The Scottish Vote is a Disastrous Idea – Strategy Built Britain, Sentiment Will Break It

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.


Later this year the Scottish people will be asked to decide upon the future of the most successful national union the world has ever known.

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They will head to the polls in the independence referendum having been badly let down by the tenor of the independence debate, one which takes place in circumstances so abstracted from the reality of the consequences that only the most astute will be able to pilot their way between the evasions and half-truths arrayed as statements of fact by all participants. In fact, the Scottish are being required to make a choice of utmost strategic importance to the future of their nation not by reference to economic and political realities, but by fantastical appeals to sentiment on both sides. It is the British disease, and it would be a particularly British way for the Scots to announce their re-birth as an independent nation should the vote be for an exit.
[pullquote]The dressing of wishful thinking as critical thinking is leading to a situation of immense danger for both Britain and Scotland.[/pullquote]I wrote last week of the chain of events which had led the Union to its current straits. I argued that for reasons of narrow political advantage, the Labour government of 1997 was determined to devolve political power to regions within the UK which had a strong socialist tradition, anticipating that these would act as bulwarks against a Tory government in Westminster. I also argued that the European Union principle of subsidiarity – devolving power to a local sub-unit rather than a national government – an idea which belonged to the politics of post-totalitarian Europe, had wrongly been adopted by a United Kingdom which did not share the historical imperatives that caused its adoption elsewhere, and that this provided the ideological reasoning for ceding power to Scotland. In an earlier essay, I argued that the principle of neo-institutionalism was broadly correct, and that where institutions were created in opposition to the power of national governments, these institutions would seek to expand their power. Taken together, I believe that these themes – political and ideological calculation married to institutional creep – inevitably led to devolution causing rising nationalism. This was entirely foreseeable and that it was not foreseen was thanks to the enormous capacity of the British political class to believe that the best of things will occur, rather than the most likely. This essay explores how that self-same dressing of wishful thinking as critical thinking is leading to a situation of immense danger for both Britain and Scotland.

In the absence of strategy

Image shows an antique-looking compass on a map.
There are three main approaches that can be adopted in the running of a country: strategic, reactionary and sentimental.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of running a country. The first is strategic – making an assessment of where you would like to be positioned by a fixed point in time then designing and enacting a plan designed to take you there. The second is reactionary – taking broad objectives and attempting to respond to events in such a way as will bring about those objectives; unlike a strategic policy, the reactionary government does not try to precipitate those events itself. The final method is sentimental – this approach is reactive but with respect to the prevailing public mood, rather than any defined and coherent set of objectives. Unlike the other two, it measures its effectiveness by the feeling it produces, rather than the result.
Since the First World War, British governments have pitched themselves towards the sentimental model of government. As a result, they have prioritised doing the right thing over doing the strategically valuable thing, and as a result have done neither, as doing the right thing in one small context has often led to major, un-imagined concessions being made elsewhere. In short, critical thinking in public life is a dead science. And yet at this moment in time, it is a necessary one. The Scottish independence vote has enormous implications in terms of the economy, defence, foreign affairs, education, labour laws, jurisprudence and the constitution. The voter stood in the polling booth must, if he is to make a reasonable decision, ask himself what constitutes the best of worlds in each of these areas, and then ask himself to think through rationally how a likely vote in each direction will alter the direction of travel, and whether it will take him nearer or further from the world he wishes to see. Most of all, his decision should concern itself with power, an unfashionable but pertinent topic: power. All human affairs can at some point be reduced to the ability of one group to either impose its ideas onto others or withstand the imposition of alien ideas, a process which is carried as much through the airwaves (soft power) as across the ocean waves by ships of the line (hard power). The Scottish independence movement is presumably based on an assumption of the value of Scottish culture and ways of thought and living, and a desire to preserve them. The ultimate question for the Scottish voter, then, is this: where is Scotland more powerful? Is it as a large part of a great nation of the second tier, or as a smaller player in the European grind towards a federated state?

Image shows a beautiful Scottish landscape.
Alex Salmond, at the launch of the Scottish independence white paper, said, “Our vision is of an independent Scotland regaining its place as an equal member of the family of nations – however, we do not seek independence as an end in itself, but rather as a means to changing Scotland for the better.”

