Colin Kidd: Revamp for Unionist cause

Alex Salmond has argued strongly for benefits of Scottish independence. Picture: Julie Bull
Alex Salmond has argued strongly for benefits of Scottish independence. Picture: Julie Bull
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ALEX Salmond’s talk of a social union after independence has stymied debate, but there are plenty of arguments for keeping the UK together, writes Colin Kidd

Is THE only guaranteed alternative to English domination Scottish independence? This is certainly a card the SNP likes to play, evoking the Scottish heroes of the late 13th and early 14th century wars of independence, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. But historically there was another alternative to English empire: Anglo-Scottish union.

Union – as an alternative means of controlling English imperial ambitions – was the brainchild of the 16th century Scottish philosopher and historian John Mair. And when union finally came into being it was not an English takeover – in some ways it was quite the reverse. In return for amalgamating with the English parliament, the Scots were allowed a large measure of institutional autonomy, including their established Presbyterian kirk and distinctive system of law. Furthermore, the Scots gained membership of a large free-trading area and access to England’s overseas colonies under the protection of the Royal Navy.

Scotland flourished within the union of 1707. But the very successes of the 18th and 19th-century Scottish economy stored up problems for the future. The manufacturing elite began to prefer investment abroad to the limited opportunities available in the domestic economy, where there was insufficient demand, while, light industries and the service sector were underdeveloped. The First and Second World Wars served only to reinforce these imbalances and to delay the inevitable collapse of an under-diversified economy.

The rise of the SNP from the 1930s was merely one minor symptom of the malaise, less significant at the time than either communism or anti-Catholic prejudice. After all, there was insufficient faith in the long-term prospects of the Scottish economy to sustain a dream of home rule.

However, the discovery of oil changed all that. By the time the Scottish National Party (SNP) made its major breakthrough in the two general elections of February and October 1974, it was able to make a positive economic case for independence, while unionism was associated with Conservatives and, worse, with the atavistic prejudices of the UK’s most prominent Unionist politicians, including Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley.

Oddly, the continued rise of the SNP over the past two decades under Alex Salmond has not prompted any significant reappraisal of the case for union, which needs to be updated to meet the needs of each new generation.

The onus now is on Labour to make the case. The Scottish Conservatives currently hold only one Westminster seat, and since Thatcher have enjoyed little or no rapport with the wider electorate in Scotland. Scottish unionism will amount to nothing without serious support from the Labour Party.

Yet this requires the party to move away from an instrumentalist view of the state, which concentrates on the redistribution of wealth and the alleviation of poverty. Without addressing the issue of how to retain Scotland in the union, Labour will be out of government in England and unable to meet its primary social democratic purposes.

Labour faces a further problem. Although unionists seem to find it difficult to articulate a positive argument for union, Scottish nationalists are not afflicted by the same inhibitions. The SNP is already making the case for a much looser “social union” which would flourish in the context of Scottish independence. Ironically, it is Salmond himself who has made the most compelling case, saying in his Hugo Young lecture: “When you consider our shared economic interests, our cultural ties, our many friendships and family relationships, one thing becomes clear. After Scotland becomes independent, we will share more than a monarchy and a currency. We will share a social union.”

The envisaged “social union” is craftily opaque – all things to all men. Salmond has astutely pre-empted the social democratic case for union: that social democracy across Britain relies on the support of a left-of-centre Scottish electorate working through the Labour party to deliver social democratic governments for the UK.

Salmond has also presented himself as a more reliable custodian of Anglo-Scottish membership of the European Union than the Conservative Party’s Little Englanders. Indeed, “independence in Europe” is the SNP’s flagship policy, a way of winning support for Scottish autonomy within the protections of another union – a larger and so arguably more resilient one than the United Kingdom itself.

There are also economies of scale to be considered. A genuine social union would spread risk across the complex and diversified economies of the whole of the UK. Without a fiscal and political union, a social union is, in the long run, destined to be little more than an optimistic soundbite. The likeliest prospect of independence is a beggar-my-neighbour spiral of cuts in corporation tax, leading in time to the erosion of welfare and pensions. The union-state is the unacknowledged bulwark of the welfare state.

