Thursday 29 April 2021

Is the Union voluntary?


In a recent debate Douglas Ross was asked “Is the Union voluntary?” and failed to give a convincing answer. The point of the question of course is that either answer he might give is problematic for his argument. If he says the Union is voluntary, then how can he oppose indyref2? If he says the Union is not voluntary, he will be accused of being antidemocratic and turning the Union into a prison. Faced with such a dilemma the natural response of a politician is to waffle and avoid answering the question.

The correct response is to point out that there is no Union, there are no unionists and therefore the question of whether it is voluntary or not is redundant. But this answer may have got Mr Ross into even more trouble, because many if not most Scots on both sides of the constitutional divide assume that there is a Union. Unfortunately, it is this assumption that gives the SNP it’s best arguments.

It is simply historically mistaken to say that there is now a Union between Scotland and England or that the relationship between the four parts of the UK is similar to that between the 27 member states of the EU. The Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707 merged the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England into the Kingdom of Great Britain. This is essentially no different from how the Kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia etc merged to form England and how the Kingdoms of Lothian, Dalriada etc merged to form Scotland. These processes happened in most European countries. France united in the same way as did Spain.

The United part of United Kingdom refers only to the relationship between Great Britain and Ireland. People who favoured this were historically called unionists. At this point there was no debate at all about the relationship between Scotland and England. The Unionist part of Conservative and Unionist does not refer to Scotland and England at all but merely reflects traditional Tory support for the Union of the crowns of Great Britain and Ireland. Unionist is about Irish politics, not Scottish politics. It has sectarian connotations because of this and therefore has nothing to do with those Scots who could not care less if someone is Protestant, Catholic, Hindu or Taoist.

The truth is that the UK is a unitary sovereign nation state in exactly the same way as France. The only difference is that while people who live in Burgundy probably don’t think of themselves as Burgundian and certainly don’t think that Burgundy is a country let alone a sovereign nation state, people in Scotland, do think this. They think it precisely because they think the UK is a union.

Once you concede that the UK is a union like the EU, then you concede the argument. If Scotland is a country just like France and the UK is the equivalent of a mini-EU made up of four countries, then it follows of itself not only that this union ought to be voluntary, but that each part should choose independence. What sort of second-rate country would Scotland be that it couldn’t manage to be independent, when Vanuatu, Chad and Moldova can manage?

The same argument of course could be made about Mercia and Lothian if they were thought still to be the kingdoms that they once were. If Vanuatu, which is much smaller and poorer than Lothian can manage independence, why can’t Lothian or even Midlothian?

There is nothing pathetic about Burgundy, Bavaria or Sicily being content to be parts of their respective countries. But this is only because they ceased at some point to think of themselves as countries.

There is no issue of it being voluntary or not for a part of France to secede because France thinks of itself as single country rather than a country made up of four countries. If someone asked a French politician is the union of France voluntary, the question would be met with bemusement, but there are just the same historical treaties of union that were made to form the Kingdom of France as were made to form the Kingdom of Great Britain, it’s just no one in France thinks that France still is a union, for that would be to imply the possibility of separation. Even Corsica conquered by France in 1769 has no choice but to stay. No one asked the people of Elsaß-Lothringen whether they wanted to return to France after World War One and Two. But no one thinks that the unity of France is involuntary. The issue of voluntariness simply does not arise.

Neither France nor any other European country would give a referendum on independence to a part. There is a good reason for this. The borders of many European countries are contentious. There are parts of Slovakia and Romania which have Hungarian speaking majorities. The South Tyrol in Italy has a German speaking majority. If given the choice, it is likely that the people in these countries would choose to join Hungary and Austria. But to revisit the boundaries of Europe that resulted from the two World Wars the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the fall of the Soviet Union would be to invite chaos and perhaps war. For this reason, there is no voluntary secession in Europe.

Only in the UK do we have elections which question the existence of our country. It would be better by far if we treated the UK as the French treat France as indivisible. But this would mean we would have to give up the idea that Scotland is somehow separate from the other parts of the UK. It is this sense of being a separate country which gave rise to the demand for a Scottish Parliament because it was considered somehow unjust that Scotland didn’t always get the UK Government it voted for. It was this that gave rocket fuel to nationalism and the SNP. If Scotland is such a separate country that it needs its own Parliament, which is what the devolutionists believed, then why shouldn’t it be independent? Why indeed? We are left with mere bribes and the contingency that Scotland would be worse off after independence. But why should that trouble someone who thinks Scotland is separate enough to deserve its own Parliament? Why not have a proper one rather than a subordinate devolved one? There isn’t really a good argument except we are better off financially in the UK. But this is always going to be a poor argument against the passions of Scottish nationalism. It depends on keeping Scotland poor and on Scots not working hard to make Scotland rich. If the inventor of the next major innovation, like Google or Amazon, is a Scot then the SNP win the argument.  

So long as most Scots think Scotland is a separate country and most other British people agree, then the “Union” will be voluntary. It would be better if we thought like the French and other European nations, but we don’t. It was for this reason that David Cameron granted an independence referendum. The Union was voluntary, we chose to remain in it. That too is a good answer that Mr Ross might have given. Whether it should be continually voluntary whenever the SNP want a referendum is a different matter. We have already granted to separatists more than anyone else would by allowing them one referendum. But once you grant the principle it is really only a matter of time until the SNP gets another go if it keeps winning elections. This is because most Scots even those who are Pro UK share the SNP’s assumption about Scotland being a separate country. Are you still keen to be a Unionist? It gives the SNP what they want in the end.

If the SNP won independence, then it would refuse, if it could, to allow those parts of Scotland to secede which voted to remain in the UK. No one would ask if being a part of Scotland was voluntary because the nationalist assumption shared by most Scots would be that Scotland has a unity and a right to territorial integrity that the UK lacks. This is assumed by nearly everyone in Britain. This is why we are threatened by separatists and no one else is.

Scotland’s place in the UK is secure enough at the moment. While the SNP may win a majority at Holyrood, the path to independence is difficult while Scotland is making a loss and depends on the Treasury to sustain our standard of living.  Would enough Scots be willing to take a pay cut, a hard border and uncertainty about currency just so our country could be truly separate? Who knows? But both sides of the argument would be taking a big risk, which makes it something of a Mexican standoff.

If the SNP lost twice, there would be no question that the Union was voluntary and that we had chosen twice to stay. The SNP would plead for a third try the day after losing indyref2, but the patience of everyone else must require at some point that we accept that the UK is one nation indivisible, that there is no union, there are no unionists and we are not four countries, but only one. That in the end is only way to stop separatism. If we will have to choose eventually or else suffer permanent instability, then we might as well choose it now. Is the Union voluntary? There is no Union. There is no secession.