What's the Point of Independence?
It’s probably a disgrace, but I’ve already forgotten the date of that referendum on Scottish independence. This cannot be attributed entirely to senility. I still know who I am, the date of Christmas, and the difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. These, after all, are important things, and one might feel honoured to announce them. But it’s hard to enter into the mind of someone like Alex Salmond who, last week, pronounced himself ‘honoured’ to announce a referendum on something so negative as the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Robert Burns has shrouded in infamy the Edinburgh parliament which negotiated the union with England. They were, he said, ‘a parcel o’ rogues’, and the expression has had the curious effect of casting a warm glow over the pre-Union parliaments, as if they were conclaves of public-spirited saints, intent only on safeguarding the rights and liberties of the Scottish people.
One of these parliaments, which opened on New Year’s Day, 1661, became infamous as the ‘Drunken Parliament’. Stupefied by drink, spending their time in carousing and revelry, they passed no fewer than 393 Acts. These gave the King (Charles II, once described as ‘a compendium of all the vices’), all he asked for: an income of £40,000 a year, almost the entire wealth of the kingdom; an annual Holy Day to celebrate his return from exile; and, above all, the repeal of every single Act securing the liberties of the Kirk.
That itself might lead to Ho-ro gheallaidhs in many a modern drunken carousel, but it was a serious business. The King was bent on despotism, and the only obstacle to his ambition was the church. Now, backed by an independent Scottish parliament (a real ‘parcel o’ rogues’) he could do as he pleased, and for the next thirty years Scotland suffered a Saddamesque reign of terror marked by torture, executions, banishment and extortion. And had it been left to an independent Scottish parliament, the terror would never have ended. Only the intervention of London’s Whig grandees, and the arrival of William of Orange, brought deliverance.
There’s no reason to think that every independent legislature will turn out drunken traitors to the Scottish people; only, that independence is no guarantee against rogues.
Which prompts the question, What, then, is it a guarantee against? It’s terrifying to think that for the next eighteen months our national energy is going to be wasted on irrelevant and sterile constitutional wrangling. We have problems in abundance, but it’s hard to see which of them independence can even promise to solve. It will make no difference to sectarianism, knife-crime, gangland violence, broken homes, drug-addiction, sink-estates or unemployment.
Mind you, it’s interesting to watch Nationalists doing contortions on this last one. They desperately want Scotland to be a demilitarised zone. They also want it to be neutral in any future international conflict: Salmond would have sent no Scottish troops to Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq or Afganistan. Yet, he wants defence jobs, squeals whenever Scottish regiments face being axed, cries ‘Foul!’ when the Ministry of Defence sends Leuchars fewer Army personnel than promised, and goes into denial when challenged as to the future of naval shipbuilding on the Clyde.
Which is it to be: soldiers or no soldiers; submarines or no submarines? Presumably we don’t want to use a Scottish army just as an alternative to Jobseekers’ Allowance or as a mere tourist attraction. If there’s to be no real fighting (a perfectly sensible policy) let there be no real defence jobs.
But though independence will make no difference to our endemic problems, perhaps it will bring great new, positive benefits? If so, then, presumably, they can be listed in a series of bullet-points. For example: independence might mean better pensions for the elderly, more GPs in remote rural communities, more teachers in inner-city schools, more libraries, weekly bin-collections, a rail-service to St. Andrews, a motorway from Perth to Inverness, a warm welcome for international students, and the guarantee of a summer every year (failing which you can claim compensation).
Or maybe independence will bring special tangible benefits to those of us privileged to live in the West Highlands? If so, they should be spelt out: an air-service between Skye and Glasgow; a doubling of the budget for Gaelic television; civilised security-checks at Stornoway airport; a thirty-mile exclusion zone to give West Coast fishermen a monopoly on fishing in their own waters; guaranteed prices for crofters’ lambs; and designation of Shawbost’s Harris Tweed mill as a World Heritage Site.
If none of the above, what’s the point? Is the mountain to heave, and bring forth nothing but independence?
Then, to add to my confusion, and give me even more reason to forget the date of the referendum, there is the mirage of the unparalleled prosperity we’ll all enjoy once we have control of Scotland’s oil. Yet experts tell us that we have reserves for only 40 years. Is that the life-expectancy of an independent Scotland; and shall we then have a referendum on re-negotiating the Union?
And finally: what about the idea of living with England as a foreign country? That’s how things were before the Union. The King lived in London, never visited Scotland, and listened gleefully to all the disinformation circulating about his northern kingdom. At the moment it’s not clear whether every Act of the Parliament of an independent Scotland will need the seal of royal approval or whether the Sovereign will attend the annual opening of Parliament or have a ceremonial role in appointing a First Minister. Nor is it clear what place Scottish peers will have in what, after independence, will be a merely English House of Lords. Nor, again, is it clear what relation Scotland will have with Northern Ireland. None, presumably; yet it was Scots who established Ulster.
But one thing is clear: there will be a border, as there is between the US and Canada, or France and Belgium. It may be minimalist, but the respective Border agencies will still have the right to search and detain; and every international visitor who arrives at Heathrow destined for Scotland will have to negotiate that second border (and, possibly, be in possession of two separate visas).
All this commotion, and so little to show for it in the end! Is independence anything more than a matter of national (or Scottish National) pride?
After all, we do produce the greatest footballers in the world.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 29 March, 2013.