by Stuart Millson
The Scottish National Party won a majority of seats at May’s Holyrood elections, but Scots remain divided over the future of their country. There is a chance now to restore the fortunes of the United Kingdom with a new vision for Britain.
On the eve of May’s elections to the Scottish Parliament, the headline-writers for the Scottish edition of The Sun excelled themselves. With the SNP predicting a surge in its support – and with the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, leading his own breakaway party (Salmond predicting a “super-majority” for secessionists at Holyrood), hubris was very much in the air, north of the border. The rainy Caledonian skies did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of the SNP’s seemingly unassailable leader, Nicola Sturgeon, who was photographed – with her SNP-branded umbrella – on the streets of Glasgow, greeting supporters. Yet, for the wits at The Sun, it was time for – a reign check: an opportunity for voters to think again about a ruling party in Scotland which, during the Holyrood enquiry into the recent and complicated Alex Salmond enquiry, did not entirely give the impression of complete openness; an opportunity to show the SNP inner circle and party faithful that, perhaps, not everybody in the country shared their single-minded desire to break away from the United Kingdom, in favour of “independence in Europe”.
The tabloid’s stance may have influenced voters to some extent, because – despite the SNP’s success in winning the greater number of seats in the Scottish devolved Parliament – they failed to clinch an absolute party-majority, with the percentage share of the vote actually showing a (small) surplus for the combined parties of the Union: the Scottish Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats – the latter securing their hold, for example, on constituencies such as the Orkney Islands. However, there is no doubting – despite the composition of the Scottish Parliament remaining more or less how it was before the election – that the SNP has exerted a strong – indeed a huge – grip on Scotland and on the imagination of many younger voters, for whom the mantra of Scottish “independence” has become a rallying cry.
As the votes were counted and the bumper crop of SNP wins began to be logged on the various TV newsroom election scoreboards, the spokesmen and women for that party appeared, time and again, to repeat their party line: “..our manifesto commitment to hold a second independence referendum has been vindicated by the Scottish electorate…” – although none, especially the leader, would commit to any timeframe for such second vote, mindful, no doubt, that behind the “drumb-beat” for another referendum lies a good deal of uncertainty over the true beliefs and loyalties of Scots. There is, of course, a large element today (very sadly) which has no affiliation to the United Kingdom, but equally, there are many – even in the Scottish nationalist camp – which, despite voting SNP, do not wish for Scotland to leave the British state. Many observers (including, it seems, some in the SNP) seem to have forgotten how, in the 2014 referendum, a Gaelic-speaking, nationalist-voting constituency in the Western Isles, Eileanan, returned a verdict at the ballot of box of remaining in the UK; proving that a vote for the ruling party north of the border, does not necessarily mean a vote for secession.
Likewise, there are many voters who, despite not wishing their country to set up a hard border with England and the remainder of the Kingdom, would still like to see a largely independent Scotland, but one which exists as part of an equal, federal arrangement – based upon shared British institutions, such as the NHS – a subject discussed in a recent Guardian article, by former Prime Minister and son of the manse, Gordon Brown. And here, surely, lies a much more effective and imaginative alternative to the secessionist politics of the SNP – and, it has to be said, to the centralising, state-Unionism emanating from London and Whitehall: a Scotland living within a redefined United Kingdom and British family of nations, able to run itself, tax its own citizens and look after domestic policy, but still joined to England, Wales and Northern Ireland – its citizens free to travel by LNER trains across an open border; or walk into any hospital or surgery to benefit from NHS treatment; or listen to artillery fired from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, in honour of the passing of members of the British Royal family.
The SNP claims that following the Brexit vote (in which Scots voted by a two-thirds majority for EU membership), Scotland was deprived of access to the greatest economic jurisdiction which has existed for two, or three, generations: the European single market. And yet, by leaving the Kingdom, Scotland would be denying its citizens access to an even greater market, one which exists on their very doorstep: the United Kingdom sterling zone (complete with worldwide trade links) – not to mention its accompanying central bank, the UK Treasury – the very body that has underwritten the vaccination, furlough, and business protection and loan scheme, all of which have worked to the clear benefit of Scots.
From the United Kingdom’s point of view, the departure of Scotland – as well as presenting a heartbreaking diminution of the nation and the ending of more than 300 years of history, common endeavor and intermingled destinies and lives – would see our national security thrown into jeopardy. What would be the future for the Royal Navy, for naval shipbuilding on the Clyde, for Britain’s nuclear submarines which sail and re-equip in those waters? And what of the UK Space Agency, which has plans to establish new “space ports” in Scotland – would not the SNP’s key policy of prising Scotland out of the UK risk undermining work of great strategic and technological significance for the future? Such an outcome would provide comfort and advantage to future enemies and currently hostile states and rivals of Britain and the British way of life.
For the sake of Scotland – and for all of us who value our shared history and friendship across these islands, we must make the case for a united Britain. We must ensure that the Scottish identity and Scots’ growing nationalism, hitherto, directed into the camp of the SNP, becomes, in the years ahead of us, not a force in opposition to a common British destiny, but part and parcel of our wider country’s identity. The saltire of St. Andrew and the Union Jack belong together.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music editor of QR