Despite appearing final, Scotland’s ‘no’ vote poses more questions than answers.

The Scottish referendum saw a level of political participation unrivalled in recent years. The population was energised not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom and it has sparked an unanticipated constitutional debate.

The West Lothian question asks why English MP’s should tolerate Scottish MP’s voting on English issues while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland. It is a historic questiunionflagon that dates back to the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 when William Gladstone argued:

“If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.”

The same logic was not applied to Scotland and, in a constitutional sense, England has been under-represented ever since the devolution bills of 1997. The West Lothian question is no longer a question, it is an ignored reality. In the wake of a referendum deciding Scotland’s future, attention has shifted towards England.

There is one fundamental problem. The West Lothian question is easy to ask but it is another matter entirely to answer it. A separate English parliament seems unlikely due to the additional cost and bureaucracy yet change, it seems, is on its way and so is heated debate. The three main parties are already bickering about reform despite weeks of apparent unity during the referendum campaign.

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Federalism is one option. We could devolve powers to regional assemblies to vote on local issues, thereby answering the West Lothian question. The electorate could also vote for MPs to sit in the Westminster parliament in the same way that the Scottish are represented by MSPs and MPs. There are many options and the preferred system can be debated and perfected with time. The fact that we are having this debate at all is the important thing.

Alex Salmond, despite his obvious disappointment, gracefully accepted Scotland’s decision to reject independence. He is a divisive figure and will continue to be so as he looks to hold Westminster to its promises. However, as Tony Blair once said: “when you decide you divide and that’s just the way of it.” Salmond decided. It wouldn’t be surprising if he goes down in history for engineering more change than even he suspects.

The Scottish referendum campaign has prompted the British electorate to ask questions that have long been ignored. Constitutional change is overdue but it is on its way and in this climate of reform perhaps we can finally review the state of The House of Lords too. Whatever the outcome, it is wonderful to see these questions finally being raised and fascinating to anticipate the results. We are on the cusp of witnessing historic change. Thank you Alex Salmond, thank you Scotland.

Some thoughts ahead of the referendum deciding Scotland’s future.

On Thursday 18th September 2014, the people of Scotland will be asked “should Scotland be an independent country?” The result of this referendum will not only decide Scotland’s future relationship with the United Kingdom but it will also have a resounding impact on the European Union. Pardon the cliché but we are witnessing history in the making and it would be unwise to dismiss the Scottish debate for anything less than that.

So far the independence debate has been passionately contested on both sides and there is no doubt that the Scottish electorate has been energised by the campaign. Estimates suggest that turnout could be as high as 80% which would be a truly remarkable level of participation compared to recent election statistics. As an Englishman, I am reduced to the role of interested observer and rightly so, it is not for the English to decide whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. However, part of me cannot help but dread September 18th simply because I do not want to see a successful yes vote.

England and Scotland are old enemies. We are nations divided by Hadrian’s Wall after the Roman conquests. We have lived through centuries of bitter warfare and rivalry while horrendous atrocities have been committed on both sides. However, the Acts of Union of 1707 can arguably be labelled the most spectacular peace treaties ever written. The Jacobite threat was undoubtedly significant but ultimately the union paved the way to a strong and wealthy nation. The newly formed United Kingdom was at the forefront of global commerce, scientific innovation and intellectual thought. Edinburgh, like Athens and Rome before it, was considered the global capital of intellectual thinking. Adam Smith and David Hume were both a part of the Scottish Enlightenment and are both studied today by economists and moral philosophers. At the height of empire, many English publications even joked of the Scots taking control of the world due to the disproportionately high number of Scots in the East India Company. There is no doubt that Britain as we see it today has a very Scottish stamp on it. The United Kingdom was and is an efficient working partnership that has not only bread friendship but untold success. In my view, the fact that England and Scotland were able to put aside old grievances for the benefit of the future was a fantastic achievement. I appreciate that this may be a very Anglo-centric opinion but as an Englishman I am immensely proud of the Acts of Union and would be deeply saddened to see them effectively nullified in the event of a yes vote. To vote yes would not only undermine the magnificence of the Acts of Union but it would be an unnecessary return to blind, old-fashioned nationalism.

