Whatever Scotland decides, Westminster’s bubble has burst

Martin Newland says that even if Scotland remains in the UK, other parts of that nation will soon become restive.

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, hopes to convince Scots to vote for independence. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
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With opinion polls roughly evenly split, voters in Scotland decide today whether to sever links with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Should the Yes campaign prevail, both sides will begin negotiations on formal division, taking in such issues as Scotland’s claims on dwindling North Sea oil reserves, the British Armed Forces, currency arrangements and the status of a newly-minted sovereign border. David Cameron, the UK prime minister who allowed the referendum, will face resignation calls and some are predicting the postponement of next year’s general election as constituency boundaries are redrawn.

The No campaign is judged to have misread the mood in Scotland and relied too much on the principled but unenlivening former chancellor Alistair Darling and former prime minister Gordon Brown to outline the “Better Together” case. The prime minister and major party leaders have visited Scotland only in the past couple of weeks, proffering last minute concessions in the hope of avoiding cataclysm.

The Daily Mail, one of the UK’s most widely read papers, yesterday pleaded: “To our Scottish cousins we say sorry for England’s inept political class and beg you to stay in our great British family.”

Since the Acts of Union over 300 years ago, Scotland’s economic, martial, artistic and engineering genius has played a key role in the development and rise to prominence of the UK as a world power. The Scots are, quite simply, stitched into the DNA of British identity.

The hundreds of thousands of Scots who live south of the border are testimony to this. The economies are intertwined. Scottish regiments have helped project British power abroad for years and the country’s ultimate deterrent, in the shape of nuclear-armed submarines, slip quietly in and out of berths at Faslane.

The Scottish economic case for separation appears to be inconclusive. Tax receipts do not cover current, let alone future public expenditure. Exploitable oil reserves are, in the eyes of serious people, not of sufficient size to finance promised spending increases. Access to the European Union gravy train is not guaranteed and companies based in Scotland, especially in the financial sector, are threatening a southern exodus. Westminster has all but rejected a currency union. Why, its politicians ask, would what is left of the UK underwrite a currency used by a sovereign territory over which it has no fiscal sway?

Separation also threatens economic and political stability south of the border, however. Money markets do not respond favourably to dramas of this kind. Nor do overseas investors. Westminster will have to show real leadership in announcing the future plan for the economy and the pound if currency speculators are to be kept at bay.

The UK’s place in the world as a key proponent of democracy and the rule of law, its diplomatic and economic heft and international reputation – would be diminished. Those who adopt a triumphalist, “good riddance” attitude to the Scots will soon learn that a broken union will prove politically, socially and economically debilitating for the rest of the UK.

Although the Queen would remain Queen of Scotland (she sees Balmoral as the family home), republican sympathies there are strong and political cohesion relies in part on the erroneous depiction of the monarchy as a symbol of the “usurpers” in the South. Further afield, separation could enliven trends towards social and political Balkanisation from Catalonia to Quebec.

The prospect of Scottish independence is only the latest illustration of a social and political trend towards wholesale rejection of centralised and aloof governmental systems.

Inroads into mainstream voting patterns made by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are as much a sign of the rejection of what is perceived by many to be an isolated governing class as it is of European integration. The Conservatives were wiped out as an electoral force in Scotland years ago. They were found to be irrelevant to life lived so far away from the “City State” of London and its commuter belt.

There is little to distinguish the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in terms of policies, background or rhetoric, many feel. All appear to lack sufficient understanding of the hopes and fears of the struggling working or middle class person making a go of it outside the sacred confines of the London orbital motorway.

The government and mainstream parties had 18 months to make the case for union but they only got serious two weeks ago when polls began to indicate danger. The lack of a serious duty of care to the Scottish challenge has, it might be argued, served to vindicate the Scottish National Party’s broader claims that Westminster simply does not care.

If the union is still intact after the vote, the referendum process will nevertheless transform British politics and society. Scotland will be granted virtual home rule, igniting serious rows about the constitutional relationship between the Westminster and Scottish legislatures.

Devolved taxation and spending powers will continue to raise issues about a lack of national uniformity in areas such as university fees and health care, but the union, which is so much a part of the UK’s national character, economic potential and diplomatic standing, will remain – for now.

There might also be a deeper democratic dividend if government makes genuine efforts to focus on areas outside the Westminster “bubble”, re-empowering local politics and local communities along US-style “direct democracy” lines. The state is far too big, its legislative and tax-raising discretion far too wide and it will not be long, even if Scotland remains in the UK, before other parts of the country become restive.

Martin Newland is a former editor-in-chief of The National