Stands Scotland where it did? Damned if I know. But it is no longer a country afraid to know itself. Somehow, the air seems different. Most Scots I’ve come across in the last seven hectic day, from the right of the political spectrum as well as the left and all points in between, seem really rather pleased by last week’s landslide vote for the Scottish National Party. Or maybe I just haven’t bumped into all those committed unionists who represent majority opinion in Scotland according to the polls. They seem to be laying pretty low.
Yesterday, David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions called on drowsing unionists to get off their backsides and “make an optimistic and uplifting case” for Scotland to stay in the Union. It’s not enough, he said, just to frighten Scots by telling them that “small countries can’t make it on their own”. Well, he’s got that bit right anyway, even if you could hardly hear the PM for the noise of stable doors banging shut. It seemed a bit late to be making the case for the Union at the very moment when, in Holyrood, Alex Salmond was leading his 69 MSPs in swearing – somewhat reluctantly – their oath of allegiance to the Crown
Unionism has been caught off guard, we’re told, and needs to get its act together. Call in John Reid, Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown (ok maybe not him) and have them get together in a big, bold British is Best campaign fronted by David Steel and Charles Kennedy with Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth bringing up the rear… But just reading the names tells you that any such a referendum campaign is doomed. These are all men of the past – heavyweights from a different era. They aren’t like the wiry young women and men who were taking their seats in Holyrood yesterday and already sorting out the mechanics of independence. Power has shifted in the last seven days, and the UK already feels a different place.
It’s as if politicians, business people, commentators have lost the knack of arguing the case for Great Britain. As Cameron says – too often the unionists have tried to bury nationalism with negatives. Scotland can’t go it alone because it is too wee. Needs English subsidies. Is too immature to govern itself. Anyway, who wants to live in a tartan theme park run by the SNP? Metropolitan commentators and politicians can’t get their heads round Scottish independence because they can’t understand why the Scots would want it. Why go to all the trouble, and expense, of separation from the UK when the Scots are already on to a cushy number thanks to the Barnett Formula? Don’t these Scots know what side their bread is buttered on? Do they really want to be like Iceland, living on puffins?
But the problem with telling people that they can’t stand on their own two feet is that eventually they will try to prove you wrong. It’s an inconvenient truth about nations and communities that they want to do their own thing, just like teenagers. People have this need to demonstrate, to themselves as much as anyone else, their capacity for self-determination, for freedom if you like, irrespective of economic considerations. When Norway split from Sweden in 1905, it wasn’t because the Norwegians smelt oil and thought they could make a killing. It was because the more sophisticated Swedes said that the rustic Norwegians smelled of fish. When Montenegro voted for independence in 2006 it wasn’t because they thought they could get a better deal from the EU but because they were fed up feeling looked upon as a boil on the backside of Serbia. The velvet divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in June 1992 happened, not because the two countries thought they could boost their GDP – though that did happen – but because they couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of remaining in one country any more. Divorce simply seemed the most sensible option, given the endless wrangling and bickering about who was subsidising who.
Are we at that point now in Britain? Will the Union disintegrate, ultimately because no one can really be bothered arguing or fighting to retain it? Unless the unionists find some more compelling case I suspect it will. I think we may have turned a corner now in Scotland. The institutional infrastructure is already being laid for an independent Scotland. Look around: the health service and education, especially higher education, are now radically different from the services south of the border. It would not be particularly disruptive to separate them. The Scotland Bill is already dismantling the fiscal UK, giving the Scottish parliament borrowing powers and greater tax raising powers, with the implicit division of HM Revenue. Independence would involve a lot less disruption than might have been the case in the past. There’s no need to set up a parliament for a start. Last week’s vote was a massive affirmation of the democratic legitimacy of Holyrood.
Of course, there would be disruption, a lot of it, if Britain left the UK. Scottish MPs would withdraw from Westminster en masse – to the cheers of Tory MPs. There would be a division of the National Debt, and arguments about the family silver. The two big issues would be oil and Trident, but with goodwill they could be sorted. International law is pretty clear on who owns what under the sea, and if England still wants nuclear weapons, then they could go to Devonport or some other naval base. Scotland would take up a seat in the UN, and apply for separate membership of the EU, which some constitutionalists claim would be messy – but since both organisations uphold the principle of national self-determination, there;s no reason to believe that either would reject an independent Scotland
I find it slightly strange even to be talking like this, as if independence were just a matter of time. But after last week, we all have to take independence seriously. The SNP’s game plan is to move Scotland so far down the road of self-government that, when they finally put the referendum question, voters will discover that Scotland already is more or less independent. Alex Salmond wants to put Scots in the position where remaining in the Union becomes more hassle than leaving it. Unionists have four years or so to prove him wrong.