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The Battle for Britain

Will David Cameron be the prime minister who lost the United Kingdom as we know it?


LONDON — "Stands Scotland where it did?" This is the question, asked by Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that now concentrates minds in Edinburgh and London alike. The battle for Scotland is also a battle for Britain in which the stakes could scarcely be higher. In two years’ time, Scots will vote in a referendum to decide the future course of their country. The future of Great Britain (established in 1707 by the union between Scotland and England, each previously independent countries and awkward, frequently warring neighbors) is at stake. The choice is stark: reconfirming the country’s commitment to the United Kingdom or setting out on a new course as Europe’s newest independent country.

For Alex Salmond, the 57-year old leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), these are giddy times, pregnant with promise and possibility. This is the moment — the chance for which he has been campaigning his entire political life. It has been a long journey to reach this day.

Last week, Salmond, the leader of Scotland’s devolved government, welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron to Edinburgh, where, after months of public squabbling and quiet backstage negotiation, the pair signed an agreement setting the terms and conditions for Scotland’s referendum. The plebiscite will be held in 2014 and will — though the precise wording of the question has yet to be determined — ask a simple query: Should Scotland be an independent country?

The details of the negotiations mattered somewhat less than the optics and the mood music of the occasion. Here was Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, meeting Salmond on almost equal terms. As the pair signed and exchanged documents in the manner of two powers agreeing to a treaty, a first-time visitor to Scotland could have been forgiven for thinking Cameron was already visiting a foreign country — not just the northern part of his own country.

In that sense, Scotland is already, if you will, a semidetached part of the United Kingdom. This despite the fact that the devolved Scottish Parliament was only established in 1999 and, in many respects, Salmond enjoys fewer powers than those available to the governor of any U.S. state. (Scotland has responsibility for health care and education for instance, but only limited powers to raise revenues. Instead, it relies on a block grant set by London that Scottish ministers may then spend at their discretion.)

Speaking at the SNP’s annual conference on Oct. 20, Salmond, who has led the party for nearly two decades, declared that "Scotland is not in a mood to take no for an answer" and that "Westminster [i.e., London] has had its chance, and Westminster has fallen short." Again, the impression was of a party and a nation on the move, marching to the sound of its own drum. Or pipes, rather.

"Within the limits of devolution," Salmond said, "there is only so much we can achieve." Contrasting his social democratic government with the austerity-driven Conservative-led coalition at Westminster, Salmond portrayed independence as a means by which Scotland could be protected from a London government that is, he claims, out of touch with or inherently hostile to Scottish interests or preferences. London rule was, he said, a "nonsense." (London, it might be noted, has tried to buy off the nationalists: The Tories and Labour Party have etched promises to look at the question of devolving more powers to Edinburgh should Scots vote to preserve the union.)

Yet one of the striking aspects of this battle for the future of Britain — indeed for Britain’s survival as a nation-state as we have known it — is how it lacks many of the features that ordinarily spark or define great nationalist awakenings. There is no grievous injustice that must be corrected, no sense in which Scotland is a victim persecuted by a hostile, foreign overlord. Scotland is not a colony. Nor do Scots, many of whom are comfortable with their dual identities (Scottish and British) consider it such. Indeed, Scottish nationalism is about as peaceful, respectable, mild-mannered a cause as it is possible to imagine. Notably, it is not a cause for which anyone is prepared to die or kill. This is commendable, of course, and much to be welcomed. It is also unusual.

Scottish nationalists dislike talk of "divorce," but in a real sense, that’s what is at stake. The marriage between England and Scotland has sometimes been an unequal one in which the smaller partner has struggled to make her voice heard, but she has, at all times, kept the prerogative of leaving the relationship. But until recently (that is, until the SNP became something more than a noisy pressure group) that prerogative was always considered a more notional proposition than a practical possibility. The union offered security and opportunity, and the question of independence rarely arose. Times change, however — and for many Scots, Britain no longer offers the opportunities it once did.

So, in a sense, even asking the question formally counts as a victory for Salmond and the nationalists. How did it come to this? Salmond’s ascent owes something to his own political skills as well as to his patience, but it is also predicated upon historical forces that have loosened the ties that bind the Scots and English together and that have contributed to a nationalist awakening in Scotland.

To take but one example of this: In 1974, the year I was born, 31 percent of Scots told one pollster they were "best described" as British; by 2001, that figure had fallen to 16 percent. Yet there is this irony too: The thirst for greater Scottish control of domestic affairs comes in an era when Scotland is actually more like England than at any time since the Acts of Union was signed in 1707. Indeed, insisting upon greater political distinctiveness is part of a reaction against a diminished sense of cultural distinctiveness.

