. It’s now ten years since the repeal of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. At times, it looked as if the two countries would never learn to live together in harmony again. But things have been looking up recently. Iain Macwhirter reflects on the turbulent years since Scotland went its own way. ….
Looking back, the amazing thing is that it lasted as long as it did. The 300 year old Union between Scotland and England was only ever a marriage of convenience. The Scots got access to the British Empire, and proceeded to do extremely well out of it. But with the passing of Empire, and the coming of Europe, the ties that bind had loosened.
But what no one expected was that a Scottish Prime Minister would be preside over the break up of Britain. Before he entered Number Ten, Gordon Brown was almost comically keen to insist on his Britishness, even f insisting that his favourite sporting moment was a goal against Scotland by Paul Gascoigne.
But the clamour from English MPs – Tory and Labour – over the West Lothian Question, became too great to ignore. His weakened coalition government was forced to accept the exclusion of Scottish MPs from votes on English legislation in the House of Commons. It was called the Great Caledonian Lock Out.
The resulting cuts in Scottish public spending after the scrapping of the Barnett Formula, and the demand for citizenship tests for Scots living in London, went down like a bucket of cold porridge. Inflamed by a wave of anti-Scottish articles in the London-based tabloids, the Scottish Parliament turned into a hotbed of nationalist agitation. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, demanded the repatriation of oil revenues and threatened to seize control of excise duties. His coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats withdrew all their elected members from the House of Lords. No one quite knew why.
For a while it seemed as if the nightmare really could happen. There were ugly scenes outside the Scottish Parliament as Union Jacks were torched and Scots were beaten up in the Oxford St. riots. People seriously began to wonder if former Britain might turn into former Yugoslavia. When the Scottish Parliament passed a motion demanding the removal of Trident missiles from the Clyde, retired generals were talking about military action in Scotland to maintain the defence of the realm.
But then, as so often in British history, people started taking a long hard look at themselves – and their own absurdity. The comedian Billy Connelly joined comics from across the UK in the “Who do we think we are?” tour sending up the pettiness of the narrow nationalists who seemed to be dominating the debate over the repeal of the Act of Union.
England realised that there was a lot to lose from giving up Scotland. Scottish water exports to overheated England had become a lot more valuable even than oil used to be before global warming. Now, Scotland has the 25% of Europe’s renewable energy sources, and Scottish windmills and tidal turbines are providing much of the electricity for London.
For their part, the Scots were far too canny to want to to to all the expense of setting up their own currency, foreign service, social security and army. Nowadays every Scottish MSP seems to accept Alex Salmond’s idea of “Independence in the UK” (the great oxymoron as the fundamentalists called it) and the new cross-border institutions of the Anglo Scottish Agreement. Scots who only the day before yesterday were calling for an independent republic of Scotia were singing “God save the King” during Charles the Third’s recent tour of Scotland.
Don’t get me wrong. Scotland is very different today. Inequalities of wealth and income are much lower than in England because of higher personal taxation, even though Scotland has some of the lowest business taxes in Europe. Insulated from City bonuses, Scotland escaped the great house price crash that almost destroyed the English economy in the twenty-one tens. But the costs of free student education, free care for the elderly, free heroin for registered addicts is a huge burden on the Scottish exchequer. But living on handouts from London was never a dignified way to live, and the Scottish Parliament now takes itself and its legislation a lot more seriously.
Scots still complain of course – it’s our national pastime. But now they complain more about the failings of their own government and not London. The ending of the Union turned out to be the start of a new partnership. With Scotland and England living apart together – except, of course, on the football pitch.
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