A More Perfect Union
by Stuart Millson
Within minutes of the Brexit transition period ending on New Year’s Eve – the moment when the United Kingdom finally left the economic jurisdiction of the European Union – the leading lights of the Scottish National Party appeared on our television screens. Their purpose was to remind the Government at Westminster that a majority of Scots had voted, in 2016’s referendum, to remain part of the EU – thus providing the devolved administration in Edinburgh with (as they saw it) the right to (a) call for a second referendum on Scottish independence and (b) for Scotland to rejoin the European Union. Speaking on Sky News just hours before the UK finally severed its EU ties, SNP MP, Dr. Philippa Whitford – ignoring the agonising four years of grinding negotiation that had finally extracted us from the Brussels superstate – spoke hopefully about “… finding a way back to the EU” – an astonishing statement, even for “pro-Europeans”, most of whom now recognise the once-and-for-all ending of our membership of the (former) Common Market.
Dr. Whitford, as a Scottish Nationalist (and admittedly, an excellent parliamentarian) will see things somewhat differently from those for whom Great Britain, the Union, the Island Nation etc., are their guiding lights of politics and history. For once it might be helpful to try to see the matter from her perspective. Until 1707 Scotland was an independent country– the year of its binding together with England under the Act of Union – and it was said that on the morning after the dissolution of the old Scottish Parliament, the bells of Edinburgh churches rang out with a mournful peal of bells: “Why am I so sad upon my wedding day?”
Since the Second World War (despite the Tory Party’s once pre-eminent electoral position in Scotland) many calls for devolution and independence have been made – the SNP’s Winifred Ewing igniting the debate in 1967, with her stunning by-election victory propelling Scottish independence to the centre-stage of British politics. And with the re-creation of the Scottish Parliament during Tony Blair’s premiership, it seemed inevitable that a revived nationalist consciousness would sweep the country – although it has to be said that for an avowedly “nationalist” party, the SNP is remarkably metropolitan and internationalist in its outlook, eschewing much of the ancient, ancestral Scottish identity in favour of multicultural concepts such as “the new Scots”.
Alex Salmond, the charismatic First Minister of Scotland, took Caledonian nationalism to its high-water mark with an independence referendum in 2014. It seemed that 300 years of the British union would be reversed. And yet, despite a surge in support for Salmond, the people of Scotland voted to remain within the Kingdom; the referendum producing some unexpected trends, such as the revelation that Gaelic, SNP-voting Highland and island regions had cast their votes for the Union. Following the nationalists’ defeat in 2014 and Salmond’s resignation, a gradual new impetus for secession has been nurtured by his successor, Nicola Sturgeon – a more technocratic politician whose stock has risen hugely as a result of her leadership during the continuing Coronavirus crisis.
Using the Scottish electorate’s 2016 vote for continued EU membership, the new First Minister seems to have made a strong case for that “hoped-for” return to the Brussels fold – notwithstanding the fact that in the Brexit referendum the entire jurisdiction of the UK voted as one; with every vote, from Dorset to Dundee of equal value, and no region outweighing the other. But the real question for Scotland is not – “shall we be independent again?” – but rather, is the SNP really offering independence at all? It is one thing for Scots, as part of the UK, to vote to stay within the European Union; quite another to say that they would vote unilaterally, as one of Europe’s smaller countries, to rejoin a much-changed EU, with the prospect of abandoning sterling for the Euro-currency.
Even the SNP’s slogan of “independence within Europe” is a contradiction in terms: the EU, as witnessed by statements by the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, now clearly seeing itself as a “sovereign” body – its member-states beholden to the will of the central bureaucracy. Would Scotland-in-the-UK – with its own Parliament and Government in Edinburgh and a high profile at Westminster – really abandon such a unique position of power, in favour of a reduction in influence at the “heart of Europe”? The reality is that there is no such thing as self-government in the post-Brexit EU –and the likelihood is that the all-powerful Commission will take further steps in the coming months and years to ensure that member-states, large or small, will march to its tune.
What is needed in the United Kingdom is for a properly worked-out system of equal federalism (British in tone) to prevail – in effect, a Home-Rule Britain, the vision of Joseph Chamberlain; with Westminster and the UK retaining responsibility for defence, foreign policy and the setting of a benchmark for the economy. We have heard much during the pandemic of a so-called “four nations approach” to health and other policies, but due to there being no specific role for England, the UK Prime Minister has, in effect and by default, emerged as the English part of the equation. Such a state of affairs cannot be right and perhaps the SNP and Plaid Cymru in Wales might ponder Scotland’s and the Celtic nations’ pre-eminence over England, in terms of autonomy and political power.
To restore the stability and integrity of the Kingdom an innovative form of Unionism needs to emerge, one that is woven into the new fabric of our devolved political system; one that honours the kinship of the UK and its natural, borderless brotherhood of countries. Outside the nation-denying EU, a proud and independent Scotland would flourish – alongside its natural allies on the island and islands of Britain.
Stuart Millson is QR‘s Classical Music Editor