The debate on Scottish independence has been dominated by economic arguments, to its detriment, argues Tim Stanley.
When you forget why you started doing something it becomes progressively harder to justify why you carry on doing it. The debate over Scottish independence is a case in point. Why continue with the Union between Scotland and England, if we can’t remember how it came about or what it is for?
It is striking how much of the debate centres on economics rather than history. On a visit to Scotland in February 2012 David Cameron made a token reference to 300 years of partnership, but defended the Union largely on the grounds that it provides value for money. ‘Today, Scotland has a currency which takes into account the needs of [the] Scottish economy as well as the rest of the UK when setting interest rates’, he said. ‘And it can borrow at rates that are among the lowest in Europe.’ Doesn’t it make the heart soar?
You would imagine that nationalists would, in contrast, be full of talk of Culloden and the flight to Skye. But the language of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is just as modern and prosaic. At the Hugo Young Lecture in January 2012 SNP leader Alex Salmond said that he would make the case for independence ‘as the means by which the Scottish economy can grow more strongly and sustainably; by which Scotland can take its rightful place as a responsible member of the world community’. Independence will (somehow) turn Scotland into a green energy-producing financial power that leverages itself between the dollar and the euro. Switzerland with shortbread.
Whenever Salmond does engage with history he tends to limit the talk to the last 30 years. In his lecture he argued that Scotland always had an ‘egalitarian’ impulse that suited the postwar welfare state experiment. It was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that tore England and Scotland apart, as England embraced a more neoliberal vision of society and economics.
Of course that’s not all true. In the 18th century Scotland was the home of classical liberal economics, the forebear of Thatcherism. Following the 1707 Act of Union Scotland excelled in the fields of education, medicine, science and sociology, emerging as the chief motor of rationalist humanist reform, achieving increased commercial significance and an astonishing literacy rate of 75 per cent. Scotland enjoyed its glory days when it was part of the global free market.
Moreover, if he wants to tap into historical bitterness, Salmond could find a lot more to exploit than just the Poll Tax. It is surprising how little the SNP plays on the Jacobite Risings of the 18th century, when Scotland tried to return James II to the throne. In the Highland Clearances that followed thousands of Scottish Catholics were driven off good land to make way for sheep farming. Many emigrated, many starved. It was nothing less than ethnic cleansing.
It is surely in such history that a nation distinguishes itself from another, not in its attitude towards renewable energy or its absence of tutorial fees. Yet the SNP seems to define Scotland in these narrow, material terms.
Nevertheless the nationalists have the upper hand in any referendum on Scotland’s future. That is because, while Salmond offers only a limited historical argument for independence, those who favour the Union provide none at all.
On balance this displays a sad ignorance of the Union’s own history. Over the centuries the English and the Scots have been bonded by royal blood (Scotland’s James VI became England’s James I in 1603) and religion (consider the decisive role of Scottish Presbyterians in the Civil Wars). The Union vastly expanded Scotland’s global influence, to the point that Scottish fur traders dominated the politics and economy of 19th-century Canada, while missionaries like David Livingstone spread Scotland’s own brand of Protestantism throughout Africa. Needless to say, Scots and Englishmen fought alongside each other at Ypres and Dunkirk. I’m sure the financial costs and benefits of Union weren’t the motivating force.
There is, then, a romantic case for the Union and historians should be making it. England and Scotland have always been like jealous brothers, full of boiling resentment and given to violent fights. Yet we are and always will be family.