OMFIF Commentary 8 September 2014
Britain’s centrifugal forces
Three reasons why Scottish Yes looks more likely
By Denis MacShane
A Scottish vote to separate from England on 18 September would provoke a political-constitutional crisis with ramifications beyond Britain’s borders. The fused English-Scottish nation that rose to world power after the 1707 merger, and remains a powerful economic and military force, would cease to exist.
Three reasons help explain why centrifugal forces in the UK seem to be growing.
First, the absence of any Conservative presence in Scottish politics has made almost wholly negative the influence north of the border of the main UK government party. David Cameron is a prime minister who appears to epitomise elitism. The perceived class bias of relatively wealthy and apparently privileged Conservative ministers arguing for austerity across the UK has contributed to Scottish feelings of separation. Many Scots question why they should stay in an allegedly impoverished Britain where far-off London appears to offer nothing more positive than cuts in pay, pensions and social provisions.
Second, the pro-union Labour party, which still has an important network in Scotland, has not found a tone to make the ‘better together’ cause inspirational and attractive. Over the past three decades, the best of Labour politicians have made their careers at Westminster, including in national government from 1997 to 2010 under two Scottish-born prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. While the Labour Party in Scotland was drained of talent, the Scottish Nationalist Party attracted high quality left-liberal politicians who usually out-perform the lacklustre Labour representatives left behind.
Third, in foreign policy, England’s obsessive clamour for separating Britain from the European Union has backfired by helping persuade many Scots of the merits of splitting Scotland from the interfering English. Further afield, UK policies that seem to contribute to jihads in the Middle East have further alienated a Scotland that mostly opposed Britain’s participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq.
If the Scots, including many EU citizens registered in Scotland, vote Yes on 18 September, both main political parties at Westminster would suffer. Labour’s chances of regaining national power would fall significantly, as the party has relied for past majorities on Scottish Labour MPs. Cameron, the prime minister who presided over UK break-up, would probably have to resign.
The EU would face turbulence over whether Scotland can continue as a member state or should apply anew for membership, including of the euro bloc. The forces for separatism in other EU member states, notably Catalonia in Spain, would grow, as would the chances of a British EU exit. At a global level, what is left of the UK would be a diminished, enfeebled power.
None of this is encouraging. On 19 September we will know whether it becomes reality.
Denis Macshane is the UK’s former minister for Europe.