The time is nearly upon us. In just a few short weeks, our cousins to the north will decide whether to put an end to the marriage between Scotland and England after more than 300 years.
As with any divorce, it would be messy. Squabbles have already broken out over subjects like joint-custody of our currency, who’s taking how much of the debt and of course there is the oil to consider – the flat screen TV of our divorce analogy.
But some marriages aren’t built to last and just because it’s painful, it doesn’t mean a split is the wrong move. Yes campaigners cite the prospect of political freedom from a country lurching wildly to the right. They cite (as you’d expect) the riches their share of the oil would bring – about 90 per cent of the total if it’s split geographically. They also cite statistics showing how – given that oil wealth – they’d be better off in terms of debt and indeed more economically productive than the rest of the UK.
I’ll try and cover all these points and others in coming articles, but first let’s broach the political argument.
On this point, the frustration can seem easy to understand. Scotland returns 59 parliamentarians to Westminster – just over 10 per cent of the total. With this amount, Scotland’s power only really comes into play in a close contest. If the rest of the UK is agreed on a government, the Caledonian constituencies can only top up or diminish a majority, not topple it. This is pretty much what happened in 2010, when the Conservatives lost all but one seat north of the border, but were still making decisions on behalf of the Scots.
Yet it’s worth remembering that Scotland is home to something like 5.3m people – only about eight per cent of the UK total and three million less than London alone. Scotland’s slice of the political pie is roughly what it deserves. Granted, the electorate there are overwhelmingly (almost uniformly) against the government, but this is not unique to Scotland.
In Wales – another part of the UK with its own national identity – only 10 per cent of the seats are Conservative. The minority is less resoundingly small, perhaps, but it still raises the question; should Wales should go its own way too? The electorate in Cornwall now has minority status on par with that of the Scots, Welsh and Irish. In 2005, it returned only Liberal Democrat MPs. Another nation, maybe? If we’re willing to compromise on the area having a distinct national identity, why not the whole deindustrialised north?
One reason why is because places like Scotland aren’t always as helplessly disenfranchised as the nationalists like to pretend. All parts of the UK are governed to some degree by councils of varying size and scope, each reflecting the political make-up of the area is covers. On top of these, Scotland has its own (nationalist run) parliament with control over – among other things – law and order, education, housing and social services. It also has control over NHS Scotland, which rather rubbishes the claim from the Yes campaigners that this service would be better protected as part of an independent nation.
Generally speaking, matters reserved for the national parliament are of national significance; immigration, foreign policy, the constitution, etc. Some may say that even in these matters, Westminster – being where it is – has no mandate in Scotland. After all, Scotland at its northernmost point (in the scarcely-populated Shetland Isles) is some 650 miles away from Westminster.
Compare this, however, with the situation in America, where the westernmost point on the mainland (excluding Alaska) is in Washington state – 2,435 miles from the nation’s capital in Washington DC. If we’re doing a fair comparison and counting island territory as well, then Guam is nearly 8,000 miles away.
The span of American authority covers places with far less historical connection to Washington than Scotland has to the UK. Puerto Rico was a spoil of war taken from Spain in 1898. On the mainland, Texas was once an independent nation – today it has the second largest economy in the union. Are these candidates for independence too?
Each American state may have its own provincial government, but – as with Scotland – decisions of national significance are taken at the national level, however far away. While I am beholden to an online distance calculator of questionable veracity for this data, the point stands that you could be a lot further away from your government than even the most remote citizens of Scotland are.
What I’m trying to say is – in political terms – Scotland’s need for independence is no greater than that of many other places. But, even if this is accepted (by a great many, it is not) there will still be those who feel Scotland would be better off on its own.
For these people, my final political argument would be where does the fracturing stop? The comparison with Cornwall made earlier wasn’t made to belittle Scotland’s claim to independence, but to establish that – on the basis of the political arguments in support of it – we could argue for the creation of innumerable statelets of ever-diminishing size. And why not? Is size the deciding factor? If so, where do we (arbitrarily) draw the line?
History shows that new borders tend to accentuate divisions rather than soften them and I mean to demonstrate it in my next piece on this subject. For now though, I’ll conclude by saying that a democratically elected government is never going to please everyone, but by this time next year, we may well be have one which will leave the Tory heartland dissatisfied.