Like many other Scots resident outside Scotland, I have been following the referendum intently with a mixture of pride, envy and angst. Proud that as a nation it has engaged so fully in debate, envy that I (rightly) couldn’t take part, and angst because even now I find it hard to decide upon a vote I will never cast. This post (on a blog I haven’t used in over three years) is an attempt to explain my own thoughts, mostly to myself. Disclaimer: while I self-identify as Scottish (born in Inverness), I’m of English parentage, went to an RAF Primary School, studied at an English University, and have lived and worked in England for most of my adult life, all of which could play to a natural ‘no’ vote. On the other hand, I was raised in an SNP heartland, have always felt more comfortable around the Saltire than the Union Flag and support Celtic FC, all of which could be seen to count against it. This isn’t intended to persuade anyone how they should vote – I hope that by now most people will have found their own reasons for deciding yes or no.
The decision process has not been helped by some abysmal campaigning on both sides, but especially the ‘no’ camp. The ‘yes’ campaign has been very low on detail, often failed to distinguish between the SNP, the political left, and ‘Team Scotland’ (whatever that is), and could have done much more to denounce verbal and physical intimidation on the few occasions it raised its ugly head. In contrast the major players in the ‘no’ campaign have embodied almost every negative stereotype that Scots have of the Union and Westminster’s role within it. With the exception of a stoic but lonely looking Jim Murphy, and an indomitable but last-minute Gordon Brown, they have seemed utterly uninterested in developments on the ground until it was far too late. The vague but desperate promises made to win back ground have both failed to address the fundamental issues and understandably alarmed English backbenchers. Whether it is unfortunate that the diabolical trinity of Cameron-Clegg-Milliband should be required to defend the Union at this time, or whether it is symptomatic of a wider malaise to which independence is the only cure (for Scotland, at any rate) seems to me an important question.
There have been many other arguments for and against, from the economy to the supposed left/right drift between Scotland and England. Overwhelmingly these feel far too short-term considerations for the division of a 300-year old Union or the indefinite political future of a nation. A variety of business interests are undoubtedly right that their profits will be hit in the short and possibly medium term, but there seems little doubt that Scotland can stand on its own feet economically, albeit with greater potential for ups and downs as Ireland discovered. Likewise, Scotland being to the left of the UK is a comparatively recent development even if you believe it to be true at all, and was spurred on by the actions of Margaret Thatcher. Assumptions about Scotland’s political make-up 50 (let alone 300) years from now would be foolhardy.
The question of whether Scotland should be an independent country is a constitutional issue, but as the (written or unwritten) constitution of every country is unique, are Scots having to decide whether to maintain territorial and demographic integrity, or whether to accept the continuation of a specific form of political union? Cameron tried (and has unquestionably failed) to reduce it solely to the former by keeping Devo-Max off the ballot paper. It failed because many Scots (and I would count myself among them) see a great deal of value in a constructive union between the Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish, but have serious misgivings about the political architecture upon which the United Kingdom has been based since 1707 (and arguably 1535).
It is perhaps best illustrated with the question ‘could England secede from the United Kingdom?’ This is not simply a demographic question. Would the loss of Windsor Castle, Westminster, the Bank of England and the City of London, let alone 85% of the population, allow the remaining nations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to maintain an rUK that was perceived as such both by itself and the rest of the world? It is hard to believe that they could – not because Britishness and Englishness are equivalent, but because in the UK’s unwritten constitution there is an unwritten assumption that English law and government is the default British position. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish differences and devolution are fully accepted, but they are accepted as exceptions. Yet the reality is that England has become the exception as the sole British nation to have its domestic law and government intrinsically bound up with those of the UK as a whole. I am not aware of a single other political union in which that conflation of national and supranational status is true.
As commentators and backbenchers throughout the UK have pointed out, this is a fundamentally broken system which is as at least as unfair to the English as anyone else. It can never be reasonable to have a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish parliamentary Minister, who was raised and lives in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, exercising legal or executive authority over English domestic affairs. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has any such politician expressed a desire to do so (after all, the West Lothian Question was raised by a Scottish MP). The case is therefore black and white – either a political constitution is agreed upon in which politicians from all four nations can decide on their own domestic affairs, and collaboratively on supranational ones, or a situation continues which is always unreasonable to one nation or another, and continues to breed unnecessary resentments.
It is an extremely rare day that I find myself agreeing with Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell, Carwyn Jones, and John Redwood. Nevertheless, in my best of all possible worlds I can imagine a federal United Kingdom (ok, ideally a federal United Republic) in which all four nations collaborate on an equitable footing. This is hardly a radical solution – a great many of the largest global countries are federal. While it might be too much to follow the Americans and Australians in creating a new extra-national capital, there seems plenty of appetite across all four nations for a settlement which respects the autonomy of each state while preserving the Union. The obvious step would be to replace an equally broken House of Lords (which has moved from reinforcing a hereditary elite, to one reinforcing the status quo through party-political appointments) with an elected Senate representing the four nations. Some model ensuring that at least two nations were in support of a given motion would seem a minimum practical requirement.
Unfortunately, and as my motley list of co-conspirators suggests, I fear that this is not a solution the Westminster political establishment has any interest in, due to the entirely unpredictable impact it would have on their political ambitions. Cameron has made clear that an English Parliament is ‘not remotely near’, and indeed, it has been obvious from the outset that all of the leaders of the ‘Big Three’ parties are keen to reduce political change to the barest conceivable minimum that will persuade the barest conceivable majority of Scots to vote ‘no’. If that does turn out to be the result (and the polls suggest that it will), our best hope is that the ‘Daily Record vow’ has already holed the UK political framework below the water-line.
On balance I would prefer a federal UK over an independent Scotland, and an independent Scotland over the UK’s current unwritten, unfair, and unsustainable constitutional arrangement. There are tantalising hints that the first is possible. Those hints will continue to give me hope for the UK (and Scotland’s place in it) if the vote is ‘no’. But for all that, there is nothing I have heard from our political leadership to suggest that they want anything but ‘politics as usual’. I personally feel that we would be Better Together as a family of nations, but not while England remains a constitutional anomaly. Until that situation is resolved my vicarious vote has to be a reluctant ‘yes’.