A sure sign of paying too much attention to politics is when the arguments of your own side begin to grate as much as those of the opposition. Currently number one in my personal sources of ennui is the frequent damning of the SNP by comparing them to Brexiteers, with their claims of self-determination, demonisation of the ‘other place’ (Westminster/Brussels, delete as appropriate), a certain unwillingness to face hard facts, and a tendency to be slightly economical with the actualité. And, of course, there is more than a grain of truth to the accusation.
Understandably, the SNP would reject the suggestion. After all, it is only the rank injustice of Brexit which has converted Nicola Sturgeon, a member of the SNP for 35 years, to the cause of Scottish independence.
But just because it winds up the cybernats doesn’t mean that it’s helpful to the Unionist cause. For one thing, it immediately validates the SNP grudge. It tells them their grievance is justified. Once you start down the path of ‘We can all agree that Brexit is terrible…’ you inevitably provoke people into working out ways to escape Brexit. The fact that the commentator class in both Scotland and England leaned heavily Remain is highly relevant here. Many of them really can’t think of a worse insult to attach to a political campaign than to compare it to Vote Leave. But that’s not a universal sentiment, not even in Scotland.
For one thing, 38 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to Leave, including a third of SNP supporters. Why ignore or insult them? Also, while Brexit has proved problematic for specific industries and regions of the UK, on the whole it hasn’t been a total disaster. For most people, things have remained much the same. By inviting people to compare Scottish independence to Brexit, even if you suggest it will be worse, you are actually downplaying the impact. The degree of economic and social disruption would be incomparable, far more than just a somewhat larger knock to GDP.
Many observers also regard it as the height of hypocrisy for the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to argue against Scottish independence. How can they possibly support self-determination for the UK but refuse it to Scotland? It would be understandable if this case was being made by the nationalists, but the unionist cause is hardly going so well that it is free to spurn support from wherever it is offered. However, let’s examine the merits of the argument.
Just because something is good does not mean that more of it is necessarily better. For example, you might think that belonging to the EU is a noble act of pooling sovereignty with others to prevent war and promote harmony among nations. Does that mean that you would also welcome the pooling of sovereignty with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in a vastly expanded EU? Or why not just a single world government, where Europeans will have votes proportional to their 10 per cent of the population? You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, would you?
Alternatively, if you favour independence, why not independence for Orkney, Shetland, the Borders, the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Glasgow, or even Sauchiehall Street? Surely you wouldn’t cruelly deny them the right to self-determination? You might regard these as ridiculous propositions but in each of these cases there is a point on a sliding scale that you regard as optimum. Just because you put your preferred point in a slightly different place than other people doesn’t imbue you with some sort of moral superiority.
And so, if a person happened to strongly believe in the United Kingdom as presently constituted, it is perfectly coherent for them to neither want it to be subsumed into a supra-national organisation nor for it to be broken up into its constituent parts. In fact, a Leave/No voting combination is the most authentically pro-British position.
It is also surely less coherent to believe that the UK is in some way special but also that it could be absorbed into the EU project without any degradation of that uniqueness. Here we may get dragged kicking and screaming into a debate about British (or English) ‘exceptionalism’ and its deleterious effects, but if you wish to argue that remaining within the UK is the right course of action for the Scots, then it must be because the UK offers something more than any alternative option. And so logically you must be open to the proposition that the UK is special in a way that, for example, the EU is not.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the UK is an objectively better country than any other, but if the Scots had to choose to remain alongside anyone, it is surely hard to think of two more similar countries than Scotland and England. As James I and VI put it:
Hath not God first united these two kingdoms, both in language, religion, and similitude of manners? Yea, hath He not made us all in one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible?
We still share a language, religious observance is similar, and the British Social Attitudes Survey confirms that our 'similitude of manners' is still high, regardless of what the SNP say. To which you might add that we use the same currency, have the same Armed Forces, the same model of health provision, watch the same TV programmes, listen to the same radio, cheer for many of the same athletes, and any number of other similarities, with the deep family ties and history that befit a 314-year-old union.
But the view of the SNP is that somehow Scotland would more comfortably sit in the EU than in the UK? In which case I would challenge anyone to name an EU member state that is more similar to Scotland than England. (For those tempted to identify Ireland, government spending in the UK is 36 per cent of GDP compared to 24 per cent in Ireland and 45 per cent in Scotland; visits to the GP cost €65, and when did you last watch a programme on RTE or tune into the Gaelic football?)
Also, back in the EU, Scotland would wield a mighty one per cent of qualified majority voting rights. Some nationalists like to boast of being able to wield a veto, on a par with Germany and France, which displays nothing more than a brutal misunderstanding of how power is wielded. When Greece was being economically water-boarded and asset-stripped by the Troika, where was its veto? If the Scots feel ignored by Westminster, wait till they’re being ignored by Brussels, Paris and Berlin.
It’s understandable that people are still sore about Brexit. But membership of the EU is such an incomparably trivial matter compared to being an essential part of the United Kingdom. If that is something you believe, maybe it’s time to lay off the Brexiteers?