I was born in 1963, and it seems likely that I will live to see the break-up of the United Kingdom. A few years ago I would not have been of this opinion, and back in the 1980’s it really did seem that Scottish separatism had had its day after a brief flowering in the previous decade. But now the tide of history seems to be running swiftly in the opposite direction.
Historically speaking, unions of nations have had a bad track record. Austria and Hungary were effectively one country from 1526; they became a dual monarchy in 1867 (more or less the equivalent of “devo max”), and separated completely in 1918. That is one of the success stories of national union when it comes to longevity. The forced marriage of Belgium and Holland lasted from 1814 to 1830, a mere 16 years. That of Norway and Sweden lasted somewhat longer, from 1814 to 1905. While on the subject we can also mention the states that have split in our own time, such as Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and those that are constantly threatening to split, such as Belgium, not to mention all those nations with insurgent movements in would be breakaway provinces in Asia and Africa. Places like Aceh and Cabinda rarely make the news in the United Kingdom.
One could point to two success stories. Canada has not split, and Quebec has probably missed its moment to go its own way. And Spain remains a unitary state for the moment, despite Catalonian particularism and Basque separatism. But in both countries national unity has been preserved, if only just, at a high price.
If Quebec and Catalonia are success stories, then it is not cheering news for us in the United Kingdom. Nor would either example dishearten Mr Salmond. All the SNP need to do, it seems, is keep on pressing for concessions, until the Union is effectively dead from a thousand cuts. Devo Max would not be a solution, it would just be a brief pause on the way towards total independence. Incidentally, devolution itself as presently constituted was supposed to kill separatism, by giving Scotland limited self-government which would take away its hunger for independence, but this has not happened. Power, once experienced in Edinburgh, increases the appetite for more power. And devolution has set up the nightmare scenario not just of a majority SNP government (which was never meant to happen) but of a government north of the border which can claim democratic legitimacy and dispute the rights of Westminster to govern. Thanks to Tony Blair, we now have the promise of a constitutional civil war on our hands.
All this makes me very sad, and a little bit angry. Why was the Labour Party so stupid in alienating so many of its natural constituency in Scotland with its anti-life policies? No wonder so many Catholics have switched to the SNP. Can you blame them? The SNP is a genuinely socialist party (well, at least compared to Labour) and it does not embody the sort of attitudes that are seemingly precisely calculated to put Catholics off. The late Cardinal Winning was a staunch Labour man in his youth, or so I am informed by friends; but towards the end of his life he was strongly sympathetic to the Nats. Lots of others have taken that path.
As for the Conservatives, the standard bearers of Unionism, and their failure north of the border, well, they have let us all down, haven’t they? If Labour has betrayed the working class, the Conservatives have betrayed not only the working class, but all the other classes as well.
I live in England, but I have Scottish blood flowing in my veins. I do not relish the break-up of the United Kingdom, which is my country. I imagine for all those Scots and English and Welsh living on the “wrong” side of the border, this will be even more traumatic. One thing at least can comfort us. Scottish separation will be bloodless and perhaps not too rancorous. Tony Blair’s legacy of devolution does at least give us a path towards constitutional divorce. Let’s hope it is a velvet divorce. At least it will not be the sort of conflict that marked the separation of Ireland from the Union. Maybe we should be grateful to Tony for that.