The Scottish Question is a British Question

The most dangerous of all the many misperceptions that swirl around the independence debate is a greater problem beyond Scotland than within it. It is that the question of Scotland’s independence is a matter of interest only to the Scots.

What is at stake in the Scottish independence debate is the possible break-up of Britain. Bizarrely, this is sometimes denied by Nationalists – especially by that variety of Nationalist who believes that their only route to victory is to pretend to the Scottish electorate that voting YES is no big deal. I’ll have much more to say about that tactic in later posts. More forgivably, however, popular understanding of what would be at stake in any YES vote is woeful. What it would mean is the break-up of Britain.

Britain is the country that was formed in 1707 through the Union of England and Scotland. Scottish independence means precisely that Scotland should leave this Union. If one partner in a Union walks out, that Union is no more. When a husband and wife divorce, their marriage is terminated. Their union is at an end. Scottish independence requires Scotland to divorce herself from her 300-year Union with England. Scottish independence promises the break-up of Britain.

This does not mean that the United Kingdom will cease to exist as a state in international law. The “United Kingdom”, “Britain”, and “England” are not the same things as each other. Scottish independence will not mean the end of England; nor will it mean the end of the UK. But it will mean the end of Britain. If Scotland votes YES, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue as the United Kingdom (with, presumably, a name-change, from the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to the “United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland”). England will still be England, and Wales will still be Wales. But Britain — that Union of England and Scotland — will be gone.

So, for everyone who, like me, feels British, what is at stake in this debate is the destruction of the entity that gives us our identity.

All of which raises a mighty difficult question. If what is at stake here is the future of Britain, why do only those who live in Scotland get to have a say? Why is the future of Britain in Scottish hands only? In the 2014 referendum the electorate will comprise those who are on the electoral register in Scotland. You don’t have to be a Scot to vote: you just have to be on the electoral register in Scotland. And indeed if you are a Scot but not registered to vote in Scotland you may not vote (at least, not lawfully). There are two reasons that explain this. Both are compelling in political terms but hopeless as matters of logic.

The first reason is that successive British governments have accepted this position. Each of the last five Prime Ministers (from Mrs Thatcher to Mr Cameron) have adopted as government policy the notion that if Scotland votes in a lawful, fair and decisive referendum to become independent, then the rest of the UK will not stand in her way. On one view, no other option is open to the British government. How on earth could we contemplate the use of armed force to compel the Scots to remain under the rule of British law in the event that they desired to divorce themselves from it? (Echoes of Ireland, anyone?) On another view, however, this is the most extraordinary concession. Can you imagine the Prime Minister saying the same about London, Yorkshire or Cornwall? What if the Mayor of London was elected on a manifesto commitment that he would hold an independence referendum, advocating that Greater London leave the United Kingdom to become an independent city-state? Would the British government stand by and say, “bring it on”? It is unthinkable.

The second reason why it is Scotland, and not Britain, that will vote in 2014 is that this is consistent with the means by which devolution has been delivered within the United Kingdom since 1997. The referendum on Scottish devolution took place in Scotland; those for the various iterations of Welsh devolution took place in Wales; and those pertaining to Northern Ireland took place there. Even though devolution concerns the structure of governance within Britain there has never been a British vote on whether this is the structure we want.



Scotland, North Britain and Me

“North Britain” is a compliment. I think about Scotland as “North Britain” (and England as South Britain) because these two great nations have so much more in common with one another than they do with anywhere else, and they share so much more than divides them.

My life, as it happened, started in the south. I was born in Berkshire, raised in Dorset, educated in Norfolk and employed in London and then in Oxford before moving to the north. My family, like so many on these islands, comes from all over. My grandfathers were from South Wales and Liverpool. My parents now live in Leicestershire, escaping to a bolt hole in Snowdonia whenever they can. My sister met her husband and lived with him in the Highlands before returning to England. My wife, born in Charlotte NC and raised in New York NY, moved with me to Scotland in 2003. We got married here. All our children were born here. The oldest two speak with Scottish accents and go to a wonderful (state) school in the south side of Glasgow. Football obsessed, they happily shout for Scotland, England, the Netherlands, even Spain (when it suits them) and, like all decent football fans, they take their clubs much more seriously than any countries, and they shout loud, long and equally for Rangers and Arsenal (an auld alliance).

