I have long thought of the case for Scottish independence as a solution in search of a problem. And the more I’ve looked, the more desperate, even reckless, that search has seemed. The claim that the Scots are significantly different from the English in their social and political aspirations holds little empirical water. The self-righteous story that some Scottish nationalists tell of themselves is heavily fuelled by an Anglophobia that not uncommonly crosses the border into racism.
And their case for the economic viability of an independent New Scotland lurches from the highly dubious to the self- contradictory. All this I have long suspected. John Lloyd’s excellent new book has crystallised my suspicion into a conviction.
Lloyd, a native of coastal Fife and a contributing editor at the Financial Times, reminds us of what the doyen of Scottish social scientists, John Curtice, has observed — that Scotland is only slightly more social democratic in its leanings than England and shows little difference at all in its attitudes to immigration.
More striking is Lloyd’s quotation of former Scottish National Party minister Marco Biagi, who wrote in 2017 that “the Scottish Attitudes Surveys have consistently, over years, found little widespread evidence of a gut attachment to European identity … A new independence referendum that came to be a choice between pure emotional attachment to the EU or the UK would be a disaster for the Yes side.”
But most surprising is his report that Ipsos Mori polls in 2010 and 2018 showed that independence hardly featured at all among the concerns of Scots, who put “the economy, education, the health service, unemployment at the top of the hierarchy of what gave them pause for thought, just as the English did”.
During the scottish referendum campaign of 2014 Alex Salmond went to great lengths to present Scottish nationalism as positive about Scotland rather than negative about England. But the mask slipped whenever, under pressure, he instinctively pressed the button of anti-English resentment. Lloyd lifts the lid further, noting that a “concentrated hatred”, not just of “Westmonster” but of England and the English is especially strong among the cultural leaders of nationalism. The seminal Hugh MacDiarmaid, an early admirer of Mussolini, once wrote of “the leprous swine in London town” and claimed in June 1940 that he would “hardly care” if London were destroyed.
That was 80 years ago, of course. More recently, however, the prize-winning novelist James Kelman has set himself against an essentialised “Englishness” distinguished by social hierarchy and national supremacism, and declared that he cannot read English fiction because it treats “you as an animal”.
Here Lloyd puts his finger on perhaps the deepest spring of separatist nationalism, though one it shares with Corbynite socialism: a political vision that sees the world in stark dichotomies of black and white, darkness and light, evil and good. Take for example Tom Nairn, the Scottish writer “more influential in the nationalist cause than any other”, whose “habit for painting only in the darkest colours” and “uncompromising disgust at England” suffers from “an overdose of ideology, a lack of fact and example”.
Those of us who are familiar with the history of Christian religion recognise this as a secular kind of apocalypticism, always fingering the evil over there, studiously oblivious to the evil in here, ugly in its moral smugness, peddling merciless caricatures, and seducing with heady dreams destined for disillusionment. This is a political pathology to which intellectuals and literati are peculiarly prone: “The advantage that writers possess is that in having no [political] power, they also have no such constraints: they are thus free to be as radical, passionate and imaginative as they wish.” And as reckless.
Nowhere does the prospect of disillusion loom larger than in the economics of independence. The 2018 report of the Sustainable Growth Commission, set up by the SNP government in Holyrood, recommended sterling as Scotland’s post-independence currency. But this would actually result in less autonomy, since the Scots, no longer having a seat in the Bank of England, would have no say at all in the management of their own currency. The highly respected, non-partisan Institute for Fiscal Studies is sceptical of the report’s optimism. It reckons implausible the claim that the Scottish deficit would fall to 2.6 per cent in ten years without any UK-style fiscal “austerity”, because public spending would still continue to rise in real terms. John Kay, economist and former member of the SNP’s own board of economic advisers, has judged that the Growth Commission’s report “falls short of presenting an economic case for independence”. Indeed, according to Kevin Hague’s forensic dismantling, the report actually makes a strong case for Scotland staying in the UK, since it shows how being in the UK allows Scotland: to enjoy the benefits of a shared currency and large domestic market; to avoid the fiscal constraints of a stand-alone economy; and to benefit from levels of public spending otherwise unsustainable.
Scottish nationalists are devoted to undermining faith in Britain
The crucial question raised by this tortuously strained case for the economic viability of independence is this: what is it that drives separatists to place their faith in such a fantasy? The answer, in large part, is the denigration of Britain. Nationalists tend to see Britain as “in thrall to imperialist myths and dreams”. Thus, Tom Nairn mocks Britain’s “desire to grandstand internationally”, seeing her “as a fading actor on a stage it once commanded and thinks it still can”.
Noting that Nairn draws deeply on A Man without Qualities, a 1930s novel set in the decline of the Austrian empire before the First World War, Lloyd quotes its author, Robert Musil: “However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it … once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.” Scottish nationalists are devoted to undermining faith in Britain, so as to make their risky, perfectionist dreams seem the only responsible option.
Therefore, if the disintegration of the United Kingdom is to be prevented, faith in Britain needs to be revived. We need to remember what Britain is good for. We need to remember that whereas German taxpayers are adamantly opposed to fiscal transfers to the Greeks and Italians, Londoners hardly bat an eyelid at the redistribution of “their” taxes to Scotland. That’s because the UK has achieved a level of multinational trust and solidarity of which the EU can still only dream.
Moreover, if Britain no longer rules the waves alone, it can still help to rule them. Its GDP is four times what it was in 1945, it is still the world’s fifth or sixth largest economy, it’s one of only three serious military powers in the West, and it remains one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. By all means let’s have post-imperial modesty, but let’s reject post-imperial sulking. Just because we aren’t Number One any more doesn’t mean that we’re nothing. We have power and we should use it to best effect, punching above our weight at every opportunity.
The siren call of Scottish independence needs to be vigorously resisted. As John Lloyd puts it, “Scotland, in the twenty-first century, is both as free and secure a nation as the world of the early twenty-first century allows. It would be worse than a mistake, a crime, to hazard that for an independence which can bring nothing better.” And the crime would not just be against the Scots and the other peoples of the UK. It would be a crime against the West and all that it stands for.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe