Beware the Ides of March.
Nicolas Sturgeon managed to upstage Theresa May’s parliamentary triumph yesterday (the passage of an unamended bill authorising her to trigger Article 50 taking Britain out of the EU) by calling for a second Scottish independence referendum, less than 3 years after losing the first one.
Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Scots (65%) don’t want another referendum, Sturgeon clearly felt support for Scottish independence (and/or the Scottish National Party) ebbing away and, in the fallout of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, determined to seize what is perhaps the best chance for Scottish independence in the foreseeable future. Even so, the headwinds are strong: thanks to collapsing oil prices, Scotland is in a much worse economic position than it was 3 years ago (an independent Scotland would currently have the largest deficit in Europe) and the prospect of being a relatively small country existing (at least for a period of time) outside the EU and without its own currency (or even WTO membership) is daunting, to say the least.
But referenda are not won on the basis of economic logic, and Sturgeon obviously expects to nurse a sense of grievance against the rest of the UK (and the English in particular) by calling for a referendum on a timescale that, given Brexit, May cannot possibly accept. So far the response of May and Ruth Davidson, the impressive leader of the Scottish Tories, has been encouraging: by questioning the legitimacy of Sturgeon’s mandate, the indications are that they will seek to make the referendum about the SNP and its dismal record of governance. Sturgeon’s defensive reaction to the charge that she lacks such a mandate shows that it is a sore spot, and one where she knows that she is vulnerable. Given that for the first time the SNP won less than 50% in the last Scottish parliamentary elections, it seems the Scots may be tiring of the SNP’s incompetence, and a strategy that combines attacks on the SNP with appeals to Scotland’s shared British history seems likely to succeed.
Before the last referendum I wrote about why Scotland should remain a part of the UK, a position I still hold. That said, there are significant historical and cultural differences between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain. The development of Scotland’s political and legal systems followed that of its Continental counterparts rather than England’s Anglo-Saxon witan and common law. To this day, Scotland is much more comfortable than England with the EU’s system of civil law, something that feels inherently alien to the English (and Welsh). Similarly, prior to the Union of the Crowns Scotland’s chief foreign policy aim was to develop alliances with European powers against the English, an outlook which is reflected in Scotland’s relative Europhilia today.
Scotland and England have never made very comfortable bedfellows. Bannockburn notwithstanding, Scotland has had to cope with England’s overwhelming economic dominance since the 11th century (the same is true of Wales, which was almost completely subsumed into England in the 13th century, with a brief resurgence in the early 1600s). Equally, the Act of Union was deeply unpopular with many English, who saw it as (at best) a necessary response to the danger that a bankrupt Scotland (badly wounded by its ruinous attempt to colonise Panama) would ally with England’s European enemies. Strange how history repeats itself.
More recently, the Barnett Formula, by which the proportion of government funding allocated to Scotland remains fixed at its 1979 level, despite the fact that Scotland represents a declining proportion of the UK’s population, has increasingly caused anger in the rest of the UK as English students see their Scottish counterparts attending university tuition-free. Related to the Barnett Formula is the West Lothian question (named after the constituency of the MP who first raised the point), which highlights the fact that, following devolution, Scottish MPs are still allowed vote on internal English matters while English MPs cannot vote on matters devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
So there are good historical, cultural and political reasons why a looser union between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom could make sense, particularly if it appears the Scots are otherwise heading for the exit. What would a British Union look like? Probably something like a cross between the Commonwealth, NATO and the EU, with a separation of the crowns (the Queen would be, separately, Queen of Scotland and Queen of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and separate military forces but with a commitment to spending targets, mutual protection and close cooperation. England should be generous in the division of the North Sea oilfields (declining production, the discovery of significant shale deposits in England and the end of the Barnett Formula would more than offset the loss) and there would be free movement of people and goods between countries (although not necessarily a customs union). Monetary policy is the hardest to disentangle: Scotland will not want to give up the Pound, but it is likely to need to devalue its currency to avoid becoming a North Sea Greece. Perhaps a new Scottish currency loosely pegged to the Pound could provide the necessary flexibility and continuity.
Of course there is another country which could also benefit from membership in a British Union: Ireland. Brexit has put Ireland in a particularly difficult position for historical, economic and geographical reasons. The UK is by far Ireland’s largest trading partner, and Ireland is the only EU country which shares a land border with the UK. The division between the Republic and Northern Ireland is a geographical oddity and a source of recurring tension; if the UK leaves the EU without a deal there is a real risk that a hard border between the Republic and the North could reappear. As a member of the EU, Ireland has tended to rely on the UK to be its ally in advocating for free market capitalism; without the UK as its partner, things could become very lonely for the only remaining “Anglo-Saxon” country. Obviously Ireland has no desire to rejoin the United Kingdom. Yet in the event of a hard Brexit there would be good reasons for Ireland to leave the EU and join a British Union allowing the free movement of people and goods and the pooling of social and cultural resources to continue while requiring Ireland to relinquish less sovereignty than under its current membership of the EU.
As direct democracy becomes increasingly possible through developments in technology, devolution is likely to be a long-term trend. The Unionists may well win #Indyref2, but in this time of constitutional change we should be considering whether there are opportunities to solve some of the issues of the past (and preempt the issues of the future) in more ambitious, creative ways. A British Union could be one of them.