Thursday 6 August 2020

An unfair question

There is a central ambiguity at the heart of Scottish politics which the SNP exploits. It can be illustrated by the question we were asked in 2014:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

The most important feature of this question is the use of the verb “be”. If the question were asking whether Scotland should in any way change, we would expect it instead to read:

Should Scotland become an independent country?

But the SNP in 2014 were desperate to portray independence as being pretty much life as normal. They even pretended that the United Kingdom would continue to exist because at least to begin with the Queen would be Queen of Scots. This was a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity. After all the fact that the Queen is the head of state of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Britain does not mean they are all part of the United Kingdom.

The question was inherently biased for another reason. Most Scots think of Scotland as already being an independent country. We take part, after all, in international football matches. We have our own legal system. We have different banknotes to the ones used in England.

The referendum question was therefore asking people whether we should be what we already are. Naturally many of them answered with Yes.

But it is possible for someone to want Scotland to be an “independent country”, i.e. a place that plays international football and is different from England, while still wanting the United Kingdom to remain a sovereign nation state with Scotland as an integral member. Scottish people may think of Scotland as being “independent”, while not wishing to partition Britain.

It is for this reason that a different answer may be obtained to the questions:

Should Scotland be an independent country


Should Scotland remain a member of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?

If these two questions obtained differing results, then it would be clear that the wording of the question was crucial to the result. It is for this reason vital that an unbiased question is put at the heart of Scottish politics and that we all realise exactly what is involved in Scotland becoming an independent sovereign nation state for the first time in centuries. 

It is vital too that neither side has the unfair advantage of the positive Yes answer. Campaigning for No is inherently negative. Complaining about a negative campaign that they had forced to campaign for No made hypocrites of Salmond and Sturgeon. How could it fail to be negative when it was asking for negation?

There is however a crucial difference between the 2016 European Union referendum question and the situation that would obtain if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom.

The European Union did not cease to exist when the UK left. But the United Kingdom would cease to exist if Scotland left.

The United Kingdom is not really made up of four parts. The “United” part of the United Kingdom refers to the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland uniting in 1800. Prior to that we had the Kingdom of Great Britain or Britain for short. The loss of Scotland would mean there would no longer be a Kingdom of Great Britain nor indeed would there be a United Kingdom at all. It would obviously be disunited. There would be merely England, Wales and Northern Ireland with no obvious name and no more reason to remain united. Why should English people treat those from Wales and Northern Ireland as fellow countrymen if they had ceased to be the fellow countrymen of Scots?

If Great Britain were partitioned there would be no reason to describe any of the remaining parts as British. Great Britain after all includes Scotland.  So, the departure of Scotland would not merely destroy the United Kingdom it would also mean that all of the citizens of the present United Kingdom ceased to be British. They might be described as South British & Northern Irish or some other name might be necessary, but the loss of Scotland means the loss of Britain, British and the United Kingdom.

It is this that must be made clear to all those Scots who contemplate voting for the SNP in order to obtain something that they think they already have, i.e. a country that they think of as already independent.

It is a mistake to refer to what would remain after Scottish independence as the rest of the UK (rUK). It plays into the SNP narrative that Scotland’s leaving wouldn’t change much. When the various parts of Yugoslavia began leaving it eventually became impossible to maintain the fiction that there was any more a union of southern Slavs. Once the process of dissolution began it quickly ended up with the present seven independent countries where previously there had been one. There is no Yugoslavia now and no Yugoslavian identity. This may or may not be a good thing, but by analogy if the United Kingdom were decapitated by the loss of Scotland there would just be England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland and no British identity uniting and unifying us.

Many Scottish nationalists argue that this is already the case. They deny that the United Kingdom is a country and they maintain that they are not British. But if the United Kingdom is not a country and its citizens are not British it must follow that we are already independent and so is Wales, England and Northern Ireland. This once more demonstrates that the 2014 referendum was unfairly asking whether Scotland should be what it already is. It is the equivalent of having a referendum question about whether bachelors should be unmarried.

Strangely it is quite common for our identity in the UK to come from the team we support in international football matches rather than our British passport or citizenship. We think of ourselves as being independent from each other already because we commonly think we are from separate countries. It is for this reason that we have a problem with secessionists and nationalism, because these are grounded in our separate identities rather than our common sovereign nation state.

But there is an attachment to the British identity, not least because few Scots wish to be treated as foreigners in other parts of Britain. There are aspects of being British, a shared language, history and culture that most Scots embrace. This is why the SNP were so concerned in 2014 to emphasise continuity and that a “social union” would continue to exist and we would all remain best friends.

Examples of this common bond and shared solidarity are the Treasury Furlough scheme and the protection and the British Armed forces building hospitals and ferrying sick patients with helicopters.  We accept these things as our due rather than the gift of a foreign power. But Londoners would have no more obligation to help Scots if Scotland became independent than they have to help Lebanese blown up in Beirut. No doubt they would, but they would have no obligation to do so.

It is for this reason that any question about Scottish independence must include the idea that it would involve the destruction of  the United Kingdom, that it would involve the loss of the shared British identity that enables us to be treated as fellow countrymen anywhere in the United Kingdom rather than as a foreigner and that it would involve the destruction of these things not merely for Scots, but for every other British citizen.

It is for this reason that the SNP is the greatest threat to Britain since 1707 and should be treated accordingly. The foundation of modern Scottish politics is an ambiguous question that deliberately hides the truth not merely from Scots but from all British people.