British prime minister David Cameron visited Scotland earlier this month. Cameron was mano a mano with Scottish Independence Leader and supposed opponent Alex Salmond, but it was all handshakes and smiles. Her majesty’s government officially gave its approval to a referendum on Scottish independence, to be held in the autumn of 2014. The move was widely hailed in England and in Scotland, and Cameron surely must be congratulating himself on the political art of killing your opponent with kindness.
The greatest Conservative prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously said he would not “preside over a dismemberment” of the British Empire. Cameron and his Conservative Party surely share that sentiment for the United Kingdom. The Conservatives resolutely do not want to see Scotland leave. They are banking on recent polling that puts the Scots against full succession by a margin of 2:1. The Scots may want greater devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, Cameron believes, but full sovereignty would be pushing it for the highland-lowland country.
Cameron’s political calculus looks to go something like this: We shall roundly defeat the referendum in 2014, and in the process exhaust the Scottish National Party. Having won handily, we will be magnanimous in victory, permitting some greater transfer of power while keeping the taps running with those bribes euphemistically known as “transfer payments.” Everybody wins. And the Tories may actually gain a few seats in Scotland for the first time since Macbeth was crowned at Scone.
It might be foolhardy to trust the opinion polls of 2012 for an election to be held at the end of 2014. Yet Cameron may very well be correct in his political calculus. But by promoting the idea that Scotland has a unilateral right to hold a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, the prime minister has inflicted a serious wound on the British Constitution and the very principle of a United Kingdom.
The leader of Cameron’s Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, summed up the Conservative view of things nicely in an interview with the British telly: “We agree that if you want to leave a [members]’ club, you should be allowed to leave the club.” As a lifelong devotee of the comic novelist P. G. Wodehouse, I am charmed that some people still believe that all the world is a London social club. But a nation, not least the United Kingdom, is not a club. Besides, even when one opts out of a club membership (or so I am told), one must pay penalty fees.
The Act of Union of 1707, which bound England and Scotland together, created a single entity, a United Kingdom “for ever after” in “compleat and intire Union.” The United Kingdom may have come after the ideas of “England” and “Scotland,” but, in a political sense, it became the fundamental idea that gave “constituting” form to different and formerly opposed matter. The practical manifestation of this idea has been parliamentary sovereignty. Can a vote in which parliament plays no part and held by members of only one constituent state be binding on the whole? If you accept this idea, then you may believe the Confederacy was right and Abraham Lincoln was wrong.
Professing a naive belief in self-determination, Tories and independence-seeking Scots have also forgotten that the basis of the union was not democracy but necessity. If Scotland wants to go its own way, complete with army and currency, the “Celtic Tiger” across the Irish Sea may serve as a cautionary example. In the boom years, Ireland was touted as a model country; an example of how small can be beautiful.
Indeed, Dublin cut a pretty picture during the boom. In those years, its real-estate market was premised on the idea that every Irish person was either employed by Dell or Google or was soon to be. In the current financial crisis, however, Ireland’s economy collapsed. The European Union, which the Scottish Nationalists dream of joining, essentially responded by turning Ireland into an indentured state.
Just as broke as Ireland but much larger, Spain has managed to persuade the European Union to rescue it by monetizing its debt. Will the Scots suffer the fate of Ireland or that of Spain? Does Cameron wish to risk operating as a smaller, much-diminished England?
England and Scotland came together for mutual protection during the War of the Spanish Succession. But even in a purportedly peaceful, postmodern region, rough economic times can be particularly tough on smaller players. While the Conservatives are aware that the countries would be “stronger together,” they have been unable or unwilling to explain why.
The Cameronian Conservatives believe they are modernizers. But their policy on the Scottish referendum—as well as their earlier failed attempt to introduce elections and proportional representation into the House of Lords—shows that for them modernization seems to mean the undermining of constitutional principles at every turn. In fairness to the Conservatives, they know not what they do. The party of conservation does not have the faintest idea of what it wishes to conserve. And it doesn’t seem to be the British Constitution.
In the meantime, one can hope that people on both sides of the borders are clear-sighted about the benefits, foundations and continued reasons for the union. The people of Britain may turn out to be more judicious than the Conservatives—and, indeed, the entire British political class—have proven themselves to be.
Neil Rogachevsky is a PhD candidate at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.