Entzwei’ und gebiete! Tüchtig Wort;
Verein’ und Leite! Bess’rer Hort.
(JW von Goethe 1749-1832)
Goethe’s words, roughly translating into English as ‘Unite and lead is a much better cry than divide and rule’, have been much quoted during the past two hundred years. The motto is not one, it seems, that appeals to Mr Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party.
My country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, sits on a knife edge. Tomorrow, the citizens of Scotland will vote in a referendum to determine whether they should continue as part of that country, or separate – maybe forever – from the three hundred-year-old Union. Mr Salmond and his supporters would have a separate state yet, so it seems to me, they very much want their cake and eat it. They want “independence”, which they already have in large measure without separation, for example, freedoms of law, religion and education; they also want the Queen, the Pound and the EU and, Mr Salmond has said more than once, a million or so “expatriate” citizens. Of course, Scotland may have the Queen; she is as much Scotland’s queen as England’s, Wales’s or Northern Ireland’s. However, an independent Scotland may not have the EU and the Pound in combination no matter how much Mr Salmond may protest to the contrary. Such a situation would not be true independence.
The nationalist case appears to rest on four main arguments: Scotland is one nation; she is a rich country; Scottish people are somehow “different” from their fellow citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; and Scotland has had a raw deal from Westminster. Let us examine those arguments one by one.
As anyone who grew up as I did in the populous central belt knows, Scotland is not one nation. The people there were, and still are to an extent, polarized according to pseudo-religious affiliation (Catholic and Protestant – even atheists and agnostics have to be one or the other). Many people of the northern Highlands and Islands view the decision-makers of the Central Lowlands with as much suspicion – sometimes more – as they do the national government in London. Even Glaswegians and Edinburghians are not over fond of one another.
Scotland is not a rich country in her own right. If she is rich at all, it is because of the Union and not in spite of it. All of the many benefits we enjoy and treasure – though I will be the first to acknowledge they are far from perfect – the National Health Service, our splendid, brave military services, the universal pension, benefits for the less well-off, are a result of the Union and have been built up since then. Until 1707, for centuries Scotland had been the poor cousin. It was a situation that caused Walter Scott to remark that the Scots are often found to attempt splendid designs, which, shipwrecked for want of the necessary expenditure, give foreigners occasion to smile at the …. great misfortune of the nation – I mean their pride and poverty.
Until the seventeenth century, when an accident of birth gave King James VI and I the throne of Britain, England and Scotland had very different economic and social histories. Yet the differences, such as they were, had been brought about by political means and not through any real ethnic peculiarities. The Border that we recognise today might well be placed somewhere to the south of Sheffield and the north of Nottingham rather than a line drawn from around Berwick to Carlisle. We might place a “Border” anywhere we choose and argue that it divides people who are essentially different – the Briton from the Norman, the Norman from the Saxon, the Saxon from the Scot, and the Scot from the Gael, or whatever we choose to call our rather mixed-up population. Different we are not!
The raw deal is largely imagined. Scotland does rather well out of its membership of the United Kingdom compared to the counties of the north of England who have no separate representation. Not only that but, despite having a parliament of its own with devolved powers, it is permitted to send its Westminster MPs to vote on matters that affect its neighbours alone. All of us suffer from time to time from bad politics, and our reactions are pretty much always the same.
No, Mr Salmond, Goethe was right. We are better together! Our problems as a united kingdom stem from bad policies and weak leadership, not from any differences in character or unfairness in the system. The people of Scotland should ponder whether they want to give up their UK and EU benefits for a dubious future status in a separist state. For one thing is certain: all that our ancestors have striven to build over that past three centuries will crumble and, even with the best leadership, will have to be built again from scratch.
Peaceful the Referendum debates may have been, but overt nationalism has a dodgy history. As for expatriate citizenship, I really have very little to say except “no thanks, Mr Salmond”.
Scotland should vote “No”!