Great Britain could soon be finished. If, in the referendum this September, a majority of Scots answers “yes” to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” the Act of Union (1707) will be dissolved, a veil will be drawn over three centuries of shared history, and one of the most potent nation states ever to have existed will come to an end. The Union Jack, our flag, will have to be redrawn. The country will have to be renamed.
This should be a big deal, and not only for the Scots. Yet here in the south of England, apathy reigns. Studies suggest that 60 percent of the English would prefer Scotland to remain part of the UK. Ask a Londoner, however, or someone in Suffolk or Kent, and you’ll probably just get a shrug, or maybe a hesitant guess that the Scots won’t go through with it—and that if they do, well, we might be better off without them.
The commonly held view that the Scots, being a cautious lot, will not dare take the fateful plunge could be wishful thinking. Yes, in the polls, a consistently solid majority seems to oppose independence: The latest soundings suggest that 52 percent oppose the split, compared to 37 percent that will vote “aye.” The momentum, however, is with the independence movement. Only a few months ago, support for independence was under 30 percent.
But even as the polls tighten and the momentous day approaches, Englishmen remain strangely disinterested. In February, Prime Minister David Cameron gave what was meant to be a heartfelt appeal for the union. “We want you to stay,” he said, like a husband to an unhappy wife. But the speech hardly caused a stir.
It doesn’t help that the public debate over independence has been quite boring. Neither side wants to come across as negative, so they instead compete to see which can utter the most latitudinous platitude. Scotch nationalists like to emphasize that they are not hostile to England, nay pal. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), talks about how convivial England and Scotland could be after independence. “England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will always be our family, friends, and closest neighbors,” he says. The bonhomie is disingenuous. It’s no coincidence that Salmond pushed for the referendum to be held this year: 2014 is the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s greatest victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. (That’s the final scene of Braveheart, for those of you following along with Mel Gibson’s mangled history at home.) When Salmond talks about “Scottish values” such as compassion, social justice, and equality, he is often dog-whistling to the many Scots who think the English are a cruel and snobbish race.
The unionists, meanwhile, are desperate to sound as pro-Scottish as they possibly can. The “Better Together” campaign is consciously lacking in English accents. “As Scots we know that there is nowhere better than Scotland, but we also feel the benefit of being part of something bigger,” its website proclaims. But this too is a double game. Better Together has become known as “Project Fear” in Scotland, because it has been feeding the press a steady diet of scare stories about how miserable life would be post-independence.
The mutual posturing flared hot in February after Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, supported by Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, said unequivocally that an independent Scotland would be booted from the British pound. “The Scottish government says that if Scotland becomes independent there will be a currency union and Scotland will share the pound,” Osborne said. “People need to know: That is not going to happen.” His intervention was deemed a little aggressive, however, and duly backfired. Salmond responded by saying that the currency was not the Chancellor’s to share—conveniently ignoring the fact that before the Eurozone crisis he had wanted Scotland to ditch the British pound and join the euro—and in the days that followed the “yes” campaign’s poll ratings improved. Osborne tried to make amends in March by freezing taxes on Scotland’s best-known export, whisky.
The economic arguments for and against independence have always been confusing and contradictory. Salmond says Scotland can be like those Scandinavian economies that left-wingers imagine are paragons of socialist efficiency: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. (Before the crash, the SNP’s “arc of prosperity” included Ireland and Iceland, but those countries have been quietly dropped.) He insists that when North Sea Oil revenues are included, Scottish Gross Domestic Product per head is a fifth bigger than that of the UK as a whole. With the benefit of Home Rule, he claims, the Scottish people will become richer and richer. But he would say that, wouldn’t he?
His opponents counter that Scotland’s economy is propped up by the British government’s largesse, and they gleefully whisper that the precious North Sea oil is running out anyway. At the same time, Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister—and a dour Scot if ever there was one—has announced that low- and middle-income Scottish families would be worse off, to the tune of more than £1 billion, under an independent government. But Brown wrecked the British economy when he was in charge, so nobody believes what he says. Most people can see that such extrapolations are fantastical. The reality is that the British and Scottish economies are so intricately interconnected it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what would happen if they were to be decoupled.
