When Boris Johnson said no to another referendum on Scottish independence, Alex Neil, a former health secretary in the Scottish government, called on Scots to force the PM’s hand by emulating Mahatma Gandhi. Passive resistance, “securing rights by personal suffering” as Gandhi put it, was the way, thought Neil, to shame the British oppressor into acquiescence. To borrow a tactic for Scots dissent from the Indian national movement is to reveal how nationalists see Scotland (once a great reservoir of imperial officials, high and low): as an oppressed colony under the despotic rule of the South England Company.
Nationalists have long believed Scots are a more moral people than the English (a view not confined to nationalists, to be fair). Thus the revelation by the Scottish Sun last week that Derek Mackay, the finance secretary (widely tipped to be a future party leader) was forced to resign after sending a series of affectionate messages to a 16-year old boy, point to a culture in which inappropriate sexual behaviour may be as common as anywhere else; even as common as in Westminster, a constant source of pejorative reference.
The trial of former first minister Alex Salmond on a raft of charges of sexual assault begins in Edinburgh in early March. Salmond has strongly denied all of these charges and appears confident of being cleared. But his lucrative job as a presenter on the Russian propaganda channel RT has attracted wide criticism, even from his successor, Nicola Sturgeon. His view of Britain appears to have led him to work for a channel which shares his antipathy.
The assumption of English moral turpitude is an ingrained tic in nationalist circles. Both SNP members and senior figures in the party jab constantly at England’s opposition to immigration and racist and imperialist attitudes. This of an England which has, proportionately and of course absolutely, by far the largest population of immigrants and their descendants in the British Isles. The three most senior members of the present Conservative cabinet – Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – were born respectively to an immigrant Muslim, Hindu and (part) Jewish family.
Yet overheated rhetoric and assiduous cultivation of a latent anti-Englishness is essential to a party and government whose pitch rests on apparently slender grounds for nationalist arousal.
Scotland is not Greece in the 1820s, throwing off the Ottoman yoke. Or Ireland gaining full independence from Britain by stages from the early 1920s. Or Italy seeking liberation from the Nazis in 1945. Scots nationalism leans heavily on a confected animosity to Westminster governments which heavily subsidises Scots public spending, has in the past three decades devolved extensive powers and begs Scotland to remain in the Union.
If independence is achieved, it will leave Scotland a riven country, losing the £10-12bn annual subsidy it currently gets from the Treasury. It will be forced to adopt a much greater austerity than that it presently blames on the UK government. All this to remain roughly the same kind of society, only poorer.
Scotland will strive to join the European Union. But the EU is unlikely to welcome a state seen as an example for other secessionist movements. It would also, likely, be required to join the euro. In exchange for a broadly successful fiscal union, Scotland would join a group of countries unable to agree to become one, with a weakly-supported currency, which has failed to attain its goal of becoming a federal state.
The more immediate failure is that of the Scottish public sector, most of which has been the SNP’s charge since 2007. The much-emphasised achievements – as free university tuition for Scots and EU citizens (not for the English, nor the Welsh and Northern Irish), free prescription charges and free home care for those assessed as needing it – are welcome for many.
But the downsides are now insistent, even dramatic. The Index of Social and Economic Wellbeing, compiled among 32 members of the OECD by Scots economist John McLaren, shows a sharp fall, five places down on the index for Scotland, now standing at 21 on the list, in the same spot as the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia.
Two issues stand out. The rise in Scotland’s life expectancy, at 81 years for women and 77 for men, has stopped, with a slight decrease in the past year. It is now among the lowest in Europe. Drug use, among the highest in the developed world, is held to be a considerable contributory factor.
Scotland’s health was described as “not improving” in 2017 in the annual report of Audit Scotland, pointing to much longer waits for appointments, greatly increased pressure on costs and a lack of long-term planning. Overall, the health of Scots was assessed as “poor, and significant inequalities remain”.
