Scottish referendum: Alone, Scotland will go back to being a failed state
Yes supporters are hoping Scotland will become a Scandinavian paradise. But with its history of bitter internal divisions, it is likely to go the opposite way
No good deed goes unpunished. In granting residents of Scotland a referendum on their country’s political future, David Cameron surely thought he was doing a good deed. The Scottish National Party would have to put up or shut up. A Yes vote would be a victory for them. A No vote would be a victory for the Scottish Labour Party bigwigs to whom Mr Cameron entrusted the campaign against independence, in the belief that he – despite being the son of a Scotsman – was less qualified than they to make the case for the Union.
If Mr Cameron gave a thought to his own self-interest, it can only have been a fleeting one. Before he became prime minister, I once suggested to him that a referendum on Scottish independence might be a Machiavellian masterstroke. If it went the wrong way, I suggested, playing devil’s advocate, might not the Tories rule for ever more in the remaining UK?
I hope I betray no confidences when I say that a cloud crossed his face at this suggestion. Mr Cameron was, and remains, a staunch Unionist. Like me, he abhors the thought of the break-up of Britain. His family tree, like that of my three half-English children, is the Union in microcosm.
Perhaps, on reflection, he was therefore not Machiavellian enough. For he must surely now regret his good deed. Whatever the result on Thursday – unless by some poll-defying miracle it is a decisive “No” – Mr Cameron seems certain to be weakened by it.
Returning to my birthplace, Glasgow, last week (to deliver a long-planned, non-panic-induced lecture), I struggled to work out why it has come to this. The obvious, proximate causes do not quite suffice. True, “Better Together” has made the Union sound like a case study in a worthy but deadly dull economics textbook. By contrast, the Yes campaign has been a scaled-up version of Alex Salmond’s persona: disarming, genial, reassuring, upbeat and unscrupulous.
But what I encountered in Scotland last week was not just a tale of two campaigns. It was a tale of two countries. My Scotland – as proudly British as it is Scottish, imbued with a sense of our unique historical contribution – is still there, but it has fallen silent. Another Scotland has sprung up alongside it that is quite different. It pretends to be multicultural but is in truth subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) anti-English. It could not care less about Scotland’s past, except as something to be distorted for political ends. And this other Scotland is very, very noisy.
I wish I had a fiver – yes, a Bank of England one please – for every rude name I have been called since I re-entered this fray. (Most are unprintable, but “weegie bampot” gives you a flavour. A "weegie" is a Glaswegian. I have never been sure what a "bampot" is, but it’s a great insult.)
In the lengthy discussion that followed my lecture, virtually every question was from a Yes supporter. (The worst came from that insufferable type of person who is always claiming to feel “offended” by something. Most, I should say, were civil.) The common objection was that my argument for the Union was rooted in the past. But what did history have to do with Scotland’s future as a new Scandinavian-style haven for egalitarianism, inclusiveness, clean energy, world peace and all the other things implicitly repudiated by the gimlet-eyed Tory bampots?
Well, perhaps there is no point in reasoning with those who have resolved not to learn from history. Nevertheless, let me try to explain why Scotland is not – and is highly unlikely to become – a Scandinavian country.
Scottish history offers proof that even the most failed state can be fixed – by uniting with a richer and more tranquil neighbour. For most of the early modern period, the Scots kingdom was Europe’s Afghanistan. In the Highlands and the Hebrides, feudal warlords ruled over an utterly impoverished populace in conditions of lawlessness and internecine clan conflict. In the Lowlands, religious zealots who fantasised about a Calvinist theocracy – government by the godly Elect – prohibited dancing, drinking and drama. John Knox and his ilk were the Taliban of the Reformation. Witches were burnt in large numbers in Scotland, not in England.
Being the Scottish monarch was one of Europe’s most dangerous jobs. James I was murdered. James II died besieging Roxburgh Castle. James III also died in battle. So did James IV, at Flodden in 1513. James V died after yet another defeat at the hands of the English at Solway Moss. Mary I – Mary Queen of Scots – was actually imprisoned and executed by the English. James VI’s reaction on hearing that he had succeeded the woman who had condemned his mother to death was not one of repugnance but relief. As King James I of England, he could not wait to relocate south.
A key difference between Scotland and Sweden in this era was that Scotland was both small enough and weak enough to be the object of constant interference by its bigger neighbours, England and France. The Reformation made the problem especially severe because it divided Scotland between the Calvinist Lowlands and the mainly Catholic Highlands. This meant that, after Henry VIII’s Reformation, the Catholic powers of the continent could always look to the north of Scotland for support. Yet, as Charles I discovered, the Lowlands Scots were so zealous in their Protestantism that they were just as likely to revolt against an Anglican King if he showed signs of “Popery”. The net result was that from the 1630s until the 1740s Scotland was a far bigger source of political instability than Ireland.
The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 turned “Scotlanistan” into the Silicon Valley of 18th-century Europe, with Glasgow University as Stanford. The Union was a success partly because it sublimated these bitter Scottish divisions in a larger United Kingdom, while at the same time launching the country on an extraordinary economic boom that only really ran out of steam in the Sixties.
As in every heavy industrial economy, Scotland’s coalmines, steelworks and shipyards were bound to be shuttered or shrunk in our time. Pittsburgh, Essen and Turin did not fare much better than Glasgow. Yet somehow the story took root that Scotland’s economic restructuring was all the fault of the arch-bampot Margaret Thatcher. And then came Alex Salmond with his fairy tale that an independent Scotland could become a Scandinavian paradise.
Hardly any Yes voter appears aware that Sweden turned away from egalitarianism long ago. None of them seems to ever have bought an eye-poppingly expensive drink in Norway, much less seen a Danish tax bill.
The reality is that, as an independent country, Scotland would be far more likely to revert to its pre-1707 bad habits than to morph magically into “Scandland”. For this debate on independence has opened some old rifts and created some new ones, too
Many No voters I met complained of an atmosphere of intimidation. I tried to organise a group of pro-Union historians based in Scotland to write a letter backing the No campaign. I was told that, at most, two would be willing to sign. Most disturbing of all were the stories of SNP bigwigs issuing thinly veiled warnings to institutions perceived to be insufficiently Yes-istic. Jim Sillars’s warning to BP and the big banks of a “day of reckoning” is part of a sinister pattern.
This, then, gives us a hint of what Alex Salmond’s brave new Scotland would really be like: a divided and rancorous society with a vindictive style of politics. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it nicely sums up Scotland as it was before the Union.
So pity Mr Cameron if he is punished for his good deed. But console yourself with the thought of Mr Salmond’s far worse fate. He may be about to get what he wished for.