2007 - 2021

Enter the Union

Pic Bill FlemingPic shows  Yes Scotland supporters in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh


During the week in which George Osborne likened the Scottish Government to ‘an angry party to a messy divorce’ and helpfully informed us that a currency is not like a CD collection, something dramatic changed within the indyref debate.

Cameron’s oft repeated mantra that ‘this is a decision that is squarely and solely for those in Scotland to make’ has been exposed by the entry of the British establishment as the most important player in the politics of the referendum. Unsurprisingly, in this blatant exercise of raw political power, it won’t be taking questions.

The union was founded in the wake of the economic suffocation of Scotland. Perhaps its fitting that the very final attempts to defend it use similar tools to those that marked its birth.

The legislation that brought Scotland to the negotiating table, the Alien Act of 1705, embargoed Scottish goods and crippled a country already on its knees after years of war, famine, and political upheaval. Though the co-opting of a corrupt aristocracy and protection of the Kirk sealed the deal, the handmaiden was economic warfare.

It was a strange beginning to what is now regularly described as the most successful union in history. Most states forge some kind of foundation myth about where they come from: Great Britain has not. Perhaps its origins were just a bit too unflattering to those involved to be properly commemorated. On this front, precious little has changed: grand narratives from Cameron about sport, history books and the D-Day landings, sit uncomfortably alongside Osborne’s decree.

Recent pronouncements from London on currency and EU membership follow a similar pattern of behaviour. Scotland, in rediscovering its sovereignty, will suffer economic penalties, it will be forced out into the cold and left to fend for itself. Listening to Osborne’s language you’d be forgiven for thinking that we still lived in the mercantilist 18th century: in which markets and the nation state were virtually interchangeable. It’s not so much that the pound is only for Britons (everyone knows this isn’t really the case) it’s just not for Scots who freely determine how to govern themselves.

What is fascinating about these developments and the reaction that they have fostered is the final emergence of the union as an active participant in the debate. Its true face may not be pleasant but in allowing the mask of its hitherto abstract role to slip, it has made a categorical error. The truth is that nobody knows what the Scottish public make of the union, any more than they know how a high turn out could affect the result of a referendum. This is the first moment in the long history of Scottish self-government that the larger partner has, like a wartime coalition, overruled normal party politics and directly entered into the fray.

Questions about secession tend to be defined by the ‘separatist’ rather than the ‘unionist’ agenda. This is in no small part due to the fact that mass media tends to have a metropolitan outlook.

What’s more the politics of any status quo, of any state, can always claim, up to a point, a kind of mythic, organic, neutrality. Now that we’ve gone beyond the point at which the British union can claim any kind of institutional aloofness, the debate becomes real, vital and potent.

Any of the well known claims to nationhood in the modern world are radically different. The Québécois are seeking to shore up an island of Francophone culture. The main party of Catalan independence is centre right: contemporary crisis and historic Francoist oppression combine to create a mass movement to be rid of Madrid once and for all. The Flemish völkisch separatism has no particular left/right grounding. Scotland’s social democratic opportunism and willingness to embrace ‘post-national’ institutions, is yet another unique instance of different parts of different states seeking a broadly similar outcome.

However, in each case, the role of the central state in question is equally significant. Canada’s federalism, Spain’s ‘autonomous communities’, Belgium’s distinctive linguistic/cultural federation, have all embedded substantive ‘national’ autonomy within their constitutions. In the parlance of indyref this is often more akin to ‘independence light’ than ‘devo max’.

This then is what is truly odd about the British union. It’s an anomaly: a highly centralised unitary state made up of ‘nations’ that have no constitutional status whatsoever. No sovereignty is shared. The very young legislatures of Wales and Scotland exist, like the product of any other parliamentary act, at the pleasure of Westminster. Legally they could both be abolished by a unionist parliamentary majority tomorrow. Furthermore, the powers that now sit with Holyrood are significantly less than those enjoyed by American states, but without the privileges and protections granted by a federal structure.

Scottish independence is remarkable. Violence, other than that carried out against pillar boxes, coronation chairs, and images of Margaret Thatcher, is absent. Its ‘existential’ element is historic and has been significantly overplayed by its opponents. Its momentum stems from cultural confidence and renaissance, not ethnic fantasy. If this is nationalism, it is self-evidently not the ‘nineteenth century’ nationalism that the centre loves to demonise (while conflating the polar opposites of self-determination with the fascist unionism of Italy, Spain and Germany).

For better or worse much of the Scottish National Party’s recent project has been devoted not to simply reclaiming sovereignty, but in seeking out new opportunities to share it: new partnerships, new unions, to replace an outmoded one. The archaic conflation of nation state, economy and political cooperation by unionists says far more about the state of the union than it does about the nature of the separatist movement. A movement which, perhaps ironically, is happy to portray itself as the legacy of ’45 (that’s 1945 not 1745).

