LAST Sunday’s YouGov opinion poll showing a lead for the yes side in the Scottish independence referendum, was a bowel- loosening moment for the British establishment.
Unless the threat to the union, verily the United Kingdom itself, is answered at the ballot box tomorrow week there will be no ‘British’ establishment to speak of. The prime minister was at Balmoral with Queen Elizabeth for the weekend as the poll numbers came through, discomfitingly heralded by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter. Breakfast must have been glum. Ma’am was not amused.
Nothing will be the same after next Thursday, regardless. Profound change will come. If the referendum passes, an immediate constitutional crisis occurs. There is no clear pathway forward, and the questions for now unanswerable, are myriad. In the event of defeat, greater devolution is now certain to follow. Like the ‘Irish Question’ the issue of Scottish independence is unlikely to go away. For nearly 90 years from Daniel O’Connell, to Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell and on to John Redmond, it recurred insistently. In the Good Friday Agreement, the subsequent devolved administration and the calibrated but continuously open question of the position of Northern Ireland within the now contested union, as well as within the island of Ireland, continues contained, but not settled. A no vote in Scotland similarly settles nothing per se, and probably leaves everything unsettled in the longer run. ‘The concept of a ‘British’ establishment is an oxymoron. It is effectively English. Ironically the union was first proposed when Scotland’s King James VI ascended the English throne in 1603. It was the English parliament who rejected it. In his first speech at Westminster James opined there was “nothing comparable to the Union of the two ancient and famous Kingdoms”. Lest the point be lost, he majestically demanded that “what God hath conjoined then, let no man separate”. Fearful of carpet baggers coming south in the train of the Scottish king, as well as of free trade and cheap wool, parliament baulked. The union being voted on next week was not created until the reign of his great granddaughter Queen Anne; childless and the last Stuart to reign.
That union was supported from England as a bulwark for the Hanoverian succession and against her exiled catholic half-brother and his descendants. He attempted invasion from France in 1715, and his son Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. If the identity and ultimate destination of a newly conjured ‘British’ body politic appeared contested in 1603 under a recently arrived Scottish king, a century later it was thoroughly anglicised. Scottish Protestantism, specifically Presbyterianism, was traditionally a safeguard of the union, in opposition firstly to the threat of foreign invasion, explicitly Catholic in origin and in the 19th century against an Irish Catholic minority; the Fenian threat.
It is in a secularising Scotland that Alex Salmond has created a tantalisingly near majority for independence. Another context is both the collapse of the once-mighty Conservative and Unionist Party north of the border and its contemporaneous intellectual shrinkage into a little-England party south of it. The coming days are the moment of greatest crisis in 10 Downing Street since Suez. But the stakes are far higher. The history of the Tory party since the Second World War is of nostalgia for empire distraction by a Commonwealth bringing little tangible gain; and beguilement by a ‘special relationship’ with the US that ultimately brought Britain into serial conflicts. All came at the cost of never facing up consistently to its responsibility or opportunity in Europe.
If David Cameron loses Scotland he will be ranked with his predecessor Lord North who lost North America. North, if he started an ill-judged war, at least fought on and on. Cameron gambled on the toss of a coin — he breezily could not imagine losing. His best hope now, is in fact last Sunday’s opinion poll. It may mean independence. Alternatively it may galvanise the unconvinced to vote no. The Tories were lucky before. In 1992, eight days before a general election, they were confidently expected to lose, Labour staged an infamously triumphalist rally in Sheffield. Neil Kinnock was introduced as “the next prime minister”. The people elected John Major instead. Whatever, the issues for Britain, if that entity survives, the issues for Ireland are enormous. Next week’s vote is only one part of a two-hander. The other is a potential referendum on Britain’s EU membership. It looks ever more likely that the UK, or its English rump, will exit from the EU. An independent Scotland, or one with significantly enhanced devolved powers, may sooner or later acquire a say in taxation. That will mean unfettered competition, Ireland has not previously faced, for foreign direct investment.
And what of the union with Northern Ireland? The Treasury in London, subvents nearly 40% of the devolved administration’s budget. In the longer term, even in a still United Kingdom, this is not sustainable. In an immediately disuniting kingdom, political support in England for subsidising Northern Ireland on that scale may rapidly deplete. As correctly made clear by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan last weekend, the Northern Ireland polity is frail. The toll of a combination of political or fiscal stresses are unknowable, but disconcerting. The short-term hope for the DUP is that the Conservatives will need their support at Westminster after the general election next year. That resurrects the ghost of once weekly meetings between then Northern Ireland secretary Roy Mason and official Unionist leaders James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell in the dying days of Jim Callaghan’s administration in 1978-79, with the unionist influence it symbolised. The longer outlook for unionism, however, is deeply troubling. Molyneaux and Powell were integrationists. The DUP, unable or unwilling to lead in a Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin puts political opportunity in the South before its governmental responsibility in the North, is pivoting to emphasise politics at Westminster again. But, regardless of what the referendum result or short-term opportunity brings, it is too late. They championed devolution, and as Scotland is showing that is the edge of a cliff not an effective end game for unionism.
The modern framework of relationships on this island, between Ireland and Britain, and between these islands and Europe were 40 years in the making. They are now on the verge of being tipped into the melting pot again. As the union between England and Scotland either loosens or dissolves, the pressure on the union between what is now Britain and Northern Ireland will increase. An England or United Kingdom with Northern Ireland in tow, en route out of the European Union, puts the pattern of our key economic relationships into meltdown. Certainly, it offers opportunity, but risk too. We have been gifted the excitement of living in dangerous times.
If David Cameron loses Scotland he will be ranked with his predecessor Lord North
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved