On 19 September, people over all Britain could wake up in a diminished country, one that doesn’t bestride the world stage but hobbles instead. If Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom, it would be Britain’s greatest ever defeat: the nation would have voted to abolish itself.
The rump that would be left behind after a Scottish yes vote would become a global laughing stock. Whenever the Prime Minister of what remained of the United Kingdom raised his voice in the international arena, he would be met by a chorus of ‘You couldn’t even keep your own country together!’ If even the British don’t believe in the British way of doing things any more, then why would anybody else?
This problem would be particularly acute for David Cameron since the referendum would have been lost on his watch. But it would affect his successors too. One can almost hear Vladimir Putin deriding the idea of taking lectures from a country that couldn’t even hold itself together. Those whose job it is to assess threats to our security say that Scottish independence would make us infinitely more vulnerable. President Obama’s decision to intervene in this debate was a result of Washington’s fears about what would happen to its ally’s global role if Scotland left.
The worst thing about a yes vote is that Britain would have been lost in a fit of absence of mind. Scotland is not a colony speaking a separate language; the Scottish people are not discriminated against within the Union. Indeed, the last prime minister and chancellor were both Scots. Rather, the momentum for independence is being produced by a general anti-politics mood and a folk dislike of the Conservative party in Scotland.
It is a weak basis on which to try to rend asunder the most successful marriage of nations in human history, but it has gained traction because this country has forgotten how to talk about itself. We have said for so long that it’s just not British to discuss what makes you British that we have forgotten our raison d’être. If this referendum is defeated, it is imperative that we learn how to foster our sense of national identity again. If we do not, this plebiscite will not be the end of the matter but the beginning.
Already the Scottish vote is casting a long shadow over Britain’s international standing. It looks to the rest of the world as though Britain is having a national identity crisis. One cabinet minister exclaimed after a recent foreign trip, ‘I am fed up with going abroad and being lectured about how to keep my country together.’ What interests a foreign audience most is our two referendums: the one on whether Scotland stays in the United Kingdom and the subsequent one on whether the UK, or what’s left of it, will remain in the European Union.
The rest of the world has grasped something that too many people in this country have not: this September’s referendum isn’t just about Scotland’s future but about the rest of Britain’s too. If Scotland votes ‘yes’, Great Britain will become Little Britain.
One Labour frontbencher tells me that this country would be a ‘shitty Singapore’. This might be going too far, but he has a point. Think of almost any foreign policy or national security issue, and Scotland’s departure from the UK would affect it. Britain’s position in Europe would be weakened, its military forces cut down still further and its nuclear status threatened. But perhaps the most profound effect would be on the nation’s psyche. Scotland choosing to leave would be a Suez moment.
Many calculate that the departure of Scotland, one of the more pro-European parts of the Union, would strengthen Euroscepticism. But if Scotland went, the next thing to go would be any chance of a substantial renegotiation of Britain’s terms of EU membership.
In the aftermath of Scotland’s departure, what remained of the United Kingdom would hardly be in a position to demand concessions from Brussels. Instead, the attitude would be stay close to Nurse for fear of something worse. It would be 1975 all over again, as a fearful electorate concluded that it had no choice but to stay in Europe despite its misgivings.
If a prime minister did try to renegotiate, it is not hard to imagine how the rest of Europe would react. There would be warnings aplenty about how our prime minister of all people should know about the dangers of playing with referendums. EU leaders would also be far more inclined to call Little Britain’s bluff than they would be Great Britain’s bluff.
If Scotland left, she would take with it a chunk of Britain’s military. But partition would barely reduce the defence demands on the rest of the country, since very little of the forces’ focus is on territorial defence. The Ministry of Defence is so concerned about what Scottish independence would do to the military that it has simply refused to do any contingency planning on the subject. Instead, it is hoping that the jobs associated with Scotland’s defence industry will help swing support behind the Union. The Prime Minister’s presence at the launch of the new Queen Elizabeth carrier is designed to remind voters that these Royal Navy ships are built in Scotland because it is part of the United Kingdom.
The Scottish government’s independence white paper says that, on a population share, Scotland would be entitled to £7.8 billion of the United Kingdom’s £93 billion of defence assets (the 2007 figure). The white paper details what Edinburgh would ask for from each branch of the UK military in negotiations. From the Royal Navy, for instance, it would seek two frigates, four anti-mine boats, two offshore patrol vessels and between four and six patrol boats.
Considering that there are roles for all 13 of the Royal Navy’s frigates in the UK’s defence missions, the loss of these two frigates would reduce capability. What worries those who work for the Chief of the Defence Staff is that these losses would not be replaced. Instead, the Navy would simply be asked to carry on performing the same tasks but with less kit.
This fear is understandable. The United Kingdom is only just hitting the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Research commissioned by the military top brass, and subsequently leaked to the Financial Times, shows that in 2017 the country will fail to hit even that target. In these circumstances, and with the defence personnel budget in line for further cuts after the election, it is hard to imagine us choosing to spend enough to make up for the capability lost to an independent Scotland.
But perhaps the greatest danger to the country’s military position from Scottish independence is that a shrunken Britain would simply decide to abandon its global role. As the House of Commons vote on Syria last summer revealed, an isolationist mood already pervades the land. This would be exacerbated by Scotland deciding to leave. After all, this would no longer be the same country that had fought on the winning side in two world wars and coloured half the globe pink. It would, instead, just be the successor state to that great nation.
Scottish independence would pose an immediate challenge to the rest of the kingdom’s nuclear status. The SNP has been campaigning on a promise that it would not accept the nuclear deterrent continuing to be based at Faslane and Coulport. Those familiar with SNP thinking on the matter are adamant that there is no deal to be done on Trident and a currency union: the nuclear weapons would have to go south of the border.
But where? No other base in Britain is equipped to house them and the alternatives that were looked at in the 1960s have become more unsuitable over time. In the best-case scenario, the weapons would be stored in Berkshire while the submarines that are supposed to carry them would be based three hours’ drive away in Plymouth.
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, has already conceded that there would be a ‘huge cost’ in relocating the nuclear deterrent elsewhere in the no-longer-united kingdom. It would take 20 years or more to build a new home for Trident in England, according to the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. Indeed, we could end up with the rest of the UK’s nuclear warheads being stored by the French at Brest, something that would effectively end the independence of the deterrent.
It is also doubtful whether what remained of the United Kingdom would be prepared to spend the money necessary to build a new base for Trident. This ‘huge cost’, well into the tens of billions of pounds according to several estimates, might well tip the balance against renewing the nuclear deterrent.
If the remainder of the United Kingdom ceased to be a nuclear power, it would be much more difficult to justify its permanent presence on the Security Council of the United Nations. There would be clamour for this seat to be given up, handed over to the European Union, or its influence lessened by other states being given a permanent presence on the council. In the end, the rump state would probably retain it, as the Russian Federation kept the Soviet Union’s seat. But Britain’s influence would be further diluted.
If Scotland does decide to leave, the United Kingdom would be the first advanced industrialised democracy to separate in the postwar era. It would be an undignified end for a country that in its 307-year history has done more to shape the modern world than any other. The world we live in is one that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have, in large part, created together.
Scots must look to the horizon before they go into the voting booth. If they decide against reviving a border that was dissolved in the early modern era, it will show that the spirit of the Enlightenment that made Britain great lives on. But if they opt for separation, they will have managed something that no foreign foe has ever achieved. They will have ended Britain.