The spectacle of David Cameron and Ed Milliband mutually congratulating each other on their unionist credentials in Parliament yesterday is unlikely to have any effect at all in Scotland; it will merely reinforce the fear felt by people in England concerning what the end of the United Kingdom could bring. Again and again, the word ‘separatism’ has been invoked, by the government and by Labour, to describe the SNP. However, independence and separatism are not the same thing, and someone who is in favour of Scottish independence need not advocate the separation of Scotland and England. The independence debate is a debate about Scotland’s rightful constitutional status within the British Isles, not a debate about whether Scotland should ‘go it alone’ economically and politically.
I do not believe that Scotland’s relationship with England will be radically changed by independence. I am passionately in favour of ‘union’ with a small ‘u’; England and Scotland’s shared history makes anything else ridiculous. However, the Act of Union of 1707 and the legal incorporation and subjection of Scotland is a dirty mark on both countries’ history. At present, several small countries that are not part of the United Kingdom exist in an informal union with it and share institutions with the UK on an agreed and conventional rather than legally binding basis – I speak, of course, of the Bailiwicks of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark and the Isle of Man. No Act of Union has ever incorporated these tiny nations into the United Kingdom and yet, by convention, they co-exist with the UK in much the same way as its Dependent Territories. A key institution that makes such co-existence possible is the Privy Council, which has the power to make certain Statutes relating to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. The Privy Council’s role derives from the fact that it is not an institution dependent on Parliament but dependent on the Sovereign, who is Queen ‘in right of the United Kingdom’ but also Queen ‘in right of the Isle of Man’ and Duke of Normandy. Orders in Council are, in theory, an exercise of the Royal Prerogative. For this reason, the authority of the Privy Council exceeds the boundaries of the United Kingdom because the Queen is the Sovereign of other countries as well – thus the Privy Council acts as a final ‘court of appeal’ for some Commonwealth Countries of which the Queen is Head of State.
A shared monarchy, as the SNP proposes, is a far more profound guarantee of unity between England and Scotland than the coercive and mechanical Act of Union. The Queen, as Queen ‘in right of Scotland’, would in theory appoint the ministers of state of an independent Scotland and it would be appropriate for these ministers to be sworn as members of the Privy Council, which could meet alternately in London and Edinburgh and be attended by both English and Scottish ministers on each occasion. The Privy Council could thus provide a point of contact between the ministers of the two nations around the centre of unity, the Sovereign, a little like the ‘North/South Ministerial Council’ in Ireland, albeit hopefully more effective. England and Scotland would, like the UK and Ireland, operate a principle of shared citizenship. A wise First Minister of a newly independent Scotland would follow the precedent of Ireland by permitting Scottish citizens to enlist in the British Army, meaning that the Scottish regiments would remain part of the British Army. In return, he would expect the removal of all nuclear weapons from Scottish soil. Scotland could then enter into a defence agreement with England just as the Isle and Man and the Channel Islands have done, so that England will agree to defend Scotland. Do we live in a world imaginative enough for the British Army to be run jointly by the Defence Ministers of England and Scotland? That would surely be an ideal solution to the military problem.
Scotland will not cease to be British as a consequence of being again an independent country; Scotland became British in 1603 when King James VI took the title ‘King of Great Britain’, not in 1707 when Scotland was effectively abolished. Thus there is no reason why, in principle, ‘British’ institutions such as the BBC and the NHS may not continue in Scotland once it is independent. The difference will be that decisions regarding the governance of such bodies will have to be reached in agreement between London and Edinburgh. In effect, Scottish independence will mean an equal vote for Edinburgh in matters concerning the whole of Britain that, up to now, London has exclusively controlled. It will require courage, imagination and a more creative attitude to the boundaries of what is usually considered the business of a nation-state, but it is not impossible. Independence will restore Scotland’s just rights but it will not divide England and Scotland; the only thing that can create animosity between the two nations is the refusal of Westminster to allow Scotland to determine its own destiny.