I can imagine what the remainder of the United Kingdom would be like without Scotland. Once the divorce became final, no doubt the country would be sombre, an emotional state brought about by the departure of a certainty. I suspect that an updated Union Flag would reflect the prevailing melancholy: the simplest change would be to replace the royal blue of the Saltire with the black of Wales’ St. David’s flag. This revised banner, however, would look like the drapery for a funeral when it is deployed on occasions of national importance. Good taste would dictate that “Rule Britannia” could be never sung again at the Last Night of the Proms: perhaps it will be replaced by a tearful rendition of “Jerusalem”. No doubt there would be some clamour among expatriate Scots for access to channels from the new Scottish Broadcasting Service so they could sing along to “Flower of Scotland” at their own Prom. When the UK Prime Minister goes to Brussels or Geneva for summits, he or she may be a diminished figure: I can imagine the shifty glances exchanged once their Scottish counterpart arrives on the scene. It may very well be that in a fit of pique, the remainder of the UK will decide to leave the European Union. The bustle and colour brought in by European immigrants to cities like London and Manchester will soften and fade. It would be a quieter country, to be sure.
North of the border, it won’t be an endless festival either. I fear that the Scottish National Party has been wildly optimistic in many of its predictions: first, the timetable for divorce is much too aggressive. It took the Czechs and Slovaks three years to split Czechoslovakia in twain, the idea that Scotland could be out by 2016 is probably laughable. Given the constraints imposed by having a currency union, the most likely monetary outcome will be a separate Scottish pound whose value is pegged either to Sterling or to the Euro. It may very well be that Scotland’s negotiations to enter the European Union will be messy: Europe is full of separatist tendencies, such as the Flemish nationalists in Belgium, the Northern League in Italy, and perhaps most pertinently, the Catalan independence movement in Spain. Spain, Italy and Belgium thus have no incentive to make it easy for Scotland to enter the EU, lest it provide an example to their restive factions. Meanwhile, uncertainty and turmoil may eat away at Scotland’s economy; furthermore, if America begins to export the oil and gas it extracts via fracking, the value of North Sea oil could fall, thus punching a hole in Scotland’s budget.
All of what I’ve described is pessimistic, but is entirely possible; it’s not often that a newly independent nation gets to bathe in the golden sunlight of good fortune. The United States initially suffered from endemic crises, brought about by the inadequate Articles of Confederation. Ghana’s promising start was tripped up by economic mismanagement and a coup d’etat. I recall visiting the newly independent Slovakia after the “Velvet Divorce” and it seemed shellshocked: for years after the split its politics were dominated by a thoroughly unwholesome demagogue named Vladimir Meciar, whose favourite scapegoats for his country’s plight were the Hungarians and the Roma. The streets of Bratislava, even on a summer’s day, seemed like they were lingering in the aftermath of a trauma. What Slovakia needed was time, a robust set of policies, and engagement with the European Union: now Slovakia is by and large a success story (indeed, Meciar’s party failed to enter parliament in the 2010 election), and its future seems relatively bright. No doubt it would be the same for Scotland: after a period of shock, there would be an adjustment, and the country would move on. The Scottish National Party hasn’t said this, rather, they’ve suggested that independence is a magic formula for economic renewal: separation may indeed lead to this rebirth, but the medicine is quite bitter and unlikely to be fast-acting.
Having said all this, is the pain worth it? In my opinion, yes: worthwhile change is often wrenching and sometimes requires a wholesale break with the past.
It’s clear that the present order is not sustainable. Citizens participate in elections, yet the governments they elect continue to harm them. This situation is particularly acute in Scotland; a few days ago, I saw a film which showed the operation of a Scottish food bank. Malnourishment is rife, indeed, the individual running the food bank described how one woman was so ravenous that she started taking cans of beans off the shelf, opening them and eating their cold contents.
Such a situation in a wealthy country, and particularly one in which substantial banker bonuses continue to be paid, inspires disgust and despair: it also speaks of the failure of a political system to cater to its constituents. Scotland used to return upwards of 20 Conservative MPs to Westminster (in 1931, it elected 50): in the last election it sent only one. Yet Scotland is mainly run by a Tory-led government which continues to inflict privation and misery via policies such as the “Bedroom Tax”.
Under these circumstances, a break is not only justifiable, it is required. We should be thankful that this rupture is occurring within the context of a referendum, not via violence on the streets. Perhaps just such a dramatic divorce will force the Establishment in the remainder of the UK, which has hitherto been deaf to the cry of the destitute, to confront the threadbare reality of their constituents’ lives and to do something about improving matters, lest further eruptions are provoked. Certainly, Scotland’s departure will at least provide a salubrious jolt to the powers that be: they will be reminded that if the electorate ever got truly fed up with them, they could be swept away in the blink of an eye.
Once Scotland gets beyond the pain of separation, it has reason to hope, although continued reliance on oil and gas is probably not sensible given how these commodities fluctuate in value and will eventually run out. However, there is plenty of potential for expanding the use of renewable forms of energy such as wind and tidal power. Scots are among the best educated people in Europe, with a reputation for excellence in science and engineering: these talents should be further encouraged by policies which promote entrepreneurship. Once out of London’s orbit, there is no need for the country to metaphorically tilt as it does, drawing talent towards the south of England. Rather, skilled people could be incentivised to gravitate towards Edinburgh or Glasgow. Already there is reason to believe, as evidenced by the excellent Scottish Review of Books, that a new flowering of Scottish culture is on its way. Yes, change will hurt: there will be years of uncertainty, mistakes will be made, no government is run by clairvoyant geniuses, perhaps there will even be a full blown economic slowdown. There may even be moments of deep doubt. But as the United States, Ghana and Slovakia have shown, liberty is worth it: paternalistic elites are shown the door, and those who are most likely to be concerned with the fate of the nation are granted the task of guiding it. Yes, those of us who live south of the border will look at the black in a revised union flag and see a void: but necessity created this vacuum, for it is necessity that seems to be saying “Yes”.