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.