OSAKA - On Thursday, 4 million people in a northern outpost of Europe will vote to decide whether to break up one of the world’s hitherto longest and most stable unions, the 300-year-old link between England and Scotland.
There has been plenty of reporting about how the vote in Scotland is “too close to call” and of the important local controversies such as whether it will be the end of the emblematic British Union flag or whether Scotland will keep the British queen and pound.
What is missing is a proper consideration of the wider, mostly destabilizing, challenges to the world order that an independent Scotland would threaten — not merely to the United Kingdom, but to Europe and the whole Western world. The drift toward a breakaway of Scotland certainly shows the poor quality of the British political elites in terms of intellectual ability, political integrity and decision making.
The very fact that a referendum is being held at all is an indictment of the quality of British politics and politicians going back particularly to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who triggered Scots’ simmering resentment against Westminster by her infamous poll tax, a misconceived attempt to impose a flat rate tax on individuals irrespective of income. The scramble in the last few days by Prime Minister David Cameron to offer special goodies to try to bribe the Scots to stay in the union speaks highly of the incompetence and unpreparedness of English political leaders.
Leaders at Westminster behaved as if the danger of a break was an empty one for which they had not planned, until the polls began to narrow a few weeks ago, leading to nervousness in financial markets and a sharp fall in the value of the British pound.
It is a referendum with many odd aspects. Anyone who is from any EU country and lives in Scotland will be eligible to vote, but not Scots of long descent who live outside.
For the first time, 16-year-olds will be able to vote, many of them schoolchildren, who seem to have a poor grasp of the issues or what is at stake.
Of considerable greater consequence is that the referendum is supposedly irrevocable: if the vote is “yes,” then Scotland will get independence, even though the terms of that independence have not been worked out and will probably cause greater rancor than any matrimonial divorce; if the vote is “no,” the expectation is that London will offer “dev-max” or greater devolution to keep at bay a demand for another independence referendum in a few years time.
The word “half-baked” is the politest that comes to mind in describing the referendum. It is also an indictment of a referendum as a means of tackling a complicated constitutional issue.
How can anyone make a realistic choice for or against independence without knowing the basic terms, especially including what will be the currency, who will be the ruler, what will be the constitution, whether the independent Scotland will be a member of the European Union. A simple “yes” or “no” vote, which is all that is on offer, does not allow a measured choice.
The current first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, who is leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, claims that independence would be a blow of fresh democratic air for the country or, as the Financial Times claimed, he makes the “Panglossian pitch that his people can have the best of all possible worlds.”
Salmond has certainly glossed over uncomfortable facts. It seems to be taken for granted, though no one has had the bad manners to ask her before the event, that the British queen would remain queen of an independent Scotland too. She has strong ties, as well as an important home in Scotland.
But as professor Vernon Bogdanor, who was Cameron’s tutor at Oxford University, pointed out, she would need to have a governor general to represent her in Scotland since the queen cannot be given conflicting sources of advice from two different governments. Some other political scientists, however, believe that an independent Scotland would sooner or later throw off the monarch and become a republic.
More controversial is Salmond’s determination to keep the pound as the currency of an independent Scotland, blithely ignoring the advice of economists who say that it is not possible for a country to be truly independent without its own currency. The head of the Bank of England and leaders of political parties in London have ruled out a currency union between Scotland and England.
The International Monetary Fund warned that a “yes” vote for Scottish independence would create “uncertainty over the transition to potentially new and different monetary, financial, and fiscal frameworks in Scotland.” Early jitters saw the value of the pound drop sharply this month, along with promises from leading banks and financial institutions that they would move their headquarters to London from Scotland.
Acrimony would certainly arise over the division of assets between Scotland and the rest of the U.K., especially over the resources of North Sea oil, most of which is in the waters off Scotland.
Defense arrangements would also cause concern, not least because Salmond has said he wants to kick out the British nuclear weapons facilities from their bases on the west of Scotland and keep an independent Scotland nuclear free. This is a reminder that Scotland is not merely a small country and can cause turmoil through Europe and the Western alliance generally.
The biggest danger of a yes vote for Scottish independence is this potential for a seismic shock to the U.K. and the world as a whole. Scotland has just 5.3 million of the 64 million people of the U.K. But the political, business and financial leadership has been intertwined for centuries. Scots were among the business and political leaders of the erstwhile British Empire on which the sun never set.
Even in recent years when the imperial flags were furled, British governments were headed by prominent Scots, including Harold Macmillan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Scots still play leading roles in business and commerce in the U.K. Indeed, the mystery is what is the issue between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. There is no quarrel of language since English is the common tongue. Under the devolution arrangements of 1998, Scotland got its own parliament with powers over its own education and health arrangements.
What has happened is the simultaneous rise of the Scottish Nationalists and the retreat of the Conservatives, who today have no Westminster members of Parliament from Scotland. The full name of the Conservative party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, but especially from the time of Thatcher the old unionist roots got forgotten.
Devolution of powers to Edinburgh has merely increased the contempt of the Scottish political elite for the rulers at Westminster. The risk is that an offer of dev-max if Scotland votes no will merely hasten independence and all the headaches it will bring. English politicians, particularly in the north and northeast lament that Scotland has been lucky and they have had to suffer from rule by the rich Conservative toffs of London and the southeast of England.
Wiser rulers of Westminster would have offered devolution to the rest of the country along with Scotland, so that a stronger united country would emerge, with local assemblies capable to take local decisions and come together for stronger national policies. That is a matter for the British to mull over, and sadly there are few signs of any constructive constitutional thinking.
The seismic shocks of a “yes” vote for Scottish independence would include financial turmoil, rumbles of which have already been seen; the impetus for other peoples, notably the Basques and Catalans, to seek independence, maybe the Welsh and Northern Irish too to reduce the former U.K. to an English rump; the potential damage to the standing of the U.K. in political and economic terms; the threat to Western defense arrangements; the damage to the European Union, particularly if Scotland seeks membership and the little England dominated Conservative Party wants to get out.
The tragedy is that the political and economic elites of the U.K., but also of Europe and the West did not understand this was coming and are now reacting with crude bribery to keep the riddled union together. If the Scottish voters give narrow breathing space, the U.K. elites must show more imaginative leadership.
Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University’s Institute for Academic Initiatives, is a mongrel Celt, with Irish and Welsh blood, mixed with a quarter English and 100 percent Yorkshire spirit.