I’ve lived in Scotland for a decade. Most of the most important events of my life have happened while I’ve been here, including marriage and four births. But I’m not a Scot. Unlike my sons, when I watch Scotland play football or rugby I feel vaguely pitying and largely bored. As amused when they score as when they concede, I can never overlook that it is not my team. On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to shout much for England now, either. So it was a rare joy, in the summer of 2012, to find that a new team had got under my skin set my pulse racing. Team GB. I’ve never been an Olympics fan — it’s been football all the way for me — but here was the diversity, the dazzle, and the pan-UK mix that parochial “international” football on these islands has lacked for years.

I love living in Scotland. I love living in Glasgow — easily the finest city I’ve lived in anywhere — and I love living here despite the fact that I am not from here. Glasgow (like much of Scotland) is full of people who have never had the opportunity or desire to leave. They are here by default rather than by choice. I chose to move here, and I chose to stay. I made Scotland my home and a home for my half British half American half Jewish half not so Jewish family.

I love it because it offers me a slice and a flavour of my own country that I could never have tasted in the south.

I understand that not everyone feels this way. Many English folk already regard Scotland as foreign. Closely related, perhaps, but foreign nonetheless. It’s hardly surprising, given the power of the contemporary cultural iconography — the kilt above all, and the constant drone of international football and rugby. Some Scots return the favour, often with interest. Their whole lives are here. All their relatives. All their friends. They were born here, educated here. They have never left. They have visited the Med or Florida as often as London. They are Scottish through and through, Scottish to their core, utterly Scottish, only Scottish.

I respect that this is how many Scots genuinely feel, and I get that as many people in England and Scotland feel English or Scottish more than they feel British. But I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for the Little Englanders who are so terrified of loss that they can never see what has been gained. And I feel sorry for the Scots who go through life ignorant of what it means to know that Glasgow and Liverpool and Belfast have more in common with each other than any of these cities has in common with London. Or that Edinburgh and York and Oxford and Brighton are closer siblings to each other than Edinburgh could ever be to Dundee or Inverness or Motherwell. Looking back on my past I feel sorry in the same way for my old self, my English self. The one who spent 33 years within 115 miles of London’s magnetic pull and who thought, quite wrongly, that he knew the difference between the English and the British (when all he really knew was the difference between the south-west and the south-east).

That English self no longer exists. I may or may not stay here, in North Britain. I may one day return to the south. But even if I do, I won’t be going home. Home is already here. Home is Britain.

What is this?

This blog is where I will post my thoughts and reflections on the question of Scottish independence. This is a political blog and everything I post here is written purely in a personal capacity. Nothing posted on this blog is to be taken as reflecting the views of anyone but myself. Neither my employers nor anybody I work for are represented here. Just me.

I am a Unionist. I am opposed to Scottish independence. I am British (not English; not Scottish) and I do not want my country broken up.

I am a law professor at the University of Glasgow. This is one of two blogs I run. The other is principally for law students who are using the textbook I write on British constitutional law. I post on it irregular updates on matters relevant to students of constitutional law.

This blog is for anyone interested in the question of Scotland’s constitutional future. You do not have to be a lawyer, or a law student, or Scottish to read this blog. It’s for everyone who wants informed analysis, from an avowedly Unionist perspective, on the question of independence.

On this blog I do not claim to be dispassionate. I care deeply about the question of independence and I have declared clearly which side of the argument I am on. When I cast my vote I shall vote NO to the question asked, but in my heart I will be voting YES. Yes to Britain. Yes to Scotland in Britain. Yes to Scotland. But NO to independence.

I won’t tell you anything else here about my politics. Some of you will think I’m a Tory. Some of you will think I’m a Labour voter. Others may even detect a flavour of Lib Dem federalism amid the Unionist colours flown here. That is all well and good. I won’t say which party I support, although others may speculate about it elsewhere. For the purposes of the independence argument, it does not matter. The referendum will rightly give us only two options: YES and NO. And here, you’ll find NO arguments. Right-wing NO arguments. Left-wing NO arguments. Wingless NO arguments. Positive NO arguments. Negative NO arguments.