Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Scottish Referendum: a simple question

Earlier this year I attended a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. It’s a stone’s throw from the River Tweed which marks the present Anglo-Scottish border. This was the last of a long line of Anglo-Scottish battles, and it was one of the bitterest. Its outcome changed the history of Scotland, and arguably paved the way towards the Union of the crowns in 1707. The memorial cross on the hilltop that overlooks the battlefield says simply, and movingly, ‘to the brave of both nations’.

In North East England we have been a border people for centuries.  These marcher lands have long been fought over as their array of castles and fortifications show. The Durham Palatinate ruled by its powerful Prince Bishops was a buffer state within a state set up to guard the rest of England from invading Scots. Yet all that belonged to the middle ages. It’s odd to think that we were still fighting these battles on the threshold of modernity in the early 16th century.

I write this on the day the SNP publishes its vision for an independent Scotland. It’s a milestone on the long journey that leads up to next September’s referendum. It’s obviously a matter of keen interest to all Scots. But here in the borderlands, it’s a matter of concern to the English too. The decision Scotland makes about its future will have effects south of the border. If Scotland votes for independence, there will be consequences for the North of England that are economic, political and social. But these wouldn't merely affect the North. They would affect the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Independence would radically alter the way the surviving peoples of the Union saw themselves. It would need us to re-group in order to face a future that could be very different from what we know at present.

I happen to think that the Union is a good thing, and so far, the evidence is that a majority of Scots feel that way too. The Union as a federation of peoples is one of the world’s most successful nation-states. There is no doubt room to re-calibrate the precise ways in which our nations, provinces and regions relate to one another within a united whole, but that is no argument for dismantling it.

But this isn’t my principal concern right now. What baffles me is very simple. Why is the future of the Union, which is the business of all UK citizens, to be decided on our behalf by the Scottish people alone?

The more I try to get my mind round this question, the more puzzling it seems. I can’t find a flaw in the argument that the future of the Union is the business of the whole Union, not just part of it. It may be that in North East England, because of our violent history, we feel the force of this particularly keenly. What matters at the border, what kind of border it even turns out to be are as important to us south of it as to those on its north side. But as I’ve said, it affects all of us who are citizens of the UK. Profoundly and probably irreversibly. I am not sure we have woken up to this yet.

I can’t see that it is good politics, let alone justice, to delegate the dismantling of the UK to the say-so of 10% of its total population (fewer than 6 million out of more than 60 million). Whichever way it goes, it does not look like a well-founded plebiscite that acknowledges the legitimate interests of all UK citizens. I'd like to be clearer what the role of the Westminster Parliament is in this watershed constitutional decision. I am not comfortable about being disenfranchised, relegated to the role of onlooker gazing at a drama acted out on the Scottish stage that will have far-reaching consequences for the large audience sitting impotently in the rest of the UK.

For the avoidance of doubt let me add that I honour the Scots for many things, not least their intellectual rigour, their love of fairness and their strong sense of common purpose. We need all these qualities in the Union. But if there is a decision to make about the future of the Union, it should be through a process that is rigorous, fair and that has regard for the purpose and flourishing of all its peoples, not just some. I am sure the Scots don't dissent from that.

2 comments:

  1. I come with a view that is tinged with having a Scottish mother therefore, shared ancestry. I think that you are quite right in your contention that this isn't simply a matter for the Scots but for the whole of the UK.

    Somehow the Government and to some extent have yielded to the Power of the SNP who have basically decimated the mainstream political parties in Scotland over the last few years, leaving them without a voice in what is a constitutional matter involving more than just Scotland.

    It's time that the Government instead of carping away at bits and pieces, got it's act together and responded to the SNP White Paper with a robust defence of the Union and point out to the Scots just how beneficial the Union is for them and the whole of the UK. Instead, they are allowing the Scots to walk dazed and bemused into breaking up the Union, on half-promises, ill-researched and uncosted policies, which will cause the law of 'unexpected consequences' to go into overdrive.

    Perhaps a referendum in the rest of the UK needs to be run before the Scottish one, with a simple Yes/No Question "Do you want the Scots to Leave the Union", which would allow the RUK (Rest of the UK) as it's being described to voice their views.

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  2. By that logic should the fate of the Falkland Islands be put to a referendum including all concerned - i.e., Argentina, the UK and the Falklanders? Or Gaza be decided by a referendum including Israel? Or Taiwan by a referendum including China?

    Although it stands to reason that in the event of a Yes vote both sides should negotiate the ins and outs of the process to ensure the best outcome for all parties, it is precisely to avoid being subject to the tyranny of the majority that independence was proposed in the first place. The other 90% of the UK giving their tuppence worth won't solve anything.

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