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British Unity Still in Jeopardy

September 25, 2014 Topic: IndependenceDomestic Politics Region: United KingdomScotland

British Unity Still in Jeopardy

"It took less than 24 hours before the hopes of London commentators and politicians, that the infernal 'Scottish Question' would go away, were dashed."

According to the SNP, a staggering 25,000 people have flocked to join the party in the days since the referendum. Citizens enthusiasm for the political process is heartening but they are joining a party which made the rest of the UK out as the enemy of Scotland. Moreover, according to veteran journalist Kenneth Roy, an “authoritarian” Salmond allowed the campaign to be conducted in an “oppressive atmosphere.” He “insisted on calling it ‘joyous,’ when he knew that “No” supporters were afraid to identify themselves for fear of reprisal. He even managed to find something ‘joyous’ about the intimidation of BBC staff outside their studios.” Cameron made it clear on September 22 that the swift timetable for providing enhanced powers to Scotland would be honored. But with the countdown to the May 2015 British general election already starting, it is unclear whether the UK parties will rise to the continuing separatist challenge. Will they see the need to present some kind of united front in order to deprive the SNP of an overall majority in 2016? Even if the signs grow that such a victory could be used by Salmond to declare unilateral independence, I doubt if they will summon up such resolve. Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, has proposed following in the example of “stable, federated countries” like the USA and India and passing a law that will state that “the union is now indissoluble.”

Dismay is likely to be the response in different parts of the world to the post-referendum agitation in Scotland. Britain, one of the world’s most high-profile states, voluntarily ceded a referendum, which it only had the power to grant in constitutional terms. Despite the absence of territorial grievances or economic hardship, a huge number of Scots backed secession but not enough. Yet the losing party disparages the result even though the question, voting roll, and length of the campaign were tilted towards its needs. This amounts to an acute disincentive for centralized state without such benign conditions to give in to pro-autonomy pressures. In many places, it may well mean that the demands of minorities are now treated with hostility even if they are well-grounded ones. Ethnically dominant but insecure states (of which there are many) may now determine never to paint themselves into the corner that an old, consolidated but surprisingly brittle state like Britain appears to have done. So concessions to unfulfilled minorities which may have previously been contemplated, may now be off the table in states nervously watching the continuing British rumpus.

The unsettling Scottish referendum may also provide food for thought for states without ethnic strains but where much of the population may be disconnected from the political process. In Scotland, a populist proud of his hell-raising abilities managed to span this chasm. Salmond reached out to the YouTube and Facebook generation as no Western politician has so far managed to do. Members of this generation are now enlisting for further epic battles against the Westminster goliath, even though what economic benefits they can derive are impossible to detect.

Exactly a century ago, in September 1914, the young men of Glasgow flocked to enlist in the British Army in greater numbers than anywhere else in Britain. A glorious cause turned out to be a hellish ordeal and those who survived returned to a city sunk in depression. Their successors, many with university degrees and a cosmopolitan outlook, are showing the same blind faith in a cause perhaps far more simplistic than the British imperial one. Where their ride on Salmond’s magic carpet will take them is hard to discern. But Britain’s ongoing territorial crisis preoccupies the rest of the world, because the separatist contagion is a real one with echoes very close to Britain’s own shores.

Tom Gallagher is an Edinburgh-based political scientist. Manchester University Press will publish his next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union, in October.

Image: Flickr/The Nick Page/CC by 2.0