Opportunity Knocks – Scotland’s vote MUST BE England’s opportunity
Professor Robert Tombs
Friday 8th May 2012: The general election will bring into parliament a substantial party aiming at the partition of the United Kingdom – something the British electorate has realized rather suddenly. It will not be the first time: the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power in 1910, causing Asquith’s Liberal government, dependent on their support, to pass a Home Rule Act in 1914. The circumstances were infinitely more dangerous and traumatic than those surrounding the rise of Scottish National Party today.
Indeed, a striking aspect of today’s politics is how easy it would be for the United Kingdom to break up, and how few are the barriers against it.
In much of the Western world, disaffection from established politics has produced a variety of populist parties. In several countries – Spain, Belgium, Italy, Britain – this has taken the form of national, ethnic or regional particularism. But Britain is uniquely susceptible to actual division. Its component parts are already recognized nations, whose separate identities have always been officially fostered by the great state institutions, and whose actual independence is far more easily imaginable than that (for example) of Flanders or Northern Italy. Secondly, our electoral system magnifies regional differences, and is now giving the Scottish National Party a near monopoly of Scottish parliamentary representation far beyond its actual share of the vote. Thirdly, not having an entrenched constitution – in many ways an advantage – means that there are no high legal barriers to major change: compare Spain, where last year the Constitutional Court ruled that an independence referendum in Catalonia was illegal. In short, it is hard to see any way of preventing Scottish independence in the medium term if the rise of the SNP is maintained. It seems certain, in any case, that Scotland will become self-governing inside or outside the Union. The Smith Commission has recommended a statute declaring the Scottish Parliament and government permanent: this would create a quasi-sovereign state within the United Kingdom.
This will inevitably have repercussions throughout Britain and beyond. It will raise serious issues – economic, diplomatic, financial, strategic, and no doubt others we have not yet thought of. That will constitute a challenge. It may precipitate a crisis. But we must try to ensure that it is also an opportunity.
To seize that opportunity two dangers must be avoided. First, a relapse into the debilitating ‘declinism’ to which the post-war generation was so prone – the idea that ‘rump UK’, as it has absurdly been called, has suffered a fatal blow. Scottish independence will certainly be less traumatic than that of Ireland in 1921, which now seems hardly even a historical blip. Scotland is a relatively small part of the UK (8 per cent of its population – for comparison, less than Barcelona), and the economic and cultural dynamism of the ‘rump’ should only be marginally affected. A second danger to avoid is that of splitting England into new and artificial regions in order to reduce its preponderance within the UK, which some will urge. This would be to reduce England’s identity and voice just as those of Scotland and Wales are being increased. It would also create another expensive and unwanted layer of government. England certainly will have to consider what sort of country it wants to be, and how it should govern itself, but this must not be the result of some hasty tactical improvisation.
There is plenty to mull over. England is a very ancient nation, but it has not governed itself for centuries: we have a lot to learn from the successes and failures of other countries. The French, for example, have had fifteen written constitutions. Do we want one too, and if so what should it say? Devolution leaves England as one of the most centralized political units in the world: do we want to decentralize power, and if so, how? Here too, the experience of other countries shows that localism is no panacea, and our feelings about it are ambivalent (as in the widespread aversion to ‘postcode lotteries’). How would constitutional changes affect our relationship with the Eurozone? What role should we play in the world?
The Scots think that they can benefit from self-government. The English should resolve to do so too.
*Professor Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University and fellow of St John’s College. His recent publications include The English and Their History and That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present, with Isabelle Tombs. He is co-author of Politeia’s History in the Making: The New Curriculum, Right or Wrong?