For quite understandable reasons, much of the debate about independence for Scotland has so far focused on the economic consequences of seceding from the UK. This, after all, is what most political argument inside liberal democracies is about – small economic gains and losses that might accrue to different sections of the population. For politicians brought up in this culture, it is not surprising that they should appeal to voters in the referendum on that basis: will they be £500 pa better off or £1,000 pa worse off if Scotland becomes independent? But should this really be the focus when what is at stake is a fundamental redrawing of the boundaries of a democratic state, and the ending of at least three centuries of political co-habitation in a single unit?
Admittedly Alex Salmond does intersperse his economic arguments with appeals to democratic principle. He objects to Scots being ruled by a Westminster government that they did not elect. But the trouble with this argument is that it can be reiterated endlessly wherever the political boundaries are drawn. In an independent Scotland governed by the SNP, Labour voters in Glasgow or Liberal Democrats in the Shetlands could make exactly the same complaint. Should we conclude that these places should withdraw from Scotland and become mini-states on their own?
The lesson here is that there is no ‘democratic’ way of deciding where the boundaries of a democracy – whether a democratic state, or a sub-unit within the state like a province or a county, should be drawn. Whatever the actual decision, there will be some people who would prefer to be part of either a bigger or a smaller unit. But this does not mean that boundary-drawing is entirely arbitrary. For a number of reasons it makes sense to draw the lines around the communities that people actually identify with, for cultural, historical, linguistic or other reasons. If democracy is about citizens deciding on their own future, they will want to do that with those they see as sharing the same underlying values and loyalties.
So political identity is the key, but the problem is that it is also fragmented. It has long been observed that most Scots have multiple identities, seeing themselves as Scottish for some purposes, British for others, and perhaps as Europeans on a few occasions as well. Scottish identity has been strengthening over the last decades but it has by no means obliterated these other allegiances. The political arrangement that best respects this state of affairs is one that gives expression to each fragment, rather than responding just to one. Practical concerns aside, that was the main reason for creating a devolved Scottish Parliament, and it may well provide reasons now for further extending its powers. There are distinct concerns that people have qua Scots and they should be addressed at that level.
But independence would involve denying the other identity that nearly all Scots have, as citizens of Britain. It would involve turning their backs not only on three hundred years of shared history, replete with triumphs and disasters, but on the close cultural ties that exist today across the Anglo-Scottish border. Of course the SNP likes to claim that the wider identity will still find expression, through the crown, the shared currency (if permitted), and so forth. But keeping an identity alive demands more than just symbols. It needs institutions and events that actively engage people, whether it’s gathering together to witness a funeral, or cheering for the country’s athletes at the Olympics. In the case of those countries that have separated from Britain but retained the monarch as head of state, it’s remarkable that this arrangement has lasted for as long as it has, and it appears to have a lot to do with personal affection for the present Queen. Will it survive her demise? Would it in Scotland?
But why anyway should it matter if British identity withers away north of the border? It leaves the rest of the country in a mess, identity-wise. The existing problem with British identity – the preponderance of the English, and the resulting tendency to conflate Englishness and Britishness – becomes exacerbated as more than half of the non-English British depart. And what it means to be British becomes hazier, as the geographical definition (residing on the island of Britain) and the political definition (being a citizen of the British state) come further apart. Moreover British identity is a valuable asset, not least for ethnic minorities who would find it hard to think of themselves as English, with all the specific cultural undertones that conveys, but who are comfortable with the more capacious ‘British’. The loss that many non-Scottish British would feel if Scotland were to secede is only now finding public expression as the day of decision approaches (see for example Madeleine Bunting’s heartfelt plea).
There is also the issue of the border itself. At present it is the softest of soft borders, not only in the sense of being unpoliced, but in the sense of there being a deep-rooted borderlands culture stretching north and south about which the Conservative MP for the Borders Rory Stewart has written eloquently (see ‘Loyalty of the borderlands’, Prospect, March 2012 and his wider ranging claims about ‘Middleland’ in his TV series Border Country). This would inevitably change if Scotland became a separate state. How far the change would go is a matter of conjecture. One can imagine a worst case scenario in which Scotland joins the EU and Schengen while Britain departs, entailing that the border would need to become a hard national border with the full apparatus of controls.
None of this is a reason for saying that, if the Scots show that they are determined to secede, they should be prevented from doing so. It would simply be a reason to regret a decision that was taken when there are better ways of addressing the identity issue. This also has a wider significance beyond the Scottish case. For those who value the nation state as the primary unit of governance, there is a perennial issue raised by the existence of nested or overlapping political identities. The way forward is to find more flexible political arrangements that give each of these identities some form of expression. Although these arrangements are always in need of fine tuning, it appeared that Britain had made a success of devolution to Scotland, Wales and (the much more difficult case of) Northern Ireland, and to that extent was an example that could inspire solutions to more intractable conflicts in other parts of the world, such as Kurdistan or Kashmir. But if, despite three centuries of shared history and the absence of deep cultural or religious cleavages, two political communities cannot find a way to inhabit the same state, the outlook for these much harder cases is surely bleak.
This post is part of “A Separate or United Kingdom“, our blog series analysing the issues surrounding the Scottish referendum.