It is hard to understate the electric shock going through London political elites as the first opinion poll showing a majority for an independent Scotland is published. While there is much talk of Brexit – Britain exiting the EU – the real danger is ‘Scotexit’, Scotland exiting the United Kingdom. The implications for Europe are serious.
The separatist camp hope that the dramatic poll –even if only showing a 51-49% endorsement of independence – shows they now have the momentum to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
The pro-union campaign hopes the poll will be a dramatic wake up call and panic people into voting to maintain the existing British state and unified United Kingdom.
Privately pro-union Scots are dismayed and demoralized. They hope a final surge of common sense will prevail but, unlike before the summer holiday, the poll figures no longer support that complacency.
Three reasons explain the arrival of the now distinct possibility of Scotland separating from England.
The first, is the absence of any in Scotland. The posh and wealthy Conservative ministers, all rooted in the south of England, have insisted that Britain is a bankrupt nation destroyed by debt and deficit and requiring savage cuts in public services to recover health.
This bleak, negative and untrue depiction of Britain since 2010 has led Scots to question why they should stay in an impoverished Britain where the only political offer was cuts on pay, pensioners and public provision of health, education and housing. Would it not be better they feel to look across the North Sea at small Nordic states which combine economic efficiency and social justice.
The foreign policy blunders of the Old Etonian prime minister which have led to UK marginalization in Europe, as well as problems in Libya or Syria where Cameron urged military intervention that gave rise to even more jihadis have further alientated a Scotland that hated Blair’s Iraq war and want to be more like Sweden in no longer sending sons to die in foreign fields.
Prime Minister Cameron, together with other southern elite members of his cabinet, have come to Scotland to wag their fingers and patronize the Scots by telling them they cannot survive except as a junior partner to London. He has organized appeals from ageing English celebrities like Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney to tell the Scots they are better off being supervised from southern England. Cameron called the referendum as he was keen to show the merits on a referendum on Europe. But the mood is now centrifugal, even disintegrative.
The second difficulty is that the pro union Labour Party which still has an important network in Scotland has not found a tone to inspire or make exciting the case for the union. Since 1980 all the best and brightest of high quality Labour politicians have made their career in London at Westminster and in national government until 2010.
The Labour Party in Scotland was drained of all talent as the most able Labour politicians sought to head south rather than stay in Scottish politics. In consequence the Scottish Nationalist Party attracted high quality left-liberal politicians whose spokespersons usually out debate the Labour politicians left behind to mind the shop in Scotland while Labour starts headed south to make a name.
The third reason is the obsessive clamour in London for the separation of Britain from the European Union supported by many Conservatives as well as media proprietors. Their argument that Britain can have a radiant future separated from Europe has been translated in Scotland into the belief that separation from a interfering power is a desirable and achievable political goal. If the Scots, including many EU citizens who are registered in Scotland, do vote Yes on the 18th of September the consequence will be enormous for Britain, the EU and the world. In Britain it will mean the end of any chance of Labour wining power as it is the phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs sitting in the House of Commons who have provided Labour with a majority.Bboth England and Scotland will have to invent new forms of governance and taxation. There may even have to be border checks on the roads going from Scotland to England.
There is the question of what currency the Scots will use. Mr Cameron will be seen as the prime minister who broke up the United Kingdom, and almost certainly have to resign after such a historic defeat. The Labour Party whose leaders have been at the heart of the campaign to defeat the separatists will collapse into recriminations, despair and disarray for a generation or more.
At the European level there will be a question of whether Scotland can continue as a member state or whether as a new created nation it has to apply anew for membership of the EU including adopting the euro as its currency.
The forces for separatism in other EU member states notably Catalonia, will be greatly encouraged. The chances of Brexit increase as the anti EU forces in England will cite a Scottish separation from England as a precedent for an English separation from Europe. At a global level, what is left of England will be seen as a diminished, enfeebled power. The UK’s nuclear submarines will have to find new bases in England, and Britain’s military profile will reduce in size. Some may question whether the permanent seat on UN Security Council granted to the victorious United Kingdom at the head of commonwealth nations and imperial possessions in 1945 should be automatically transferred to amputated England.
Tory and Labour leaders in London are now panicking and talking of offering more devolution and powers to Scotland if only, please, please, they reject independence in the vote on 18th September. That offer might have worked years ago but is probably too late now.
Even if there is a narrow vote to maintain the union the Scottish separatists will simply declare it to be a half time result and come back in due course. The challenge of the British state as it has evolved since the 1707 fusion of the two nations is now massive. Whatever happens, Alex Salmond, the Scottish nationalist leader, has won and the London political establishment has lost.
Denis Macshane is the UK’s former minister for Europe.