“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley, And leave us nought but grief and pain, And for promised joy”.
Peter Kellner has just published an article for Judy Dempsey’s wonderful Strategic Europe series entitled The Gradual Disintegration of the United Kingdom. The piece is what one would expect from Peter Kellner, a hard line anti-Brexiteer who like many of his ilk (both in the EU and the UK) almost wish for the dissolution of my country as the price of Brexit. Like so many such pieces it is also couched in terms of a warning. Who is he warning? Me. Those of us who are both British and English and for whom the UK is central to our identity. Frankly, I am tired of being ‘warned’. So, here is my respectful English response.
First some facts, as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) like to say. Scotland will always be a small and beautiful country stuck on the end of much larger, richer and more powerful England and no constitutional shift will ever change that. Scotland represents 8.2% of the population, but contributes only 5% of the UK’s export revenue, whilst the Scottish economy represents only 7.4% of the UK economy. Over 90% of Scottish trade comes to or passes through England, whilst 61% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK. The massive bulk of that trade is with England, more than the rest of the world combined. Oil? That's just about gone. In other words, the first irony for an independent Scotland would be its economic dependence on England.
There can be no doubt given the genius of the Scottish people that they would in the end make Scotland economically viable, but it would also be significantly poorer. Last year, government spending per head in Scotland was some £11,247 compared with £9246 in England, yet Scotland’s deficit is some seven times higher than that of the UK as a whole. One of the hardest realities most Scots would thus have to face post-independence would be the level of taxation the Scottish economy required to sustain the level of public services so many Scots now take for granted. Indeed, the future of Scottish public services, and who would pay for them, would likely be the battleground over which any Indyref2 would be fought. The one thing now clear is that the so-called Barnet Formula, the mechanism by which Westminster divides up UK tax income between the nations would for Scotland stop from day one of Scottish independence and quite possibly before. Would Nicola Sturgeon then still be able to offer all Scottish National Health Service employees £500 cash bonus as she did at the end of the 2020? The second irony of Scottish independence would be that England would be richer.
Scotland could, of course, appeal for fast-track EU membership. First, if the EU granted it the acquis would still take a minimum of 5 years and Scotland would also be required to adopt the Euro. Second, France and Germany would know they would risk seriously annoying a still powerful England if Berlin and Paris supported Edinburgh. Third, Brexit has seen the EU budget contract by 16% and the entry of another poor country into the EU would mean structural funds being spread even thinner. Would central, eastern and southern European member-states be happy with that? Fourth, would EU member-states with their own secessionist movements want to help Scotland make a success of secession? The third irony of Scottish independence it would make Europe poorer.
The SNP would no longer be THE political party OF Scotland as it is inside the UK, but A political party IN Scotland. The Edinburgh government would be profoundly divided between the SNP and pro-Unionist parties, whilst the long postponed civil war inside the SNP would almost inevitably break out. In other words, Scotland would be a weak and divided state. Perhaps the biggest shock to many Scots when faced with the reality of EU membership would be the prospect of a hard border between England and Scotland. Their fishermen complain now about the problems of exporting to the EU. What if they faced similar problems exporting to England? The fourth irony of Scottish independence would be a Scotland less not more united.
There could also be some serious defence implications of the UK’s dismemberment. First, if the English believed other European states had helped accelerate the destruction of the UK already taut relations would worsen. There would be little appetite to help defend countries that had helped destroy the UK. Second, whatever the UK’s successor state would be called would have its modernising nuclear shield (which would be moved south albeit at great expense) and an increasingly powerful Royal Navy. The Scots would get nothing of Britain’s Armed Forces. Third, the loss of Scotland to NATO (at least for a time) would complicate Allied operations in the Northern Atlantic and for the Scots to be a member of the Alliance they would have to accept nuclear weapons. Fourth, the construction programme for the new Type 26 and Type 31 warships that are due for construction in Scotland would almost certainly be moved to north-east England. Would Scots want to see what is left of their industry effectively destroyed? The fifth irony of Scottish independence would be a Scotland and a Europe less secure.
The mistake people like Peter Kellner routinely make is to equate Scotland leaving the UK with the UK leaving the EU. Whilst I regret Brexit as bad statecraft Britain is still the world's fifth biggest economy and Europe's top defence spender. The UK still has the critical mass of capability, capital and creativity to survive and prosper. Scotland would certainly survive and eventually make its way, but prosper? On what? By the way, if the SNP really believe Brexit is illegitimate because 60% of Scots voted to Remain why did they legitimise both the UK and the 2016 Brexit referendum by campaigning in it? The real choice the Scottish people face is one the SNP wants to hide: to be part of the UK or be independent-lite and de facto dependent on England.
Picture this! The day after some future Scottish independence a SNP dominated Edinburgh Government suddenly finds itself facing a hostile England. The English might not be particularly anti-Scottish, but they would certainly be anti-SNP and the UK would have withdrawn much of its money and the right of Scots to use the pound. Faced with profound uncertainty over monetary stability most of Scotland’s major businesses would already have moved south. Whatever currency Edinburgh adopted (the Groat?) would also have no bank of last resort and they would be forced to appeal to the English and the City of London for support, especially so given the debt an independent Scottish state would find itself in. Unfortunately, Scotland simply would not have the borrowing power of the British state. Which brings me to perhaps the greatest irony of all about Scottish independence: the people who want it the most, the SNP, are the very people who will be unable to make it work for lack of moderation and an inability to build a friendship with Scotland’s closest neighbour.
The SNP likes to say the Scots do badly from the Westminster system. Really? Each Scot receives some £2000 more per capita per annum from the Westminster system than the English. Under devolution the Scots have far greater influence over the seat of Edinburgh power for a whole host of domestic policies than the English who have no distinct English Parliament. You see, the final irony of Scottish independence is this: it will only ever work if English people like me in some way support it. If I am asked nicely and convinced of the case I would support Scottish independence as I am deeply respectful of the will of the Scottish people. Indeed, as an Englishman and a Briton who believes in democracy, and who is also part Scot, I want the best for Scotland. However, if I am repeatedly threatened my goodwill tends to erode.
The SNP are my political enemy precisely because they keep threatening and insulting me and want to destroy something in which millions of us still believe. They also want to do it in a particularly unfriendly way for which reason I would not lift a finger to help those ‘numpties’. As for England, with a population of 56.5 million, a GDP worth $2.3 trillion and the City of London at the beating heart of its adaptable economy, it will be fine. England and the English are no better or worse than anyone else in Britain and I utterly reject the creed of Little Englanderism. However, there are far more of us than anyone else. Moreover, the political history of the British Isles would not stop because of Scottish independence and England will always be the political and economic superpower of the British Isles. We might also be pissed off. Therefore, with respect to those of you warning me, be warned...and be nice!