A yes vote in Scotland this week would be a very, very bad idea. Anybody who looks at it taking an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach is going to end up voting No, as they should. But I’m not going to rehearse all of the No campaign’s arguments here. Instead, I’d like to try to explain, to a largely befuddled American audience, how on earth the UK found itself on the verge of divorce.
As I see it, there are five main necessary conditions to explain how we got here:
- The EU
- The 1979–1997 Tory government
- The 2003 Iraq war
- The 2008 financial crisis
- The 2010 UK general election
The creation of the EU created a safe space for small independent countries, especially after the Cold War ended. No longer did Scotland need the protection and strength of a nuclear UK: it could choose instead to go it alone, like, say Slovakia.
The rise of the EU, and the end of the Cold War, coincided with a 19-year period of Tory rule by the end of which the Conservative Party was pretty much obliterated in Scotland. There’s something deeply conservative-with-a-small-c about the Scots, and if the No vote wins on Thursday it will be in no small part thanks to that conservatism. But the Thatcher-Major years convinced Scotland that the Tories only cared about England, and would pursue policies which few if any Scots wanted. Essentially, by 1997, Tory rule was considered tantamount to foreign rule, in Scotland.
Still, in 1997 the alternative to the Tories was Labour, not independence. With the Labour party in power Scotland got its own parliament, and there was, at least initially, much less opposition to Westminster policies than there had been in the Tory years. After all, Tony Blair was Scottish! Then, however, came the invasion of Iraq, and the transformation of Blair into a nightmarish vision of a bloodthirsty poodle. Clearly, Labour — even a Labour party run by Scots — couldn’t be trusted any more than the Tories could.
And then came the final straw: with Gordon Brown — another Scot — in power, and Scotland’s very own banks (run from London) helping to fuel the craziness, the London-based UK financial system managed to precipitate a global economic crisis from which Scotland still hasn’t recovered.
At that point, Scotland lost faith not only with the English elite, but with most of the Scottish elite, too — the kind of bankers and civil servants who would mark out successful careers in London before returning to a quiet retirement in Midlothian.
That’s why it was such a dreadful idea for the No campaign to be led by the ultimate technocratic Westminster-based Scot, Alistair Darling. He’s not a sign of Scotland’s influence in London: instead, he epitomizes the way in which the Labour Party buggered up the entire country. (He was finance minister, after all, during the financial crisis.)
The final straw, of course, was the return of the Tory party to power in 2010, under the leadership of the insufferable toff David Cameron. Scotland didn’t vote for Cameron, doesn’t want him in power, and has effectively no ability to kick him out through the traditional ballot box. (The referendum vote, however, is different: it’s hard to imagine Cameron surviving a Yes vote.) Labour was bad, the Tories are worse: it’s easy to see how Scotland would prefer to try to run things itself. At least then it would be responsible for its own mistakes.
Thus are the lines drawn: on the No side, you have the hated Westminster elite, who have done a bad job governing the UK and a particularly bad job governing Scotland over the past 35 years. Many of them are Scottish themselves, which only really makes things worse. Meanwhile, the Yes side is young and angry and betrayed and proud and, most importantly, really Scottish: they live Scotland every day, and they want self-determination. They want to run themselves, to make their own decisions, rather than chafing under the rule of Londoners (of whatever nationality) who spend much more time thinking about Brussels or Berlin or Washington than they do about Glasgow or Aberdeen.
In terms of economics, bigger is nearly always better. On purely economic terms, Ireland would probably be better off it was part of the UK; Canada would be better off if it were part of the US; in Europe, it would make perfect economic sense for the Netherlands to merge with Luxembourg and Flanders, while Wallonia joined up with France. But no one in any of those countries actually wants those things to happen. These days, countries don’t merge (the reunification of Germany being the main exception): they break apart, like the Soviet Union, or Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia. Or, quite possibly, if Scotland becomes independent, Spain.
The main hope for the No campaign, then, is path dependence: that the UK (or at least Great Britain) has been a unified political entity for so long that it seems more natural together than apart. That, and the pragmatic nature of the Scots.
I still think the Yes campaign is going to win, just because, given the choice, nations tend to want independence. Especially when they’re voting for a peaceful divorce from a country (more realistically, a city) which doesn’t care about them and doesn’t share their values. Would Scotland be worse off as an independent country? Yes. Is that sufficient reason to vote no? No.
That said, true independence is not an option here — which does gives me some hope for a no vote. Scotland wants to retain the pound, and if it can’t have the pound it will have the euro; either way, it won’t control its own currency. London and Brussels will continue to have a large amount of sway over what happens in Scotland no matter which way the independence vote goes. Which says to me, at least, that a combination of devolved powers with 59 seats in the UK parliament is probably a better bet than having much the same powers with no UK voice at all.
Of course, if it were up to English people like me, the vote wouldn’t even be close. To a first approximation, everybody in England wants Scotland to vote no. The question which we’re going to see answered on Thursday is not what the English think, it’s what the Scots think. And my feeling — my fear — is that they’re going to vote for change.
Felix Salmon is a senior editor at Fusion