ANALYSES

Is there a Darker Side of the Scottish Referendum?

Interview
24 septembre 2014
Le point de vue de Nicholas Dungan
Now that the referendum is over, wouldn't it be best for the UK to go back to 'business as usual'?

The jubilation of the British leadership classes that the No vote prevailed, and so thoroughly, shouldn't mask the appalling lack of strategic thinking that the referendum demonstrates.
The decisive result, 55 per cent against independence and only 45 per cent for, and the high turnout, 85 per cent, make it easier to pretend that the UK is waking up to an unchanged reality, that the prospect of Scottish secession was just a bad dream, that the No vote was somehow inevitable all along. The fact is that neither the British government in Whitehall nor the Scottish government at Holyrood were in the slightest prepared for a Yes vote. Alex Salmond — Scottish First Minister, leader of the Scottish National Party and champion of independence — clearly had no plan for a currency, for defence, or for international recognition, such as membership of the European Union or NATO. Those are all core elements of national sovereignty. The three main UK parties — Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats — were all obliged to go on bended knee and plead for Scotland to stay part of the UK on the ground that Scotland and the rest of the UK were 'better together', but they could not say precisely what would happen, to Scotland or to the remaining rump of the United Kingdom, if Scotland voted to secede. Indeed, nobody appears to have given much thought to the danger of holding such a referendum with so many important issues not only unaddressed but even largely unidentified

So those 'leadership classes' should be asking themselves some deeper questions?
The first job of a government is to protect the country. This may involve battling Al-Qaida or the Islamic State abroad, or policing safe streets at home, but it also means keeping the country intact. Tony Blair's characteristically glib offer of devolution for Scotland in the 1997 parliamentary campaign was irresponsible and misguided, as has been much of the action on the issue since. Nobody has thought through a genuine regional policy for Great Britain as a whole. Worse, the Scots have voted to stay part of the United Kingdom against a promise from all three major political parties of increased devolved powers for Scotland, and now even the Conservatives are talking of more 'devolved' power for England itself. At this rate, the wrangling as to which policies should be decided by a watered-down Westminster parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom and which belong to the increasingly devolved parliaments will go on for years.
Distributing domestic power in Great Britain on the basis of the four 'nations' of England, Scotland, Wales and (only Northern) Ireland is probably the least thoughtful way of achieving a strategy that both benefits the regions and unites the country. One only has to look at the inner-Irish conflicts, which the UK needed outside support to resolve, to understand that Britain would be much 'better together' if the government carefully crafted and enacted a genuine strategy of regions rather than creating divisions along the lines of supposedly historically distinct peoples. There are successful precedents for such a balanced regional strategy, which could avoid some of the divisions of the 'nations' approach. European Union regional policies in support of infrastructure have, for instance, been immensely beneficial to Cornwall. The growth and success of UK regional universities in the past half century, with their influx of intellectual talent and student populations, have helped revive provincial towns, cities and regions. France has in many ways become much more decentralised than Britain, as is Germany with its system of Länder.
And then there are the international implications of the Scottish referendum.

Such as separatist movements in other parts of Europe, or even the world?

It's true that regions, like global cities, have networks among themselves, but the Scottish referendum — especially with the No vote having prevailed — is likely to have very little effect on what happens in Catalonia, or Crimea, or Kurdistan, all of which are much more dependent on local factors.
No, the international implications of the Scottish referendum have more to do with the UK and its place in the world. Britain is important to the European Union, to the United States, to NATO, to the UN and yet here is a country that has just completed a poorly-prepared referendum on the secession of one of its biggest constituent parts and in a couple of years may hold another in-or-out referendum on whether the whole country should secede from the European Union. This gratuitous instability makes no sense for the future of Great Britain, Europe, or the international community. Britain is still in the position described by the American secretary of state, Dean Acheson, of having lost an empire and not yet found a role. It is high time the British leadership classes did some serious strategic thinking about what they want their country to look like at home and abroad. Otherwise Britain is sure to pay the price, sooner or later, for thoughtless muddling through and bumbling from one ill-examined expedient to the next.
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