Breaking up Britain
It is tempting to use this title for an editorial intended to comment on the news that the British, or United Kingdom, government has arrived at a conclusion to long continuing discussion with the devolved government of Scotland on the issue of a referendum for Scotland. While some Scots have long been pressing for what many observers believe to be full independence, Prime Minister David Cameron, the head of a Conservative Party not traditionally too keen to concede that Britain should be anything less than a united Britain, has conceded the wish of the present Scottish government of first Minister Alex Salmond. He has gone even further than the Scottish leadership themselves might really have wished, by insisting that the question to be put in the referendum should be solely on secession and not any other half way house between the present arrangements and full independence.
In spite of the fact that over the years, there have been many tensions in both Britain and the European continent, including in one or other of the regions and islands that make up the United Kingdom, the British have been prone to stand firm on the issue of the maximum political coherence of the state. They brooked no attempt at a grab for independence, as in the case of the Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army’s claims, at separation. And it is true to say that in the last phase of their colonial experience, they were prone to insist that entities which might have felt themselves to be different, and entitled to independent self-expression, should remain tied in one or other Federation.
But the history of those experiments, starting with the Federation of the West Indies, indicates that they could be flexible when they wished, as in the case of the Jamaican request for a referendum. Or, on the other hand, placing an emphasis on scale as a necessary prerequisite for effective economic growth and independence in the post-war world, they did their best to encourage, as in the case of the Nigerian Federation, the competing regions to hold together in whatever form that recognized certain key principles and operational rules for sustaining effective sovereignty and political control at the centre.
In a sense Prime Minister Cameron has held to this principle, in insisting that the Scots should have only the single option of independence, even though, as he put it, he passionately believed that “Scotland would be better off with the unitary state”. He rejected Salmond’s proposal that in addition to the independence issue, the voters should have the options either of full sovereignty or of a further stage of constitutional devolution of powers to the Scottish Assembly. And he argued, as if to appear on the side of the angels in this matter, that to the extent that the Scots had, in their last elections for an Assembly, voted for a party that advocated the holding of a referendum on independence, the people’s will should be asked on that single question.
In that sense, he decided to hang Salmond by his party’s own petard of full independence. And he has preferred to make himself appear the master of this game with Salmond, even while recognizing that he is taking a risk of appearing to have conceded the breaking up of Britain.
Cameron is well aware, that with a referendum scheduled to be held in 2014, and British general elections to follow in 2015, a win for secession will not go down at all well with his Conservative Party which has prided itself as being the party of British unity. And as Britain’s dismal economic prospects, unless there is a visibly positive upswing before 2015, are likely to be a negative in terms of the Conservatives’ political prospects, the Prime Minister could well be facing a double whammy when those elections come around.
The great wealth brought to Britain from the exploration of North Sea oil, has certainly added grist to the mill over the years for the Scots claim to independence. They have, like other secessionists, been able to claim, whether true or false, that England (the centre) got the better share of the wealth emanating from their part of the Kingdom (the periphery); and that this was so because the mere presence of Scottish MPs, necessarily split between the main political parties, in British Parliament, gave Scotland little leverage in the division of the spoils.
It is probably the case that the Scottish First Minister argued for more than one question, in addition to the mere independence question, because one of the Scots complaints is that, within the current British arrangements, they do not have the power to borrow money on the international markets – though undoubtedly a good proportion of the oil funds found their way there; and that they have only a very limited power to raise their own taxes within Scotland. So no doubt, if they won on the first question of extension of devolution, they could press for some of these kinds of economic policy options.
Clearly Cameron has decided to go for broke, with the intention of the possibility of putting the matter to rest once and for all. He will be conscious of the extent to which on the European continent, and particularly in Spain for example, worsening economic situations are inducing demands either for more regional power as the regions find themselves subject not so much to the Spanish central government but to the European institutions, for example, the European Central Bank; and by extension, to major European powers like Germany and France whom they have not elected. And in that regard, they dismiss the strength of the European Parliament as insignificant in providing leverage over the European Union decision-making system.
We can assume that the British Labour Party opposition would normally stand on a principle of enhanced devolution for Scotland. Their strength in both Scotland and Wales has tended to be substantial, and they gained by far the largest number of seats in Scotland in the general elections of May 2010; while the Conservatives and Liberals count receded. In addition the Scots did not make the gains that they thought they should have.
In the period since the demise of the Soviet Union and of Tito’s creation of Yugoslavia, the disintegration of large states and the creation of small entities has ceased to be a monopoly of the colonial decolonization process. Britain now waits to see whether the breaking up process will reach its own shores. Or whether Cameron’s probable gamble that, face-to-face with the ultimate option First Minister Salmond’s supporters will let him down, will give the United Kingdom, and himself, another lease of life.