dominions, hopefully to include India, as well as a lament for the "abandonment" of what they still refer to as Rhodesia. This assertion not simply of what they're against, but also of what they're for, helps explain the underlying traction UKIP's enjoyed as of late.

I will summarize this pro-American and pro-Commonwealth outlook as "Anglophonism" because it's the simplest common denominator of the players involved. If it seems concentrated in England and the political right, it is not the exclusive domain of the two. It was Blair's New Labour that took the final decision to stay out of the euro, and it was old Labour that stayed aloof from Europe for so long after World War II. But nonetheless, it has become truer over time that Anglophonism is concentrated in England and the political right, and Europhilia in Scotland and the political left. One of the current tactics of the Better Together campaign in the Scottish referendum is telling Scotland's leftist electorate that EU membership isn't guaranteed to an independent Scotland.

Another such tactic in the Scottish referendum has been to keep devo max off the ballot, and then for the three main Westminster parties (Labour, Tories, Liberal Democrats) to promise to support it in the event of a "no" vote. Alexander Salmond, Scottish Nationalist leader and First Minister of Scotland, fought to put devo max on the ballot. It would represent a sort of federalization of the United Kingdom, turning Scotland into something politically resembling an American state, responsible for essentially everything not involving currency, immigration or defense. If the behavior of Westminster and Salmond are to be taken as a sign of their wishes, devo max would seem to be a universally-agreed second-best option for everyone involved.

Now, the other independence referendum, that which would remove the United Kingdom from the European Union, isn't necessarily a given. UKIP supports it. The Tory base supports it, but the Tory establishment, looking to the interests of the British industry that pays its way and conducts 60% of its trade with Europe, has been loathe to agree. Nonetheless, after a remarkable UKIP surge in local elections took a huge chunk out of the Tory vote, the Tory establishment offered a referendum in the next Parliament, should they control it. They would need an absolute majority to deliver, as the strongly Europhilic Lib Dems they currently govern with in coalition would be unlikely to go along. (But if rabidly anti-Tory Scotland were to leave the Union, they may just get that majority.)

However, if it doesn't happen now, it will certainly happen in the next decade or so. Hostility to Europe seems to be an inherent facet of English nationalism. It began with the Hundred Years' War, when they learned to hate the premier European power of the day, France. It continued with the Protestant Ascendancy, when the English told a different transnational pan-European semi-state, the Catholic Church, to piss off. And as the revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalism has engendered a revival of English nationalism, so too has it engendered a rekindling of this hostility to Europe in England. As a result, sooner or later the Tories will either win a majority, make some sort of electoral deal with UKIP, or need to stave off UKIP badly enough to cut a post-election coalition with some other party that they'll give away major concessions for their referendum.

This inevitable European referendum is already having an effect in the Scottish referendum; when Better Together says the Scots will leave the EU if they leave the UK, the pro-independence campaign counters that they may well leave the EU against their wishes even if they stay in the UK.

I cannot tell the future, and my loyalties are conflicted. As an American of Scottish descent I would like my homeland and the nation in which I reside to be close allies. As a Scot I know well the treacherous hand Scotland has been dealt by England over the centuries, that the current Tory-Lib Dem government in Westminster has no mandate in Scotland and heralds a future in which Scotland will only get the government she voted for half the time, and as a leftist I believe that an independent Scotland, free to pursue her leftist inclinations, would probably be more economically and ecologically successful than the present Westminster misrule, as currently constituted. As a Britophile and an admirer of those many aspects of the British Empire which were positive, I share in the fear that Britain's best days are behind her, and hope fervently for those fears to be vigorously disproven.

However, as a historian, and an avid watcher of both politics and reality, I can say what probably will end up happening, whether it be for the best or not. The American statistician Nate Silver, who called all but one of the five hundred and three American federal races in 2012 accurately, believes that the nays will certainly have it. If limited to the narrow question of Scottish independence alone, and limited to answering only "yes" or "no" as the Scottish electorate is, I would likely vote for independence. But devo max is probably the best possible outcome, and I hope the vote is close enough that the Westminster parties feel compelled to make good their promises to deliver it.

As for the eventual European referendum, I see it succeeding. UKIP seems like the water held back by a levee - ever climbing until the levee is breached, and once the breach made and its purpose fulfilled, receding back into nothing. Sheer demography guarantees that England's hostility to Europe will have a disproportionate say in the referendum.

In the short run, it will be a disaster, but not as much of one as may be feared. British influence within the EU has been collapsing ever since the early days of the Cameron ministry, and departure from the EU would only at this point represent the continuation of a process, not an abrupt break.

The gap this will leave in the British balance of trade could very well be made up by re-engagement with the former Empire. The former Dominions, save for Ireland, India and South Africa, would certainly jump at a chance to reassert the former imperial ties, provided they were done on terms of full equality. Canada wants a counterweight to the United States; Australia and New Zealand want a counterweight to China and Indonesia. The United States, as current world hegemon, takes the same view to free trade that the world hegemon it replaced once did, and would be amenable.

India and South Africa, together with the former colonies, would be a coin toss. Some would resent the old imperial history more than welcome renewed ties on an equal basis; I suspect the determining factor will be how many of their kinsmen have "reverse-colonized" the United Kingdom. For Black and Asian Britons are not an irrelevancy to these developments; if anything they're the strongest argument one can make for the existence of a "British" nation alongside England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

However one cuts it, a new free trade area consisting of the current UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand would represent 110 million First World people, more than live in Germany, and one-fourth of a European Union shorn of the UK. It would be a viable economic and political unit, an outer federation replacing an outer empire. Similarly, a United Kingdom after a "no" vote squeaks through Scotland would almost certainly create an inner federation in place of the inner empire. Scotland would be given devo max; Wales and Northern Ireland would probably get the same just to bolster their loyalty to the UK.

England, facing the West Lothian question, will get some kind of devo max as well, either in a united English Parliament or, as seems more likely, in regional Parliaments. Greater London already has responsible government that oversees more people than live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; handing it devo max would simply confirm it for the city-state it already clearly is. The North has threatened that if Scotland leaves, they may well be next; their history has diverged from the so-called "Home Counties" since before the days of Alfred, so a Northern Parliament is a logical step. A Parliament for the Southeast is another logical step, as is the Midlands.

Add that all up, and you would have devolved Parliaments for London, the Southeast, the Midlands, the North, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland: a modern-day Heptarchy. (Funnily, if this prediction holds true, the history of the British Isles could then be described as a progressive bell curve - going forward, but also retracing its steps in order after reaching peak centralization from 1801-1922.) Common issues would continue to be handled by the Parliament in Westminster, but its remit would be drastically reduced overall as the regional Parliaments take over as much as is reasonably possible. Inner federation would combine with outer federation.

I do consider it the likeliest option, at least in the general, given the facts at hand. I also, upon reflection, consider it the renaissance the United Kingdom has waited for; the recreation of British nationhood that has limped along since the death of the Empire. Without the Empire, the UK has been like a man chained to a corpse. They know they can't operate according to the old manners and ideologies, but they haven't crafted new manners or ideologies to take their place, so they just muddle through glumly. A new British federation would be that new manner, that new ideology. Regionalism, and the struggle to win it, has made Scotland and Wales the only parts of the UK that could be said to be truly optimistic about the future; I believe that regionalism extended to the rest of the UK could infect the rest with that same optimism.

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