For centuries, the Church of Scotland was the most significant force in Scottish life. It helped build a Scotland that was manifestly different from England. No traveler crossing the border could fail to be aware he was entering a different nation. The long postwar decline of Presbyterian Scotland robbed the country of an essential part of its identity. Scotland became more like England.

All this was accompanied by the rise of a mass media that was unavoidably dominated by English voices. The BBC may have been built by Lord Reith (a Scot), but it was unsurprisingly dominated by English voices that, sometimes understandably though often infuriatingly, tended to view English and British as interchangeable labels.

Britain became smaller: We listened to the same songs, watched the same television shows, increasingly shopped at the same stores on the same interchangeable high streets. Mass consumerism and mass culture foster orthodoxy and cultural homogeneity. No wonder we Scots began to insist upon our differences precisely because those differences are smaller than they were when they were obvious, unquestioned, and thus unquestionable.

This alone might have been enough to create the conditions for a nationalist revival. Other factors have played a part too. If the Empire was, as Victorian Prime Minister Lord Rosebery described it, "a larger patriotism" offering Scots worldwide opportunities, then the eventual retreat from Empire must, inevitably, diminish this patriotism and remove one of the central pillars of British identity.

Similarly, the fading memory of the two world wars demolished another column propping up the shared British 20th century. Empire, war, and commerce built and sustained Britain. The Empire no longer exists, war is all but inconceivable, and commerce no longer depends on or is even greatly enhanced by "Britishness."

All this may be true, but so is something else: The SNP’s rise to power depended, at least in part, upon its making a peace with Britishness. Indeed, the party pays a furtive tribute to the enduring power of the British idea by reassuring Scots that, even after independence, most of the remaining institutions that help define modern British life will remain in place.

But behind it all there’s something a bit more tangible — the discovery of oil in the North Sea and Britain’s entry into the European Union. These twin events in the 1970s helped create the conditions for a nationalist revival. The oil boom was a lottery-winning ticket that, as 90 percent of Britain’s oil and natural gas reserves lie within Scottish waters, offered security against the idea that an independent Scotland would be too poor, too hopeless to thrive.

The European Union (as it became) offered security too. Europe — or, rather, the idea of Europe — became a kind of safety net ensuring that Scotland would not be alone or out in the cold in her independent future. If this meant compromising the independence of an independent Scotland, then the benefits of this kind of insurance outweighed the costs.

That was then, however. Joining the euro no longer holds the appeal it once did. If, as nationalists argue, the Bank of England has put the interests of the City of London before those of the Scottish economy, it stands to reason that Scottish influence within the eurozone would be even less than is the case within the sterling zone at present. A country of 5 million people cannot carry a big stick.

The currency question, however, is the kind of detail that makes Scots question independence. At present, the SNP says an independent Scotland would retain the sterling. That means independence — in fiscal terms — will be heavily qualified by the Bank of England. But joining the EU — whether automatically or after a negotiated qualifying period — also entails applying to the eurozone when "conditions are right." Again, this is not, at present, an attractive notion for us Scots.

That said, the eurozone may well have collapsed by the time Scotland votes in 2014. Nevertheless, questions about the currency and European integration highlight the extent to which true independence is heavily compromised in an interdependent world. Perhaps that’s why Salmond is fond of saying, "Independence is a process, not an event."

Polls suggest that Salmond, though he enjoys a reputation as a masterful political tactician, faces an uphill task. Support for independence has only occasionally breached the 50 percent barrier and has generally languished between 30 to 35 percent in recent polls. That offers some comfort to unionists who suspect Salmond’s ambition has overreached itself. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the idea of an SNP government in Edinburgh being able to hold an independence referendum would have been considered laughable even 20 years ago.

Moreover, Salmond is trusting that the unpopularity of Cameron’s government will help shepherd Scots into the independence camp. Only independence, he says, can protect left-leaning Scotland from an out-of-touch, out-of-sympathy Tory government in London. Indeed, a Sunday Times poll published Oct. 20 reported that independence enjoyed a 12-point lead when voters were asked how they would vote in the event of the Conservatives winning a majority at the next Westminster election.

That of course, is a hypothetical matter and so of only limited value. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the race is not run yet and its outcome far from a foregone conclusion. The stakes are high: For Salmond, it’s vindication and the achievement of a lifelong dream. For Cameron, it’s the ignominy of being the prime minister who "lost" Scotland and presided over the breakup of Britain.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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