Lest we forget, Attlee’s landslide victory was achieved on a manifesto that stated:

The Labour Party is a socialist party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the socialist commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.

Where do we hear the echoes of this British heritage? Not in the parties of Milliband, Clegg or Cameron. Many of us have grown tired of asking progressive unionists to provide an alternative transformative vision to the smorgasbord of possibilities that independence offers. Those paying attention to the Yes campaign cannot fail to notice that Common Weal is perhaps the only cohesive left wing policy programme in these isles: yet it is just one vessel in a flotilla of groups hoping to change Scotland. The vast hulk that is the British establishment cannot compete.

This is why threats are fast becoming its only currency. Different versions of the future will not be tolerated in its wake and the privileges that Scotland does enjoy (the pound, the EU, open borders) can be taken away. Senior politicians are even content to park Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations and whisper about the idea of independence being contingent on negotiations working for rUK, not on a Yes vote.

Of course the issue of currency, though often framed solely in terms of hard headed economics, is often about the exact opposite. Voters are rarely versed in macroeconomics and therefore the prospect of losing the pound becomes a key emotive argument for the union. There are precious few British icons left hence Sterling’s inflated significance.

1707 was an exchange of political power for economic salvation. Bizarrely after 300 years the relationship between London and Edinburgh seems to have changed very little. The British establishment still seeks to portray two stark choices: independence as poverty and union as prosperity.

Other than in times of war Britain has been reluctant to define what it is. It exists only when an existential threat appears on the horizon. Hence its current struggle to personify itself. Time and time again we are told the union is a marriage.

This trope formed the entire premise of Walter Scott’s Waverley, and it remains the most overused to this day. It’s no coincidence that the most enthusiastic makers of union based identity have tended to be Scottish. When at its height Scotland adopted the term North Britain, it was notable that ‘South Britain’ continued to refer to itself as England.

This lack of definition has led to some surreal remarks, not least that the blood coursing through the veins of David Cameron and AC Grayling is worthy of consideration at the ballot box.

The major realisation for Scots is this: why would we want to be ‘married’ to a partner who thinks that, without them, we’d be lost? As Waverley sought to portray, the union ought to be a marriage of distinctive parties premised on mutual respect.

Waverley’s, tagline ‘’tis 60 years since’ highlighted the vast historical distance that Scotland travelled between 1745 and its publication in 1814. In that period a rebellious province had transformed itself into the economic powerhouse of a burgeoning empire, and its political loyalty to the union was beyond question.

The past 60 years have proved the inverse: Scotland has gone from the heart of the union, to the very cusp of independence. Only a complete, transformative new vision can prevent divorce. It does not exist. Instead, once again the British establishment is presenting itself as the only vehicle through which Scotland can play a part in the wider world. It represent stability and strength: its mythic political and economic continuity, set apart from the anarchy of a troubled continent. This isn’t so much an argument for Britain and as an argument for not being European, a stance on which Osborne’s remarks freely noted:

‘But we avoided the economic collapse other nations around us in Europe faced. Because together, we had the strength to confront our problems and overcome them.’

The past week has shown us a union that has no qualms about intimidating Scottish people who are still citizens of the UK. This is of course, only the beginning. We’re heading towards a situation akin to 1979 in which No will be content with a narrow and mean victory, that could scar Scotland and leave our society vulnerable to kind of turmoil visited upon it in the 1980s.

The union is not a partnership. It is a highly centralised state that only begrudgingly cedes power. The calculated dismissal of an independent Scotland as a partner in a currency union makes the true nature of the relationship clear. The union has joined the debate to show us that, however Scotland votes, punitive measures will be taken. The only questions is whether they’re taken against a demoralised region or a confident young sovereign state in the making.

Comments (13)

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  1. Abulhaq says:

    We must make sure we do become another Québec. Only sovereignty will set us free; politically, culturally, economically, existentially.

  2. DaveyM says:

    Of course, No didn’t win in 1979 – Yes did. But the actions of the Labour party ensured that a Yes vote was unrecognised.

