Scottish Referendums and Sunsets

This post has been a long time coming.

Tomorrow, Scotland will vote on whether it should become an independent country, or remain part of the union with England that began in 1603 with the accession of the Scottish king James VI to the throne of England from his cousin Elizabeth I. (A formal union, leading to the “merging” of the two kingdoms into one would only be completed in 1707, over one hundred years later.) Perhaps surprisingly for one so opinionated as me, I’ve tried to stay out of the discussion, fearing to take sides, express a view, or identify myself as a supporter of either the Yes or No votes. And there’s a reason for that.

As a recent resident of the United Kingdom, I’ve stayed out of the debate over Scottish independence; my distance from the emotions of either side of the referendum debate made me feel, in the face of far more passionate views, that my lack of emotional engagement with the subject, combined with a perceived lack of “historical” context, rendered my right to share a view invalid.

After nearly two years of nearly somnolent discussion, the past few weeks have seen a rising hysteria in the discussion, with fears of a Yes vote galvanising the body politic of Westminster into increasing panic, with promises of rising devolution, greater federalism, and effectively, the right to nearly complete sovereignty guaranteed. But as we near the end of the debate, with results due by the early hours of Friday, it’s been (not unlike some politicians in Whitehall) a late realisation that for someone like me, who hails from a former British colony, and who has made the UK his home of choice for exactly one decade this month, having an opinion, a view and a perspective on the independence debate is as much a right as the next person.

But this perspective is not the same as that of a Home Counties native, nor is it that of a Highlands inhabitant. Through a unique set of circumstances that, like everything else in my life, renders my position on mainstream issues into that liminal space where there is very little in common with what most people think, my view is, well, liminal.

(Disclaimer: I can argue about the political and economic merits of either side, and if I were to argue for a “rational” decision, I would tend to support a no vote. But the campaign for Yes is one that works on an emotional level: it suggests that a British identity is no longer attractive enough to be subsumed within. And you cannot bring a rational knife to an emotional gun fight and expect to win.)

To begin with, my marginal view on the subject has meant that my frame of reference of the UK has perhaps never been wedded to the idea of union as an emotional frame of reference as much as a political one. Having grown up overseas, at a time when the “troubles” were in full sway in Northern Ireland, having seen the disintegration of Yugoslavia, of the genocides and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, and the dismantling of other political entities with declining degrees of disruption such as the USSR and Czechoslovakia, and having witnessed the reunification of East & West Germany and the return of Hong Kong of China, there has been an implicit, if subconscious, acknowledgement that political states are purely that: political constructs. No matter how tightly wound together social fabrics might be, no matter how immutable sovereign states may appear to be, there is no cause to believe that they are everlasting, nor that they may be impervious to change. As someone from the South Asian subcontinent, there is probably also an element of personal recognition of the fragility of political states, given that the Partition of India took place within my parents’ lifetimes, and the creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan within that of my siblings. So call it what you will, but there has always been a stoic recognition that all states are transient — it is only their duration that remains in question.

Bearing that frame of reference in mind, the question needs asking; is the political state that emerged from the Acts of Union in 1707 a purely political one, or was it able to forge a shared national identity?

Again, standing on the sidelines offers me a slightly different perspective on the potential answers to the question, and it is not an answer that I think most of my British friends might like. Having travelled extensively across the British Isles since moving here, the one thing that has struck me most is how (like much of India) the United Kingdom is an agglomeration of regional and local identities: Yorkshire distinct from Devon, Norfolk utterly different from Cornwall, and Londoners haughtily separate from everyone else. The United Kingdom is a glorious collection of localised, idiosyncratic identities, with stereotypes, humour and culture crystallising this Lacanian narcissism of minor differences.

But political and cultural unions, comprising such disparate components, must rally around and build shared identities and forge common cause. Great Britain was fortunate in that union was almost contemporaneous with the rise of imperialism (indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s Act of Security of 1704, which ultimately led to the 1707 Acts of Union, sought to allow Scotland to appoint a (Protestant) monarch separate from England’s unless it were granted free trade and navigation rights by the English.)

Those Acts of Union offered Scotland access to hitherto unimaginable prosperity for a country with an inhospitable climate and (at the time) few natural resources. Joining forces with England would transform Glasgow & Edinburgh into some of the empire’s greatest cities, with West Indian tobacco, sugar and slaves enriching local merchants well before Abolitionism and the Industrial Revolution would transform it again. Economic prosperity, and the ability for young and enterprising Scottish men to go make their fortunes in colonies around the world allowed the Union Jack to subsume, literally and figuratively, the Saltire.

What has been striking to me, therefore, is that in all the coverage of the referendum by so much of the media, there has been so little reference to the glue that imperialism offered to the union. Without the immediate and direct impact of economic prosperity that British imperialism offered both England and Scotland, I wonder if the union would have lasted quite so long as it had — if the pie hadn’t been so large to share, so to speak.

Imperialism also offered a unique opportunity to forge a “British” identity. Bearing the Union Jack, Britain would send private merchants and military might across the globe to build an exploitative economic machine that enriched the UK at the expense of millions. There is plenty of academic literature on how national identity formation takes place against a backdrop of ‘founding myths’, and how the economic and military machinations at play in establishing and strengthening political statehood are often disguised within concepts and ideals of “nationhood”. This is typically achieved by eliminating internal heterogeneity, often violently executed through mass migrations and ethnic cleansing — e.g. Catholic / Protestant, Greek / Turk. The presence of an external playground to build and establish the concept of identity, however, allowed the UK to avoid needing to establish internal homogeneity. The colonial enterprise was able to assimilate different identities and subsume them into a broader umbrella of “Britishness”.

After World War II, however, with the loss of its colonies (signposted by India / Pakistan in 1947, and accelerating thereafter), the UK entered a period of post-imperial decline. The need to identify a new “Other” to rally against was temporarily filled in the Cold War by the Soviet Union. The economic pie, however, was doomed to shrink, however, given the loss of access to heavily subsidised raw materials from the colonies that in an increasingly globalised world order rendered much of British industry economically unviable. While parts of the country were able to adapt and reinvent themselves (London is a classic case in point of a city where manufacturing declined as a percentage of GDP from ~ 30% in 1960 to less than 10% by the 2000's, but where GDP has grown significantly through the growth of financial services as an international industry) many parts fell into structural decline that even today seems at times irreversible.

(A shrinking economic pie also led to a decline in UK military expenditure. UK military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000's badly burnt the establishment, and demonstrated that a reduced UK could no longer economically sustain its historic military projection on a global scale.)

This diminished opportunity to exercise a British identity globally has meant that the glue that held the union together has been gradually disappearing as well. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that the idea of independence, which first gained voice at the end of the 1890's, but was distracted by the 20th century, began to capture public imagination in Scotland.

I’m not here to say which side of the referendum question is “right”. Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum, one thing is certain: the idea of a “British” identity will be transformed forever. It marks the end of the concept that built and sustained the largest geopolitical imperial enterprise on earth for centuries.

Whatever happens tomorrow, the sun will have truly set on the British empire.