On the 18th September 2014, which is now just over a week away, the Scottish people will be asked if they wish to end the union of their country with England, and therefore to break up the United Kingdom. Though, as an Englishman, I have no vote in this matter, I have the obvious right to an opinion, and I will try briefly here to express it.
On the whole, I wish the matter had not been raised. The past hundred years in Britain have been a time of great political and institutional change. I have no doubt that good intentions lay behind many of these changes, and that some looked a good idea at the time. But I do not think more than a few of them had beneficial effects. Now the dissolution of the country itself is on the agenda, it is worth asking why, things being as bad as they are, anyone in his right might could want more change.
The question is easily answered. The Union is already finished. If next week’s vote goes catastrophically against the separatists – say, by more than 90 per cent on a high turnout – that will be the end of the matter. But, while the Scottish seem likely to vote for the Union, it will be by a close margin. If as few as a third, again on a high turnout, vote for dissolution, there will be demands for another vote within five or ten years. In the meantime, the game of unreasonable demands and unwise concessions will continue to play between London and Edinburgh. We might as well hope for a clean break now, rather than wait for a messier coming of the inevitable. And, since it may be inevitable – and since it is not we who have put it on the agenda – it strikes me as reasonable to consider what benefits may flow to the English in the event of dissolution. Of these, there are three most worth considering.
First, the Scottish political class, through their weight in the Labour Party, has, at least since the 1990s, been a hostile elite among the English. I do not blame these people for all that has been done. England has its own forces of radical change. But it was they, in the Blair and Brown Governments, who did most to abolish the forms of the Ancient Constitution. They were of critical importance in destroying that sense of organic continuity with the past which, in the absence of a written constitution – and perhaps better than a written constitution – kept England reasonably free. Without the sense that things had always been so, and therefore should always be so, the procedural safeguards of the criminal law, and the general belief in government restraint, became so much rubble from the past – rubble that could then be cleared away by tidy-minded and highly authoritarian radicals.
Dissolving the United Kingdom cannot bring back the Ancient Constitution. But it would end the power of the Scottish political class in England. Set these people on the high road home, and there is some chance that the conservative liberalism that, in every change of the past century, has remained the default prejudice of the English might reassert itself.
Second, and following from the first benefit, dissolution might end the hegemony of the Conservative Party in England. It is hard to say when this party was last meaningfully conservative. In the 1980s and 90s, it did much to prepare the way for the triumph of the Scottish political class. Since 2010, it has left the fruits of that triumph untouched. Nevertheless, conservative Englishmen feel no choice but to vote Conservative if they want to avoid the greater evil of a Labour Government with much of its moral and electoral base in Scotland. We vote for the party we despise to try keeping out the party we fear.
Take Scotland out of our electoral politics, and Labour would become largely the party of the ethnic minorities and the public sector. These interest groups are unlikely yet to secure it victory in a general election. We could, then, for the first time, think seriously about voting for a party we actually liked. I repeat that England has its own authoritarian radicals. But I also repeat that, without the Scottish political class and its client vote in the Scottish cities, the native enemies of our ways would lose much of their hold.
Third, dissolution would, of necessity, end the pernicious delusion of Britain as a great power in the world. We lost our hegemonic position in the 1940s. But our rulers have never lost their belief that, if we only suck up hard enough to the Americans, and keep up our membership dues to the right international bodies, we can somehow “punch above our weight.” A rational policy after 1945 would have focussed all effort on the defence of our home islands and the maintenance of our commercial and industrial position. No longer what we became after 1760, we needed to relearn how we had conducted ourselves before then. Instead, our ruling class chose three generations of self-deception. The results can still be seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all those other faraway places where we try – with a lack of success that would be risible but for the corresponding bloodshed – to impose our will as if Lord Curzon were still Viceroy of India and the line of our battle fleets still vanished into the mist off Spithead.
Ending the United Kingdom will end this. England by itself will remain both rich and powerful. But there will be no more playing the ghost of the British Empire sitting enthroned on the grave thereof. It will be an end welcome to us and to those elsewhere in the world we remain able to hurt without being able to rule.
But I have not mentioned the effect on Scotland. How will its people fare under Alex Salmond? Who will pay their welfare benefits? How will they feed themselves? And how, in their own small state, will they balance internal tensions that English power after 1745 flattened without ending, and that have been added to by Irish and non-white immigration?
My answer is that, so far as they do not require us to militarise the border, these are not questions an Englishman should presume to ask. While the Scottish people are also our people, their welfare is bound up with our welfare. Let them vote – as they eventually will – to become their own people, and our whole duty lies in giving them a pat on the back and our best wishes for a future in which they will stand or fall by their own efforts. If they stand, so much the better. If they fall, so much the worse. In either case, it will no longer be our concern. As before 1707, it will be our destiny alone that must be our concern.