In 2019, Audit Scotland warned that NHS Scotland was “seriously struggling to become financially sustainable” and that, without system-wide reform (so far lacking), a £1.8bn funding gap would open up by 2023
Second, education – once a Scots pride – is also failing badly, at the crucial secondary level. In the PISA rankings compiled annually by the OECD, Scots teenagers’ performances in maths and science have declined to 24th and 25th places out of 36, below both the English and UK average. Reading skills have improved slightly, but remain lower than they were two decades ago. Extraordinarily, the Scots education secretary and deputy leader, John Swinney, said this showed that education reforms are working.
The main culprit for the decline is held to be a system: the “Curriculum for Excellence”, which was first mooted with the agreement of all the Scots parties, in 2002, when Labour formed the Scots government. There was a relatively lengthy period of preparation; the new system was introduced into schools in 2010–11.
The strongest critique of the system has been advanced by Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the university of Edinburgh. The critical flaw, he believes, is:
“a replacement of knowledge by process, children being encouraged to lead discovery by saying what they want to know, not being told what they should know – there is no recognition in the curriculum of a canon of necessary ideas or practices, no acknowledgement of any kind of theoretical framework that might give coherence to each curricular subject.”
More damagingly: the CfE discriminates, Paterson believes, against those from poorer homes:
‘Knowledge…acquired through schools provides that opportunity to people who would not get it from home. If schools stop teaching structured knowledge, then inequality of access to knowledge will widen, because the children of the well-educated and the wealthy will get it in other ways.’
John McLaren, in his report, wrote that “the Curriculum for Excellence now increasingly looks like a failed experiment”: earlier this month, Sturgeon agreed, under pressure, to a review – as yet undefined – into secondary education.
Paterson now extends his critique – one shared by other observers – to Scots universities. Scots and EU students can attend for free. But there is a cap on the number which can do so, in order to leave places for students from the rest of the UK and outside of the EU, who pay. This means many Scots students with several straight ‘A’s are refused a place; and in the older, higher-ranked universities – Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews – Scots students are in a minority. Since university students still largely come disproportionately from middle and upper-middle class homes, the free tuition rule most benefits those who can most afford it.
Underlying all of this is the sustainability of the economy the nationalists could run if, and when, independence is achieved. In August, Scotland’s chief statistician, using official figures, showed that the budget deficit – were the country independent – would run at around seven per cent. This is nearly seven times the overall UK figure and by far the highest in Europe. Total expenditure in Scotland was £13,854 per person, £1,661 higher than the UK average.
In the past two years, complaints about the standard of education and health have grown, yet the SNP remains by far the most successful party within its jurisdiction, in the UK. It took 45 per cent of votes in the general election in December, over eight per cent more than in 2017 and increased its seats in Westminster from 35 to 48. Conservatives were reduced to six seats, the Lib Dems to four and Labour to a solitary one.
The SNP appears to have defied the established rules of politics, sailing through charges of incompetence stemming from a preference for being a campaign rather than a government, simply denying evidence of failure (or, like Swinney, calling failure a success). It has established itself as the Scottish party. Others, as McLaren writes, are “branch parties”, starved of funds, research capacity and activists on the ground. The SNP goes across the classes – from the urban poor to the landed rich – united in a desire to show themselves as patriots, with a faith in the capacities of their country and their fellow Scots.
No British government can prevail on that field. The best hope – if combined with winning the gamble that Brexit will soon bring substantial economic rewards – is in reform of the union. This means finding a way to make a functioning federation of three nations and one (Northern Ireland) semi-nation, where England is 85 per cent of the population. The Marquess of Salisbury, with a cross-party group of colleagues, has presented a bill in the Lords laying out the basis for a federal state. Gordon Brown, in a recent speech called for a “forum of the regions” to replace the House of Lords, with a Council of the North, and a Council of the Midlands, financed as the assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales presently are.
Explicit in these and other constitutional wheezes is a radical shrinking of the central government and the political role of London. This is a move which may assuage the resentment against the wealthy capital, common to every other region of the UK. It is much to ask for, when the country is being readied for its own independence from the EU. It may be too late. But for Scotland’s sake, to save it from a very bad idea, as well as for the sake of a Union which has done its nations, and the world, some service, it must be attempted.
John Lloyd’s book, Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence, is published by Polity in March