So far, most of the arguments coming from unionist mouthpieces in the independence like Better Together have revolved around perceived advantages that accrue to Scotland from being a part of the Union. In terms of economies of scale—such as running embassies around the globe or having critical mass enough to retain our own global currency—they may have a point. But a many more points deriving from the UK’s scale and historical ambition actually work in the opposite direction.
Despite early obstacles, like Jacobites and Americans, the Union thrived from inception. Its modern proponents claim it will do so in the future too. But let’s take a closer look at that thriving. While the Scots became willing partners in the enterprise, they were never equal. It was rather like a boys gang where the bigger of two brothers dominates and the smaller/younger goes along part in awe and part in the knowledge that he could achieve none of this by himself.
That Britain was a leading nation in Western civilisation for a quarter millennium is a given. That it contributed to exploration, technology, humanities and a host of other key developments for mankind is unquestioned. But it was not all sunlit uplands. From the early slave trade, through imperial excesses like Amritsar, to axiomatic racist attitudes in non-white colonies, imperial enlightenment came at a price of hard menial work and the insult of being a second-class citizen in your own land.
There is no intent to demean what was achieved but, given that 50m Brits dominated ten times that number of citizens of empire, it was always going to be a con job.Perceived superiority was essential if the young agent-sahib, outnumbered 1,000 to 1 at some Assam hill station was not going to have his throat slit. This was especially true when the natives realised that the prime British motive to come among them with rituals that sat awkwardly in the local culture like afternoon tea was not to enlighten but to exploit.
Unprofitable British colonies got short shrift. Other than coaling stations, no-one ever worked out what Belize or St Helena was for. But Canadian fur or South African gold or Malayan rubber got the ships or the redcoats or new laws they needed before you could blink. As a trading nation, there was none nimbler; as a manufacturing power, there was none more innovative. Scotland played at least its share in achieving this.
Much though the story of empire has been couched as heroism and altruism, that does not bear close examination. To say the British Empire was the most efficient pillaging machine ever invented until our US cousins came up with the multinational corporation is equally superficial. What is true is that British troops and gunboats were used shamelessly to break open closed countries (e.g. China), subvert exotic empires (e.g. India) or simply strongarm ancient civilisations out of resources (e..g. Iran/Iraq).
Once the raw materials were identified, secured and exploited, they were shipped home to fuel Britain’s burgeoning factories and population’s needs and out again into the world as finished goods. In our Victorian heyday, this worked like a dream. No other country had the combination of global reach and factory muscle to compete or the combination of gritty infantry and jolly tars strategically positioned around the globe.
It was a sweet deal. Not only did the City ensure the establishment grew rich but clacking mills and roaring furnaces from Clydebank to Chatham put everyone in work, although not yet either secure or well paid. The only British people not swept along were the Irish, whose resentment grew with indifference to the potato famine, mass emigration and being seen as cheap labour and/or cannon fodder.
It was a plausible system, not least because it was successful and almost everyone felt they had a stake in it. Closer examination reveals that virtually all of the sacrosanct pillars that held up the whole edifice—whether Monarchy, Parliament, City commerce, naval tradition, unflappable sang froid, home-as-castle, roast-beef-n-yorkshire-pud—were English. Welsh cakes and choirs went with other regional idiosyncracies like Morris dancing or scrumpy as colourful descants to the main theme.
As a result, it is little wonder that the names of Britain and England become conflated to the point that few foreign languages bother—Inglaterra; Angleterre; etc. While we’re all signed up to a global programme that’s still achieving, why quibble? But, since the British Empire ignored the close-to-bankruptcy shot across its bows from WWI and was caught embarrassingly short in the aftermath of WWII, when the US had money and everyone else was broke or devastated or both, Britain has been struggling for a new role in the world.
And what is it exactly? Seen from a European perspective, we are just another mid-sized country but with an ego problem and stroppier than most. Seen from a US perspective, we are one of many developed markets and a sidekick that’s good to have along when a swift global action needs to look consensual and not too unilateral. From an Asian perspective, we are Turkey or France—a once global empire reduced to modest means but a decent market for finished goods.
The point is that all our joint culture of judicious exploitation of the world’s resources with a minimal amount of slapping anyone around does not play in the 21st century the way it did in the 19th. Ninety years ago, the Irish decided they didn’t want to be a part of it any more and left. There are few studies of this but most would accept that to have been a good choice. There is certainly no voice raised in Dublin to rejoin the UK because it offers a better deal than what they have.
Which leaves the Welsh, the English (still happily pretending the whole culture theirs) and us. Were the Scots in some doubt about themselves— as in the great self-examination of the 1970’s, when industry went to hell in a handcart and the cultural revival consisted to the Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil, there’s an issue. But 40 years ago was the last time that happened. Building momentum since the early nineties, Scotland’s awareness of itself, its culture and—most importantly—its potential, has changed the debate. Rather than why we should go, the argument Better Together is scrambling to make now is why we should stay.
The argument that Scotland is economically viable takes five seconds to make: the arc of whatever (the countries that are our neighbours) all seem to do fine. But they don’t have our oil, our renewables, our tourism or £4bn annual exports of whisky. The fatuous argument about splitting up social bonds are nonsense—the Irish are closer friends than they have ever been and we even have a law defining them as ‘not foreign’. And, as the bulk of Scots want nothing to do with Trident on the Clyde, the fastest way to get rid of it is to become independent and tell the English to put it closer to the Home Counties.
There are strong economic as well as emotional arguments why England would want to stay in a union with Scotland. And, if they want to be nostalgic for the days of Empire, then that is their privilege. But more and more Scots are wondering why everyone is so keen to keep this union intact when every opportunity open to Scotland for a more vibrant and culturally coherent future lies outside with the Nordic Union, exploiting the Celtic Sea with Ireland and the Faroes, managing our fish as cleverly as the Icelanders, developing a new non-nuclear relationship in NATO, developing a less stroppy approach to the EU if we get something for it.
England does a superb job of making England England. But the world isn’t buying it any more and it’s time for this first and last colony to stop the world and get on.