The greater threat to the Union comes from England
This blog has always seen English separatism as the chief threat to the Union. Recent polls showing that English voters, unlike Scots, would happily break up the United Kingdom, come as no surprise. It’s what I hear at constituency meetings, what I read in comment threads.
And, to be honest, it’s nothing new. On the contrary, English nationalism goes right back to the Union of Crowns. The moment James VI of Scotland crossed the border in 1603 to take up the English throne, London courtiers started whingeing. Their new monarch, they moaned, was accompanied by a swarm of landless Scottish gentry, hastening south in pursuit of sinecures and monopolies. Such complaints swelled throughout the Stewart era, reaching a crescendo with the English reaction to the Darien scheme, a proposal for a Scottish colony in Panama. As English MPs saw it, they were subsidizing a rival: the colony would give Scotland a commercial advantage over its neighbour, but would depend on English soldiery for its defence against Spain. That,mutatis mutandis, has been the essence of the English grievance ever since.
The collapse of the Darien enterprise bankrupted a large chunk of the Scottish upper and middle classes, and so hastened the Acts of Union. It’s true that many Scottish MPs of that time – Robert Burns’ ‘parcel of rogues in a nation’ – had to be bribed or bullied into passing the legislation. What is often forgotten is that just as much cajolery and inducement was required at Westminster. Indeed, while we can’t measure these things with certainty, it seems likely that a referendum in England in 1707 would have resulted in a much larger ‘No’ vote than one in Scotland.
In her magnificent (if Euro-zealous) book, Britons, Linda Colley reveals the extent to which Englishmen in the eighteenth century feared that they were being pushed aside by greedy Scots. The stereotype of thearriviste Scottish professional first appears in theatrical productions of this era. And, as Colley shows, such anxieties were not wholly groundless. Scots were indeed over-represented in most of the organs of state, especially the Army and Imperial administration. Although most foreigners, and some Scots, now see the merger of 1707 as an English takeover, most contemporaries saw it the other way around.
What is surprising, from our present perspective, is the extent to which anti-Scottish prejudice in England was common among radicals, who associated Scotland with Tory absolutism and Jacobite sedition. John Wilkes became a hate figure north of the border because of the violent weekly diatribes in his magazine, The North Briton. Billy Bragg is perhaps the contemporary heir to this Wilkesite tradition: an English separatist of the radical Left. But plenty of English conservatives also resent the way in which, as they see it, subsidy-hungry Scottish MPs inflict Left-wing policies on them. It’s not simply a case of parliamentary representation. Of our past 30 prime ministers, nine have been Scots (not counting Harold Macmillan or Tony Blair, both of whom claimed Scottish connections when it suited them). Not bad when, in strict population terms, the number ought to be two-and-a-half.
Since the 1998 Scotland Act, these over-represented MPs have been in the anomalous position of passing laws that affect my constituents but not theirs. Several contentious Bills, from the hunting ban to foundation hospitals, were passed only with the support of Scottish Labour MPs whose own voters were unaffected by them. If pushed, I’d say that the single greatest cause of anti-Union sentiment in England is resentment over the fact that the West Lothian Question has become a problem in practice rather than in theory.
But here’s the thing. Political problems have political solutions. Every one of the grievances above can be addressed, and addressed remarkably smoothly. The over-representation issue is already being tackled: the new constituency boundaries will end the inequality, and ensure that no seat should have more than 105 per cent, or fewer than 95 per cent, of the inhabitants of the average seat.
As for the complaints about fiscal transfers, the obvious solution is to make Scotland self-financing – the preference of a clear majority of Scottish voters. The opinion polls which show English antipathy to the Union also show a large and consistent majority of Scots against the inequity of the West Lothian Question. Scots are a remarkably fair-minded people.
Fiscal autonomy in Scotland, the so-called ‘devo max’ option, would suit people on both sides of the border, especially if accompanied by an equivalent devolution (or, strictly speaking, return) of powers to English counties and cities. Which is why I find it so bewildering that the Unionists want to keep the option off the ballot paper and the SNP wants to put it on.
If Scotland is going to be self-governing in all domestic matters, some will say, why not go all the way and establish a separate set of embassies and armed forces? Because there is no enthusiasm for such an outcome in any part of the UK. The Welsh and Northern Irish leaders have spoken with a forthrightness that English politicians, always sensitive on this issue, are too diffident to express. Here, for example, is Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, last week:
I speak as a Unionist but also as an Ulster Scot. Clearly I have a massive interest in what happens and what decision the people of Scotland will take. They do need to know that there are many people throughout the UK that feel they have a very valuable contribution to make to the UK as a whole who want to see them continue to do that.
What’s so special about ‘the UK as a whole’? Why is it worth keeping? Well, look at what we have achieved together. Centuries of unbroken parliamentary democracy. No revolutions, no dictatorships, no invasions. Secure property rights and an independent judiciary. Armed forces that are respected around the world. Religious pluralism. Moderate and democratic political parties. If you think these things can be taken for granted, watch what is about to happen in some eurozone states.
Consider, too, what we have given the world. The defeat of the slave trade. The spread of law and civilization, followed by what was surely the most peaceable decolonization process in human history. The defeat of three attempts to unite Europe in tyranny. Victory in the Cold War. How many states can boast as much?
We are a single people: stubborn, bloody-minded, thrawn. We watch the same television, play the same sports, listen to the same music, shop at the same chains, speak the same language (with one or two peculiarities, such as ‘thrawn’). I’m sure several commenters are itching to respond that I was born in Peru, am not properly English, don’t know what I’m talking about. Well, I’m certainly guilty of not being purely English: I am of mixed Scottish, Irish and English descent, in that order of preponderance. Then again, I’m hardly unusual: the peoples of our constituent nations have become hopelessly intermingled over the years. And perhaps living abroad for a while gave me a sense of what the United Kingdom stands for. It might not compete with England or Scotland in poetry. But, when the chips are down, it’s the United Kingdom which guarantees our liberty and, indeed, which defends the freedoms of allied peoples. No one, on either side of the border, should take that for granted.
Posted on January 17, 2012, in British Politics, CEP, england, English Campaign, English Politics, Free England Alliance, scotland, snp and tagged alex-salmond, britishness, Constitutional Preferences, English nationalism, English question, english-parliament, scottish-independence, WLQ. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.