Can the Union Survive? (It’s about the British identity, stupid. But what is it? )

In the latest of a series of British Association/Royal Society of Edinburgh seminars, the question was debated in sparkling style by a stellar panel of Vernon Bogdanor John Curtice, Michael Keating and Adam Tomkins. This summary requires no additional commentary.

Vernon Bogdanor thought the decision on independence was more momentous than was admitted by either side. Both sides agree that nationhood matters less in a globalised world but they go too far. Separatism can’t be fudged by social union. Nationhood still matters. The EU hasn’t really got a foreign policy and its future shape will probably not be what the founding fathers wanted. Even in the eurozone it really matters in which country you live.

Independence means a fundamental discontinuity which cannot be fudged. There would presumably be a governor general in Edinburgh and a high commissioner in London. Scots would enjoy no leverage at Westminster. Like Norway with the EU, Scotland would be consulted but little noticed. As EU decisions are faxed to Oslo so Scotland would become a “faxed democracy.”

Has the question already been answered? It isn’t really a question about £500 more or less better off per person. It is primordial, like the Irish in the 1920s. Will Scots say: “We do not belong with you any more?”

There is insufficient analysis of what holds the UK together and we should be extremely grateful to the SNP for raising it.  What’s being asked is a primordial question of identity.

On identity, John Curtice partly disagreed with Bogdanor. Scots were a nation of dual identity. The referendum is not about how Scottish they feel – everyone does – but how British. Not all “Scottish onlys” are in favour of independence.. Identity does not provide a sufficient guide for how to vote and a No vote may be a conditional vote. This is where the economy is crucial. Scots are no more nor no less keen on independence than they were 10, even 40 years ago. Labour made the mistake of thinking Scots wanted a lovely partnership with London. The SNP realised they really wanted devolved government to defend Scotland’s interest against London. They voted for SNP competence rather than independence. They believe that only foreign affairs  and defence are clearly not Edinburgh’s business but opinion in favour of maximum devolution is not widely shared. For example only a third of Scots want different pensions from the English. They don’t want to leave the UK safety net behind.

If the vote is No, England is not looking for devolution so a symmetrical Union solution is unlikely. But more taxation powers for Edinburgh could be win:win for both Scots and English as that means Scots would  pay for more of their services themselves. Wrangling over the (already contracting) Barnett formula should go away.

George Osborne’s veto on currency union flopped in Scotland but seems to have made the English keener on the Union. They are recording 3:1 in favour of Scotland staying in and that independence would not be good for England and Wales either. This means that if there’s a Yes vote the English may strike a tough deal.

Michael Keating insisted that “independence” and “ sovereignty” don’t mean want they used to. Even with a No vote, the relationship will be reconfigured in a way not very far from “independence lite.” In Scotland the sovereignty of the Crown or Parliament was never quite established as in in Westminster ; that’s why Scots are quite happy to discuss a divided or multiple sovereignty.

It used to be said that welfare and taxation policy were essential to sovereignty. That’s changing. The debates on welfare and independence are linked. The present welfare state is unsustainable. The social compromise in Scotland is mediated differently from England and will probably mean higher taxation. In 10 years’ time there will be more autonomous devolution but probably not full independence.

Adam Tomkins delivered a scathing critique of the SNP White Paper “Scotland’s Independence.” It failed to distinguish between institutions ( which would cease to apply to Scotland such as the Bank of England, the BBC, the intelligence service and embassies) and assets which would be fairly apportioned on independence. Apportionment was a highly complex task but doable. He delivered the stark verdict: the SNP’s assumptions are wrong in law and the White Paper is a false prospectus.

Final thoughts : Michael Keating thought that after a Yes vote, independence could be negotiated by the May 2016 deadline of the next election to the Scottish Parliament.(The Constitution Unit has doubts).

Vernon Bodganor didn’t see how Scottish membership of the EU could be denied. And something must be done for English cities to redress the imbalance of London and central government.

There is deep concern in Dublin that a Yes vote would destabilise the power sharing St Andrews Agreement in Northern Ireland.

A better articulation is needed of the Union state.

John Curtice spoke for the panel consensus. The referendum was the No campaign’s to lose but he didn’t underestimate their capacity for messing it up.

About Brian Walker
Hon Senior Research Fellow and press officer, the Constitution Unit; freelance journalist, blogger, Slugger O'Toole. Formerly BBC Editor Political and Palriamentary programmes; BBC Radio Current Affairs Commissioning Editor; Political Editor and Current Affairs TV BBC N Ireland; London Editor Belfast Telegraph.

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