The curious phenomenon of the SNP’s pseudo-unionism also points to an elemental – and still unharnessed – power in the unionist cause: that even Scottish nationalists, their commitment to independence notwithstanding, can perceive how reassuring unions are in a world of anxiety and insecurity.

Scotland’s financial sector thrived within the union. The Bank of Scotland, founded in 1695, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, established in 1727, contributed significantly to the development of Scotland’s economic infrastructure. In particular, 18th-century Scottish banks pioneered the system of cash-credits – a kind of overdraft facility – which guaranteed a measure of liquidity to the emerging industries. The recent financial crash, and particularly the fall of Scotland’s banking giants, showed that a powerful union-state provides a necessary safety net beneath the richly rewarded trapeze artistry of high finance. Indeed, in this respect the United Kingdom seems to be a more credible union-state than a European Union riven by national divisions, between Germans reluctant to mollycoddle Greeks and Greeks fearful of German imperiousness.

Whereas the European Union exists – somewhat superficially – as a contractual union, the British union is a union of belonging. In the United Kingdom, centuries of shared experience and a common set of values meant that English voters never questioned why English taxpayers’ money was, notionally, being used to prop up Scottish banks.

Would an independent Scotland – smaller and with a less diversified economy than the UK as a whole – not be highly susceptible to global fluctuations in the markets (such as for oil), and thus find it difficult to guarantee a minimum standard of living for its people? Would “independence in Europe” really make a difference in this regard? Has it shielded Greece from social trauma? Without the financial security offered by the British state, Edinburgh as capital of an independent Scotland, could become once again – in much less auspicious circumstances and with a different set of resonances – “the Athens of the north”.

On the other hand, there is a positive case to make for multi-national diversity – within limits, of course. Genuine political community is best sustained by a common language and a reservoir of shared ideals, notwithstanding inevitable differences in any community about how these might be realised. But in small countries too much ethnic solidarity can become claustrophobic, especially for immigrants – and small-nation homogeneity might also be stifling for natives.

By contrast, a positive case can be made for the “liberal” dimension of a social union. Britishness offers a non-ethnic badge of identification for citizens on both sides of the Border. It doesn’t frustrate full expression of a Scottish identity – Scots have, after all, lived with dual identities since the union of 1707. Concentric loyalties have flourished during the past three centuries: a kernel of loyalties to native glen, kirk and song at one’s core of belonging, complemented by an outer husk of official allegiance – though perhaps at times no less emotional – to the British state.

At the micro level, there is also much that Scots currently take for granted and that might be threatened by independence. Will an independent Scottish state have to replicate the entire panoply of government ministries and public agencies, many of which benefit from economies of scale and are run – relatively speaking – cheaply and smoothly as UK-wide institutions?

How much would it cost Scotland, for instance, to set up its own equivalent of the DVLA at Swansea or to contract in to the DVLA from outside the United Kingdom? In other areas of public administration, the costings will be more elusive. By contrast with the humdrum and unspectacular efficiency of the DVLA, the BBC provides a compelling example of a widely loved service, whose broadcasting role in Scotland would be precarious in the event of independence.

Moreover, notwithstanding coded talk of a “social union”, welfare and pensions are, of course, likely to be even touchier subjects for Scots. Unionists need to capture for themselves the rhetoric of social union. Obviously, matters of public administration and the distribution of state benefits do not capture the imagination of the wider public in the same way as centuries of grievances – or imagined grievances – concerning the overbearing behaviour of a richer and more powerful neighbour.

Nevertheless, such is the complexity of modern society that an interlocking set of effective UK-wide bureaucracies – however dull and uninspiring a subject that may be for campaign slogans – is not to be lightly jettisoned without overwhelming good cause.

• Colin Kidd is professor of history at Queen’s University, Belfast. This is an extract from “The Case For Union” which will be published in full this Wednesday in Juncture, IPPR’s new politics journal. Visit and follow @Juncture_ IPPR for more information.