Is Scottish independence now inevitable?

‘For anyone who cares about peace within the British Isles and liberal democracy without, there are strong reasons to oppose Scottish independence. But how? In the 2014 referendum the case for the Union was made almost entirely in the unromantic terms of pounds and pence. It worked then, but it probably wouldn’t work now’

Nigel Biggar

The prospect of Scottish independence is more popular among Scots than ever. Before the Conservative Party’s victory in last year’s General Election, almost all opinion polls showed a majority favouring the Union. Since then, most polls have shown the independence vote in the ascendant, with one in early November giving it a lead of 11 per cent. The reasons for this dramatic shift are threefold. One is Brexit. Research just published by Sir John Curtice, the doyen of Scottish opinion-analysts, shows that leaving the EU has made a significant body of Remain-voting Scots prefer independence in the EU to Brexit Britain. Next, there is the person of Boris Johnson, who tends to go down badly in Scotland. And then there is the perception that Nicola Sturgeon has had a better Covid-war.

The rise of separatism in Scotland should alarm us all. Although both an independent Scotland and a rump Britain would survive the break-up of the Anglo-Scottish Union, there is a probability of a fractious divorce, which would embitter relations between the English and the Scots to a degree not seen since the 18th century. Moreover, it would push the status of Northern Ireland back to the top of the Irish political agenda, with unpredictable—maybe violent—consequences. Further still, it would deal a major blow to the international standing and military strength of one of the West’s leading powers just when Western solidarity is needed to counter Russian subversion and Chinese bullying.      

For anyone who cares about peace within the British Isles and liberal democracy without, there are strong reasons to oppose Scottish independence. But how? In the 2014 referendum the case for the Union was made almost entirely in the unromantic terms of pounds and pence. It worked then, but it probably wouldn’t work now. With the collapse in the price of oil and the real possibility of a hard border between Scotland and England, the economic case for independence is even weaker than it was six years ago. But that hasn’t stopped separatist support soaring.

The reason lies in separatist nationalism’s nature as a secular religion, infusing quotidian lives with transcendent meaning, justifying the sacrifice of money and even life itself in the grand cause of the nation’s spiritual redemption. In Vivid Faces, his account of “the revolutionary generation” in Ireland straddling the First World War, Roy Foster depicts Irish separatists as the young revolting against their parents’ collusion with decadent, materialist, militarist British civilisation, while spellbound by an apocalyptic vision of national Gaelic purity. Against such heady idealism sober appeals to gradual, substantive reforms could not compete. In 1914 the moderate constitutional nationalist, John Redmond, had urged the Irish to put historic grievances behind them and focus instead on the concrete political achievements of recent years: “Do let us be a sensible and truthful people. Do let us remember that we today of our generation are a free people. We have emancipated the farmer; we have housed the agricultural labourer; we have won religious liberty; . . . and finally we have won an Irish parliament and an executive responsible to it”. But to no avail. Crystallised and galvanised by the happenstances of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the draconian British reaction, revolutionary zeal left sense and truth trailing in its wake. The result was often disillusion. Frank O’Connor, the man of letters who had fought with the IRA against the British, soon fled the repressive Catholicism of independent Ireland and went to live in London. He would have sympathised with his fellow nationalist, Bulmer Hobson, who lamented in 1956, “the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it”.

So, how are we to save Britain from disintegration and the Scots from bitter disillusion? Arguments that independence would be a major act of economic self-harm, or that Sturgeon’s Covid performance has really not been much better than Johnson’s, will move older, more sober floating voters. But for younger, idealistic ones we need to recover and develop a morally attractive story about Britain with which they would want to identify. We need to confound the nationalist stereotype of post-Brexit, Tory Britain as worn-out, xenophobic, and devoted to screwing the poor.

The good news is that recent announcements suggest that the Government understands this. Its ambitious Green policies should attract the idealism of the young. The dramatic increase in defence spending displays a “Global Britain” serious about remaining an important pillar of the west in a time of insecurity. And plans to “level up” the working-class North evidence a commitment to social justice and national community. So, we have a good story about Britain to tell. But the bad news is that more is needed to woo idealistic young Scots most mistrustful of this Government away from their reckless, revolutionary dreams of independence. We also need a sophisticated social media strategy that distils the story into memes, tailors them to specific groups of voters, and then broadcasts them. Who is organising that?

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