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Scottish independence is a solution in search of a problem. Rather than the cogent conclusion of a rigorous analysis of particular woes afflicting the Scottish people, it's an article of faith. That's why its supporters struggle to make a clear profit out of the empirical data, why they are wont to distort history, and why they so often react to criticism by tackling the man and not the ball. 


The nationalists have over-simplified history and let anti-English resentment fester (illustration by Michael Daley)

It's also why the latest policies of the separatists — to keep the Queen, the pound, and membership of Nato — are so opportunistic. None of this will surprise readers of David Torrance's biography of SNP leader Alex Salmond, Salmond: Against the Odds (Birlinn, £20), in which a former colleague observes: "When you went through all the arguments you were left with the impression that he didn't know if Scotland would be better or worse off as an independent country. All that mattered was that Scots should rule themselves."

There could be a problem, of course. Membership of the United Kingdom's multinational state could have inflicted some grave and chronic injustice on Scotland, for which remedy had long been sought but never found. The Scots could have been under-represented at Westminster. Their legitimate concerns could have been seriously neglected and their needs unfairly met. Their culture could have been suppressed.

But none of this is so. Since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, the Scots have enjoyed representation both in Edinburgh and in London. Indeed, Scottish MPs vote on matters that concern other parts of the UK, whereas the representatives of those other parts cannot vote on matters devolved to Edinburgh. Scots receive more public spending per capita than the English, and whatever strikes visitors to Edinburgh and Glasgow it is not a lack of cultural vitality.

How, then, do members of the Yes campaign in the run-up to September's referendum on independence try to justify their support for it? What stories do they tell to make their visceral conviction plausible? Their strongest tale is that the Scots prefer a left-of-centre, social democratic polity with a more generous welfare state, whereas, judging by its propensity to elect Conservative governments, the English electorate's centre of gravity is markedly farther to the right and more favourable to the free market. As a consequence, the Scots' legitimate aspiration for a fairer, more equal society has been consistently stymied by a neoliberal Westminster.

If this were true, it would certainly be a reason for greater Scottish autonomy and a further devolution of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh, although not necessarily for outright secession from the UK. As it happens, however, the narrative of nationalist politicians doesn't tally with the hard evidence of the social scientific data. According to analysis of the British Social Attitudes survey of 2010:

. . . it seems that Scotland is not so different after all. Scotland is somewhat more social democratic than England. However, for the most part the difference is one of degree rather than of kind — and is no larger now than it was a decade ago. Moreover, Scotland appears to have experienced something of a drift away from a social democratic outlook during the course of the past decade, in tandem with public opinion in England.

From this the authors — including the doyen of Scottish psephologists, John Curtice — conclude that "the task of accommodating the policy preferences of people in both England and in Scotland within the framework of the Union is no more difficult now than it was when devolution was first introduced". Awkwardly for the Yes campaign the late Stephen Maxwell, nationalist intellectual and founder of the modern SNP, agreed, writing shortly before his death in 2012 that there is "nothing in Scotland's recent political record to suggest a pent-up demand for radical social and economic change waiting to be released by independence". The fact that the current nationalist government in Edinburgh has declined to use the Scottish Parliament's existing power to raise the rate of income tax, so as to increase funding for public services, suggests that they know that Maxwell spoke the truth.

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August 26th, 2014
7:08 PM
..."the other partner having to accommodate and fit in with the requirements of the primordially anglocentric polity" Well, Suriani, there are roughly ten times as many UK residents outside of Scotland as are in Scotland. In any partnership of eleven persons, do we expect one individual to be given the same weight as the other ten together? I think not, and it is unreasonable to expect it in intra-UK policy either. Scotland has its own parliament, its own legal system, its own educations system, devolved power over many important aspects of life; its own television companies, broadcasters, newspapers, theatres, cinemas, arts organizations, universities, businesses. Where is the "socio-political and cultural deficit?"?

May 15th, 2014
11:05 PM
I am unsurprised. I recently had cause to review Biggar's book, "In defence of war." Here is a scholar who can write: "a fortiori as a Christian... I do not have it in me to write a book about peace ... it is war that captures my imagination," and who can go on to concede that the Iraq intervention lead to at least 200,000 deaths and "suffering on a massive scale," but concludes: "I judge that the invasion of Iraq was justified." Well, it is that kind of judgement from which we in Scotland are seeking to decolonise ourselves.

Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh
May 7th, 2014
11:05 AM
I'm sorry, but as a lifelong advocate of the honorable cause of Scottish self-determination I find this article overwritten ("female genital mutilation" etc??), suffocating, and dispiriting. Where increasing numbers of Scots perceive green shoots of hope, you see only noxious weeds. Defoliating disparagement is heaped on by the shovel-load: "opportunistic", "visceral", "spurious", "not-so-noble", "narcissistic", "little serious thought", "smug", "resentment", "fester", "distort", "scapegoat", "victimhood", "disease", "corrupting", "deluded", "negligent", "recklessly ignore", "irresponsible", "only a fool", "false hope", "fool's gold", "disillusion", "shipwreck". If there is any affection shown towards Scotland, I guess I missed it. Having endured this finger-jabbing tirade I would, were I a teenager, slam the door as I left. As an ostensibly mature adult I sit here attempting a measured response. Your article's allegation that the disparate Yes community "so often react to criticism by tackling the man and not the ball" is an absurdly unbalanced lunge. This accusation is veritably jaw-dropping given the ongoing and grossly cynical reductionism regarding the Yes campaign perpetrated by the mainstream media (and indeed by the UK Government itself). I am in my mid sixties; the relentless front-page mockery and demonisation of one man (Alex Salmond) for countless months (or is it years?) is entirely unprecedented in my experience. The caricature dominating your own article-page is mired in the same. The visual syllogism is kindergarten-friendly: Scottish independence is about Alex Salmond. Alex Salmond is a loony. So Scottish independence is loony. You move thence to debunking the "stories" the Yes campaign tell "to make their visceral conviction plausible". The "hard evidence" of the British Social Attitudes survey (2010) is invoked: " seems that Scotland is not so different after all". Anything culturally worthwhile going on up here you claim as a product of the Union: "the British connection has evidently been host, not hostile, to a revival of Scotland's cultural vitality". You seem to have it all sewn up. And yet...and yet...the foregoing seems strangely at variance with the fact that so many of our artists, musicians, and writers (some eschewing English), have been and remain at the forefront of the call for independence. So what else can you club us with? Oh yes, "violence"! Not that there has been any, but that inconvenient piece of "hard evidence" is over-ridden in your eagerness to alarm: "there is the risk of a serious souring of relations between the Scots and the English... Perhaps the mutual alienation would only last a generation or two, perhaps no blood would be shed — but perhaps not... imagination is no constraint upon possibility... And as we know from the troubles in Northern Ireland, history can roll alarmingly backwards. The process of separation carries real and serious risks, which its supporters recklessly ignore". Let us contrast this dubious (indeed reprehensible) hysteria-incitement with the following from First Minister Alex Salmond in a 2013 speech to the Carnegie Council in New York (bearing in mind that he is the one portrayed by your article as, shall we say, "ungrounded"): "For the best part of a century Scotland has been on a constitutional journey. Despite the passion of the argument not a single person has lost their lives arguing for or against Scottish independence – indeed nobody has suffered so much as a nosebleed... Even in modern times this is a rare and precious process and one which stands as an exemplar to the rest of the world". A significant segment of your article is taken up with issues of empire, defence and international affairs. You clearly feel that the ethical complexity of such deep subject-matter eludes the simplistic pro-independence side: "The existence of the Commonwealth is evidence that the empire's historical record was not simply execrable. Rather, it was morally mixed — as was Scotland's before the Union and as it would be after it". You accurately identify the pro-independence desire to shed the role of "imperialist global policeman", but chide that: "This moralistic reading of imperial history and international relations is facile". Moreover, you contend: "The irony here — and it's a damning one — is that the issue that is supposed to make the rationale for Scottish independence clearest is one to which Gay has evidently given little serious thought. And this is symptomatic of Scottish nationalism more generally." So yet again our bonehead dimity damns us in your eyes and incurs summary reproof. Happily though, as in the foregoing quote, you do give passing mention to Doug Gay's recent "Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism", albeit with a couple of unmerited backhanders. I would commend this timely and deeply thoughtful book to anyone concerned with the theology of nationhood and governance. While it is of course immersed in the Scottish experience in particular, many of the issues raised are generic. You stress that an awareness of moral complexity informs your own worldview. That is respectfully acknowledged. The question therefore is whether your portrayal of Scottish independence thinkers as monocular dullards is perceptively accurate or a worrisome blindspot on your own part. Or, less flatteringly, a failure of generosity. Your key conviction as presented is that it is both morally defensible and necessary for Britain to operate as a "global policeman", employing "hard power" to intervene in censurable foreign territories. The nub of your outrage against the independence constitutionalists, it seems, is that while the latter would insist on the prior endorsement of international law, you would not. This leaves you espousing a doctrine ("article of faith"?) which one might justifiably term "Britannia ex lex", or "Anglia supra legis". Scotland beware? It was ever thus. But we are all much wiser now, right?

May 3rd, 2014
7:05 AM
This article is simply a reiteration of every cliché about how perfect has been the intermesh of Scottish and English interests in the fanciful multi-national partnership of the British state. It ignores the socio-political and cultural deficit of a system which in reality has been, by virtue of wealth, population and cultural "clout", dominated by one of the partners, the other partner having to accommodate and fit in with the requirements of the primordially anglocentric polity. Many Scots as individuals did rather well out of the union, the majority however were served crumbs. In the end a yes or no result in the referendum is irrelevant. The old order in all its manifestations, along with its foundation mythology, is already crumbling. Except of course behind the rose-tinted spectacles of the likes of messrs Biggar and Massie.

May 2nd, 2014
6:05 AM
You could copy and paste this as an open letter to the Separatists in Quebec. They are pretty good at the self delusion of thinking they can dictate terms of separation to their unique benefit also. Shared currency, diplomatic posts, NATO and NAFTA membership, continued open travel to what would post separation, be a foreign country, as well as the right to work in it. A seat on the board of the Bank of Canada too. All obliviously ignoring the fact that all of us NOT in Quebec, will be giving all of those laughable ideas a double display of rigidly extended index fingers. Not that it is likely here. They just got killed in the last election there. But all those and more preposterous claims were put forth by them. Ignoring the fact that their economy is the net recipient from more prosperous parts of Canada budget infusions annually to the tune of more then $8 billion CDN. They also think they would get to walk away from their proportion of the national debt. One might consider the reality of the disposed of saying: NO shared currency, NO shared defense, NO shared diplomacy, NO membership in previous treaties (defense or trade). You know. Actually being NOT part of that State. And thus, no longer part of it's interests to be put forward, or defended.

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