  3. Maybe slightly relevant to the contention by Barroso that independent Scotland will be out of the EU, there is an article in NZZ about Barroso’s response “freedom of movement is not up for discussion” to the recent Swiss referendum (the Swiss have voted in a right wing inspired referendum to place limits on the number of EU citizens who can come to work in Switzerland, this violates the EU free movement of labour). In the article Barroso talks about how free movement of labour is fundamental to the EU, and that there will be difficulties with treaties such as research and student exchanges. What caught my eye is that Barroso says that “Switzerland is a part of the European family” which seems to be quite an expansionist and inclusive (probably a bit too inclusive for many Swiss, since Switzerland has rejected EU membership in a referendum and negotiates bilaterally with the EU various treaties) way to talk, seems quite a different tone from his comments at the weekend about Scotland.
    The article is in German at:

  4. an interesting piece that will maybe urge a few people to have a closer look at scottish history the fact that most of what you say was never taught as the norm in most scottish schools the truth & the events that led to the formation of the union was more or less forgotten in scottish education in favour of 1066 and the wars of the roses well very interesting they might have been but it wasn’t our history ask most scots ,do we have a crown ? do we have crown jewels ? if we do have both where are they kept it would be a interesting result

  5. florian albert says:

    ‘Common Weal is perhaps the only cohesive left wing programme in these isles; yet it is just one vessel in a flotilla of groups hoping to change Scotland.’
    Is there any evidence of support for left wing policies amongst Scottish voters ?

  6. Fay Kennedy says:

    Surely there must be some support.

  7. Illy says:

    Why wouldn’t there be?

    All those people who vote Labour because they don’t want to admit what it’s become, for starters. Just need to convince them that New Labour is just as bad as the Tories, and that a socialist party actually has a chance at the polls.

  8. Geoff Huijer says:

    The ‘bribes’ were only the ‘icing on the cake’.

    More important, I believe, were the threats.

    The English Aliens Act stated that unless that Crown of Scotland had been settled
    in the same manner as England by 25th December 1705, from that date all Scots
    would be treated as aliens in England & incapable of inheriting property. From that
    date no cattle, sheep, coal or linen (i.e.Scotland’s main exports) would be
    imported into England. (Union of 1707, Henderson-Scott)

    Letter from Godolphin to Seafield (17th July 1703) –

    “England is now at war with France; if Scotland were at peace, and
    consequently at liberty to trade with France, would not that immediately
    necessitate a war betwixt England & Scotland also, as has often been the case
    before the two nations were under the same sovereign?
    And though perhaps some turbulent spirits in Scotland may be desiring to
    have it so again, if they please to consult history the will not find the advantage
    of these breaches has often been on the side of Scotland; and if they will give
    themselves leave to consider how much England has increased in wealth & power
    since those times, perhaps the present conjuncture will not appear more
    favourable for them, but on the contrary rather furnish arguments for enforcing
    the necessity of a speedy union between the two nations; which is a notion that
    I find has so little prevalency in the present parliament of Scotland.
    And I hope your Lordship will not be offended with me if I take the freedom
    to be of the opinion they may possibly be sorry for it too, when the opportunity
    is out of their reach.”

    Also TB Smith (1962) –

    “The Scottish commissioners in 1706 were certainly negotiating under the
    implied threat if negotiations failed, of invasion by one of the great captains
    of history (Marlborough) at the head of a veteran army, backed by the military
    resources of one of the most powerful states in Europe.”

    There are other examples, but although ‘bought and sold’ is true the
    underlying threats of sanctions and invasion must have had more of
    an impact on those who were in positions of power in Scotland.

    Have things changed in the 20th & 21st Centuries?

    Suppressing the McCrone Report, threats to ‘bomb airports’, farmers rebates going to England,
    shifting territorial waters, no currency Union, expulsion from EU, pro-Union bias from the media etc

    Not much…although this time we can Vote YES…

    1. andyshall says:

      The utter failure of Scotland’s attempt to colonise Panama and the subsequent bankrupting of many of the Scottish aristocracy also had more a little to do with the Act of Union.

  9. SimpleSimonSays says:

    There is a conclusion, widely held by UK national political leaders, that the risks to rUK of having to bail out an independent Scotland whose government may have pursued tax, spending, debt and banking policies over which they have no control, outweighs the costs of no CU. As far as I can see this position has strong popular support in England and Wales (tho it would be interesting to see firmer polling evidence.) Those arguing for a Yes vote need to set out what they would do in terms that are within their control to deliver. One option is pegging, another is just to use the pound, accepting no control over interest rates and money supply. Maybe these options can work for Scotland – pegging worked for the Irish punt before they joined the Euro. But insisting on a CU which they can’t deliver alone, in the face of clear statements by the other side that it will not happen, is playing poker with Scotland’s financial future.

  10. setondene says:

    Christopher, I enjoyed the article and had a couple of thoughts.

    When you say that Scotland’s political loyalty to the Union in 1814 was ‘beyond question’, I would have to point out that there was an insurrection in 1820 which called for (inter alia) the establishment of an independent Scotland. The treatment of the leaders of 1820 by the British Establishment may be a salutary lesson to those of us now calling for 21st century Scottish independence.

    And when you mentioned the aristos who sold their country in 1707, I couldn’t help but think of Lord Foullkes, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Lord McConnell of somewhere in Arran etc etc to the point of tedium.

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