Union in Greater Danger
Prior to Covid, Scottish independence was a remote possibility. As Toby Irwin argued in International Discourse on April 25th last year, Scottish independence was a ‘dream dead in the water’ because the economic impacts of Covid and the subsequent need for stability favoured a United Kingdom. However, Nicola Sturgeon, with her lunchtime broadcasts and harder, earlier orders for restrictions is widely perceived as more competent than the Prime Minister. Polls either side of the border have shown this. With this, she has effectively politicised the pandemic and raised it as a potential cause of Scottish independence.
History has shown this was far from inevitable. The Scottish Enlightenment was both a national and cooperative effort that illuminated Scotland in the Union. Names like Adam Smith, James Hutton and James Watt were among the many names propelled to stardom as indispensable and founding men in their fields. They were Scots and Britons. They did not stop at this nominal identification but championed the Union. ‘The Union was a means from which infinite Good has been derived to this country’, argued Adam Smith. David Hume was also clear enough: ‘...really it is admirable how many men of genius this country produces at present. Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our princes, our parliaments, our independent government,—even the presence of our chief nobility; are unhappy, in our accent and pronunciation; speak a very corrupt dialect of the tongue we make use of,—is it not strange, I say, that, in these circumstances, we should really be the people most distinguished for literature in Europe?’ Such sentiments are unsurprising because the Union eventually proved the gateway for more political liberty, a shift from feudalism and a more prosperous economy.
Free trade with England and the British Empire produced incredible results for Scotland. It was one of the industrial powerhouses of the world in the nineteenth century. Shipbuilding on the Clyde contributed to Glasgow’s title as the ‘Second City of the Empire’ as the world’s uppermost shipbuilding centre. Dundee jute was similarly preeminent in its industry.
Scots and English fought together in wars against France in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and Germany in the twentieth century. Remarkable state management during the world wars helped unify British society, especially on the political front. As the empire abated, Scotland made little noise for in its place came a welfare state that continued an enlightened project, again making the threat of Scottish independence a low priority for politicians. Universal healthcare and a final stand against slums which sickened cities like Glasgow extended Scottish liberties and dignity. Until the 1970s, any growth in nationalism was quiet and very gradual – in other words, under control. The Union was bearing fruits sweet enough to prevent nationalist flames devouring the nation. The devolution project in the face of rising discontent after Thatcher again pushed back the prospect of independence, this time by extending democracy.
To hazard speaking for the Scots, their identity is to a large extent inseparable from the Union. Many of their achievements have come from or within it and they have been placated when, on account of the Union, they’ve been liberated and better off. However, a latent nationalism can be ignited when England mistreats its northern spouse. Perhaps this should now be extended to ‘when England is perceived as less competent than its northern spouse’. Brexit and Covid have offered opportunities for Prime Ministers to prove they are competent and can unite Britons. They have abused these opportunities. Scotland is looking at the incompetence of its main reference nation for its own identity and responding to polls accordingly.
The Prime Minister has a problem when he is perceived as less competent but more powerful than the Scottish First Minister. Throw mistreatment and a weakening British identity into the mix and too little might be perceived for the unionist cause, however removed from reality that perception is. To prevent a legacy as the leader who broke up the Union, the PM needs to somehow further extend Scottish prosperity to defuse the new nationalist threat. The challenge is enormous because devolution and the importance of perceptions rather than realities in the current political climate mean even this could bolster the SNP if it is associated with the Scottish Parliament. Alternatively, then, the PM could focus on communicating the economic realities of the Union. As the PM is associated with dishonesty, this could backfire too. He should consider perhaps fully relying on other figures in the Party to lead this charge.