As the Scottish referendum campaigns enter their final phase, I remain astonished by the failure of the ‘No’ campaign to say anything positive. I am not altogether surprised that the ‘Yes’ campaign is gaining in the polls, although I am not so optimistic as to think that the ‘Yes’ campaign will actually win. The only thing that the ‘No’ campaign has on its side is fear – which is, of course, one of the most potent forces in politics. The ‘Yes’ campaign stands for progress and optimism, although as readers of this blog will be well aware, I am far from agreeing with the SNP’s vision for the nature of an independent Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of the island of Great Britain. However, I am pleased to see that in his recent speeches, Alex Salmond has been downplaying the radical nature of the independence proposal. I have long been arguing that the SNP shot the campaign in the foot early on by making independence seem too scary; the argument that they should have made, from the very beginning, is that independence is a constitutional arrangement that better reflects the reality of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the island. The point is that government from Westminster, grounded as it is in a Hanoverian imperialist vision of England’s role within the British Isles, is outdated and broken. That is true, not just for Scotland, but also for other parts of the British Isles and even the English regions.
If we step back from the immediate arguments in the independence debate and look at Britain and Europe in a wider historical perspective, the age of the nation state is over. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the beginning of the end of the nation state, which emerged in the sixteenth century and reached its apogee in the eighteenth century. The Act of Union of 1707 was part of the process of creating a centralised nation state in the British Isles, which culminated in the Act of Union in 1801. Centralised nation states have no future, because the nature of the threats we face demand a unified response based on the shared values of a civilisation rather than the fragmented foreign policies of tiny states. The nations of Europe must unite in a single political structure and aspire to the status of a superpower, to confront Russia and China and set aside the dependence of European nations on America. Westminster was largely responsible for frustrating that process in the 1990s, because politicians were blinkered by narrow British interests. The dissolution of the United Kingdom is a far less frightening prospect than the failure of the European Union to cohere as a meaningful political unit.
I spent much of this summer in Jersey and Guernsey, two tiny island nations which survive perfectly effectively without government from Westminster. Yet the inhabitants of the Channel Islands emphatically think of themselves as British, for the simple reason that the Bailiwicks are united to the British Crown. The British Crown will remain the anchor of an independent Scotland to the rest of the British Isles, and people in England and Scotland will one day look back askance at the coercive legislation that once held the two nations together in an unequal partnership. I do not personally think that the ‘Yes’ campaign will win this referendum, but I do think that the result will be close. Whatever their present rhetoric, Westminster politicians will be forced to conciliate the Scottish people and the resulting process will lead, ultimately, to equality between England and Scotland. The Act of Union will one day be repealed, but only after there is a wider base of support for independence in Scotland, and independence has ceased to be the party-political issue it is today.