It was a mistake, quite a bad one as it happens, to turn on the TV and watch Scotland Decides: Salmond versus Darling, the debate on Scottish separation from the United Kingdom. It was a bitter, argumentative and uninspiring spectacle. Salmond was smug and devious, and Darling allowed himself to get too flustered.
But it was a timely reminder, if we needed one, that the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union is depressing. It is yet another example of division coming to Britain, as it is for so many other issues. (Political Islam is one of them, if you were wondering?). There also seems to be something childishly reckless about what might be about to happen.
It’s not that Scotland could not function, even thrive, as an independent country: I’m sure it could. Neither is it that Scotland and the rest of the Union could not come to an accommodation on the relevant issues: I’m sure we could do this too, though it would certainly be messy and it would certainly expose us to serious risks we could do without, mostly concerning those core issues revolving around diplomacy, defence, security, immigration and, the big one, economics.
The depression comes form knowing that Britain, as a political union, perhaps the most successful union in history, could end very soon. The promise is that this will make Scottish lives better – English, Welsh and Northern Irish lives, too. But it is difficult to see how this can be so.
The union buried old enmities. Not immediately and not so they faded completely from the memory, but it buried them enough to end the wars between England and Scotland once the ’45 was settled. Thus unified, the British thrived until the coming of Socialism. But that’s another debate.
One doesn’t suppose that war will return, but it’s possible, in the longer term. Stranger things happen in the world all the time. It wasn’t that long ago we thought Ukraine was a settled country with no significant issues with Russia, but look at it now. Political divorces are usually ugly, and the division will be exploited by foreign powers, as is the situation in the Ukraine (see Hitchens). And I’m not just thinking of the typical suspects like Russia; I’m thinking a lot closer to home, of countries with whom we are presently in alliance and in some cases union.
One of the great symbols of British unity is the British Army. This will cease to exist. And one of the great triumphs of the British Army was to create a military force under a single national authority. This will end. Once again, we will have two authorities commanding two separate armies in the same small island.
Negotiations over nuclear power and naval bases may well be amicable, but Salmond has already highlighted an eight-year discrepancy over the timeline for removal from Scottish soil. In a sense this is too important an issue over which to quarrel, but it is also too important an issue not to argue the case for national defence in the strongest terms. This isn’t some minor devolved issue over where to put a hospital; it’s about the defence of the realm.
What I also find strange, and alarming, is the decision over who gets to vote. Salmond argues that this vote is about democracy. He calls it the sovereign will of the Scottish people. But he has decided to disenfranchise many of those Scottish people. How? By denying Scots living outside Scotland a vote on the future of their country.
We live in a country called Britain. We are all British – Scots, Welsh, English and Northern Irish. A Welshman can get a job in Northern Ireland, because it’s his country too, but that doesn’t make him any the less Welsh; a Scotswoman can get a job in England, because England is also her country, and that doesn’t make her any the less Scottish; and a Scotsman in the British Army, posted to Salisbury plain and registered to vote in the local constituency, is certainly no less a Scotsman. But Salmond thinks otherwise. None of these people get a vote on the future of their country.
Such an arbitrary denial of democratic rights would seem staggering in other situations, but it has been allowed to happen with no real scrutiny. The result is that thousands, hundreds of thousands of Scots have effectively been told that they are no longer Scottish – and this even before the vote has taken place. Depending on your prejudice, this is a scandal. But we let it pass, especially the English, because we know what happens when the English speak up on these sorts of issues.
Perhaps it is a little unfair to call the referendum, the prospect of Scottish separation and the end of the United Kingdom ‘childishly reckless’. But it is not too much to call it depressing. It’s much more than that. We are looking at the end of our country. Salmond clearly thinks this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. In fact, I think it’s a project in misguided vanity. There, that’s a much worse charge than ‘childishly reckless’, but that’s what I think.