The squabbling over money is really a distraction from the more fundamental and mysterious issue of our shared British identity. Who do we think we are? Does Britishness still mean anything today? These questions can make even the most ardent unionist wince. All nation states are products of uncomfortable compromise and uncertain alliance, but Britain in particular has always depended on a lack of precise definition. Is the United Kingdom several countries—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—pretending to be one? Or one nation pretending to be several? Nobody really knows. “‘We,” said Anthony Burgess, “is the most treacherous of the English pronouns.”
Britons still like to think we punch above our weight. But in our hearts we are aware—and embarrassed—that our nation is not what is was. Britain was once the world’s greatest power; now it is less and less significant in world affairs. Politicians and journalists are perpetually trying to rebrand Britannia as something hip, ultra-modern, and multicultural, and their efforts are supported by fretful outbursts of jingoism, such as during the London Olympics of 2012, or at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
But Britishness has been in steady retreat since the end of the Second World War. An annual attitudes survey, dating from the 1990s, has recorded a marked decline in those who define themselves first and foremost as British. More and more of us, apparently, would rather label ourselves as English or Scottish or Welsh. The quintessentially British caricature of John Bull—first drawn by a Unionist Scotsman, John Arbuthnot, in London in 1712—is now an anachronism. Britishness is today associated with the deeply unfashionable concepts of Empire and religion. But those are the very two things that made England and Scotland work so brilliantly together during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Empire offered Scots the opportunity to get rich and climb the social ladder, and many did both. The Scots and the English shared a puritan morality, which emphasized hard work, self-reliance, and a loathing of Catholics. This mingling of Anglo-Scottish endeavor and capitalist Protestant ethics made lowland Scotland one of the world’s most civilized places. Edinburgh became “the Athens of the North,” a hotbed of enlightenment for great thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.
That’s all nostalgia now. In a globalized world, with London sucking up ever-larger proportions of the British economy and the European Union controlling many aspects of British life, the union model can seem outdated. Scotland feels more and more like a different country. Following the collapse of its steel and shipbuilding industries in the 1960s and ’70s, and the ruin of Scottish Conservatism under Margaret Thatcher, Scotland moved further and further to the left.
Politically, if not culturally, Scots may now have more in common with social democrats on the European continent than they do with the English. And thanks to devolution they already have their own political base. In 1997, at the behest of the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Scots voted to create their own parliament. At that time, Labour was still the dominant force in Scottish politics, but devolution has worked against it. The SNP, which twenty years ago was little more than a fringe left-wing protest vote, has emerged as Scotland’s leading party.
English Conservatives—instinctively patriotic and opposed to change—strongly opposed devolution. But now that it is a fait accompli, now that the two countries are clearly drifting apart anyway, the temptation is to think, well, what’s the point of clinging on? Lots of English people already feel bitter about the so-called West Lothian Question: the prickly issue of why Scottish Members of Parliament in Westminster are allowed to vote on matters of English interest, but the English have no say over similar affairs in Scotland. And even if, as still seems likely, Scotland votes down the independence referendum, a huge majority of Scots will support the alternative of “devo-max” (maximum devolution). So whatever happens, the two countries will almost certainly become fiscally and politically autonomous, while still perhaps sharing a national security apparatus.
In that case, why resist the inevitable? For one thing, David Cameron cannot have failed to observe that Scottish independence would increase his party’s power in the rest of the United Kingdom. If Scotland had not taken part in the last general election in 2010, the Conservatives would have won a clear majority.
Yet proper conservatives cannot wish to see 300 years of heritage thrown away, and Cameron wants to avoid going down in the history books as the prime minister on whose watch the union came to an end. Most of the English people, no matter what their political views, retain an affection for the Scottish—even if, across the border, the sentiment is not returned. Many of us (me, for instance) have Scottish ancestry. We may not be entirely comfortable with our shared and mixed identities, but that doesn’t mean we’d have it any other way. Not everything is politics, even for politicians.