According to recent opinion polls, it appears that the independence referendum will be a very closely fought contest. This, in my view, is due to the failure of the “better together” campaign to appear in any way optimistic of Scotland’s future prosperity with or without the United Kingdom. Rather than stressing the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the UK, their emphasis appears to have been almost entirely based on what might go wrong in an independent Scotland. In the televised debates Alistair Darling attempted to discredit Alex Salmond and the yes campaign by highlighting the flaws in their proposals for independence. Darling was especially keen to impress upon the audience that an independent Scotland would be economically weak due to the uncertainty surrounding the newly independent state’s usage of the pound. Despite the fact that this is a sound argument in many respects, what Darling didn’t realise is that it isn’t remotely inspiring for prospective voters. The activists campaigning on behalf of the no campaign have come across as deeply conservative “nay sayers” while those campaigning for a yes vote come across as progressives looking to take Scotland forward. The yes campaign, for their part, have capitalised and campaigned admirably for their cause. Alex Salmond has invoked the spirit of Robert the Bruce very effectively and used circumstance to his advantage. One very impressive element of their campaign was to link the “better together” campaign with the Conservative Party. The impact of this is particularly telling when we consider that the “better together” campaign is actively supported by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. More importantly, the Conservatives are unashamedly loathed throughout much of Scotland and their perceived link with the no campaign could shift swing voters to back the yes campaign. In essence, the “better together” campaign has blindly played directly into the hands of the SNP in a master-class of political ineptitude. 

As an Englishman I sincerely hope that Scotland votes to remain part of the United Kingdom. I feel that the union is something we should be proud of and to see it nullified would not only be a great shame but also, in my opinion, a mistake. Unfortunately I cannot help but feel that those campaigning for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom have not only underestimated the importance of their task but also failed to effectively articulate their argument. We should all be waiting for the result with baited breath and I for one will be hoping to wake up on Friday 19th September safe in the knowledge that the Scots remain part of this United Kingdom. Only time will tell.

An Englishman’s thoughts on Scottish independence.

In September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote in a historic referendum. It will decide the future of Britain as we know it. Will the Scots stay with us or will they decide to part from the Auld Enemy?

Modern African states were divided by Imperial European powers during the “scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century. Today we see nations with rigid, straight-line, and most importantly; artificial borders that were imposed upon them by a ruling imperial power. There are some horrific stories about the Berlin Wall; men going out on the night of 13th August 1961, only to find their path home blocked by the wall that had been constructed overnight and thus, separated from their families for over twenty years. The same can be said of Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall was constructed as a fortification to separate the Romans south of the wall from what they saw as barbarians in the North. Britons had lived alongside each other to this point and there was no sense of “Englishness” or “Scottishness” that we see today. Undoubtedly families were separated by a fortress constructed by a ruling foreign power and thus, the perceived cultural differences we see today between the English and the Scots were imposed upon us by the Romans. This is a fascinating starting point in the debate for Scottish independence and puts things into perspective; we are one and the same, we are islanders and any cultural differences we may see are largely false.

After the Romans left, England and Scotland were separate, rival states until 1707. The Acts of Union of 1707 saw the first official usage of the term Great Britain. Linda Colley makes the argument that Britain and the idea of being British was forged through warfare and consequently that “Britishness” is a modern concept. Prior to 1707, according to Colley, the kingdoms of Britain were culturally distinctive but the long, hard wars with France and later Germany united alien peoples behind the banner of Britain. This implies that unified Britain was a short-term alliance; much like the so-called marriage of convenience between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War Two. Furthermore, it implies that in a period of prolonged relative peace, the natural order will resume and rekindle the distinct cultural differences between the kingdoms of Britain. Is this what we are seeing today? Is the imminent referendum on Scottish independence a resumption to the natural order that Colley alluded to? On this I am unconvinced, if Hadrian’s Wall was an artificial divide separating culturally similar people then surely the Acts of Union in 1707 was the resumption to the natural order that Colley talks of and thus, we ought to remain unified.

Let us take a step back; the cultural story of Britain is a truly remarkable one. The Romans divided the celtic people of Britain and paved the way for centuries of bitter rivalry and brutal warfare. Yet, recent history has seen unification, friendship and prosperity. I for one would consider it a great shame if the Scots were to vote “yes” on Thursday 18 September. The “yes” vote campaign has raised some valid points and the British political system is far from perfect but fundamentally a “yes” vote would be a rejection of the English and actually a tick in the box for a return to the bitter rivalries of the past. Surely, in 2014 we have moved on from that? However, what has worried me so far is the electioneering of the pro-Union campaign. The threatening stance of Whitehall with regard to the Pound and a rejection of a shared currency with independent Scotland somewhat encourage these fantastical illusions of a modern Anglo-Scottish rivalry. Indeed, the threats actually play into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP and provide an opportunity to label the political manoeuvres as English bullying. If the pro-Union campaign allow the referendum debate to come down to such a style of politics, then the chances of a successful “yes” campaign increases. It allows Salmond to appeal to Scottish nationalism as opposed to rationalism; arguably it is his only chance of winning as it rekindles the nationalist spirit of Robert de Bruce. I sincerely hope that, come September, the Scots think rationally and vote “no”. Forget Braveheart, think David Bowie: “Scotland, stay with us.”