This is not a decision which British politics is at all equipped to help them with. Instead, wishful thinking and arguments based upon sentimental views of the world divorced from even the echoes of strategic analysis hold sway. Alex Salmond argued at the launch of his 670 page blueprint for an independent Scotland that a yes vote would lead the country to regain “its place as an equal member of the family of nations.” Countering, David Cameron, who at least could never be accused of selecting his Scotland policy on the basis of narrow party advantage, asked the residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to “lovebomb” the Scottish and ask them to “stay in this family”.
These are fatuous statements which tell us a lot about the strategic ignorance underpinning the whole debate. Nations are not family members. Unlike families, nations do not share a common heritage, be it cultural, historical or institutional, they do not think in similar groves nor do they instinctively understand and empathise with one another when in conflict, larger and more mature nations do not surrender precious resources to smaller struggling nations from paternal instinct. In short, international relations are not, and have never been, anagalous to those of a household. Forgetting this, anticipating a communality of interest and goodwill, led Britain to appease Germany throughout the 1930s when swift, decisive aggression would have saved the world the horrors of the Second World War. It is the instinct which now, unchallenged on both sides, invites the natural union of two peoples on one island to surrender themselves to the romance of Plantagenet times at an instance in history where one certainly and the other probably are in no position to go it alone.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Slipping into soft-mindedness

The world looks as it does today because England and Scotland did not always regard international relations in such a way. The unity of the two kingdoms in 1707 was the result not of public aspirations to brotherhood on either side of Hadrian’s Wall, but was instead a hugely successful example of hardnosed realpolitik – Scotland was bankrupt after the failure of its colonies in Panama and needed bankrolling by Westminster; on England’s part, a secure Scotland meant a guarantee of internal security, removing a major strategic vulnerability and allowing it to transfer resources into the navy from the army, building the marine force which would allow British explorers, businessmen and soldiers to hurl themselves upon a quarter of the planet while the mother country sat secure behind a wall of sea and sail.
The striking absence of both illusions about fraternity with an enemy of ancient vintage, and of the costs inherent in union are ably explored in Linda Cooley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. While British national identity began to take shape in reaction to apparently endless wars with France, colonial ambition, and the pressures of being a Protestant power attached to a Catholic continent, at the beginning it represented a cold act of ambition on both sides.

Image shows Eilean Donan Castle, located in the middle of a lake, surrounded by mountains.
Romantic images of Scotland abound, but should they have any bearing on the current debate?

Have the strategic imperatives which forged the union now disappeared? No, although they do now have a different shape. Take defence. Defending England of necessity requires defending Scotland, a requirement the English are bound to in the same sense that America could not permit a military assault on Canada. Given that Scotland is quite likely to refuse to defend itself on the same romantic, internationalist grounds that the current independence debate is conducted in, independence is likely to entail a resource drain for England in terms of home defence, and dependence on the English without representation in their decision-making from a Scottish one. Likewise, in cold analysis, Scotland does not have the population, the wealth, the universities, the enterprise culture, or the cultural capital to wield a voice in the world – it has a GDP equivalent to Pakistan’s, a population slightly less than Turkmenistan’s and without England it would wield the same clout as either.
The Scots nationalist may reply that his Scotland will be an isolationist state or a tax haven; the Englishman may counter that the border can be closed and Scottish weakness limited to that nation. These are legitimate answers and should be weighed with the ones which preceeded them. But weighed they shan’t be. For as long as we talk about a brotherhood of nations, Scotland the truculent teenager worrying maternal England with her threats to flee the family home, we deliberately refuse to engage with any of the actual questions which the independence movement throws up – without strategic thought, all we are left with is an emotional appeal and the slow audit of subsequent weakness.

Image shows Bank of Scotland five and ten-pound notes.
A lack of desire to discuss practicalities has contributed to the fact that it remains unclear whether an independent Scotland would be able to retain the pound.

So why don’t we discuss the realities of Scottish secession? Politicians in Britain are used to debating on two levels. The first is by revelling in granular detail and presentation of selectively chosen numeric data produced by a third party as something akin to an infallible pronouncement in their favour. It is this habit which has done so much to destroy political debate in parliament as a succession of MPs dully regurgitate margin notes from IFS surveys which they have never read in a courageous attempt to demonstrate that what they believe is not, in fact, an opinion, but a fact. The second is the device of interpreting complex political trade-offs in the form of simple morality plays with an obvious good guy and bad guy and the speaker on the side of the angels. Neither of these methods of political conversation are appropriate to the “grown-up government” which we are told, in winningly patronising language, is our due.
The strong, almost puritanical morality which has run through Britain for two centuries (firstly in the form of Protestant Christianity, latterly in the form of an aggressive secular morality which concerns itself largely with intractable yet conflicting rights) has hampered for a long time the ability of the governing class to either communicate with or make decisions regarding the governed with any degree of clarity. In its salad days, Britain was held together by a strong sense of the mutual dependencies of England and Scotland and the notion that however much enmity existed on both sides of the border, prosperity lay in union. Arguably, it still does, but the greatest assertion of the nation’s decline lies not in the results of the coming plebiscite but in its inability to think through the consequences of action other than through the lens of personal sentiment.
Scotland may choose to go its own way. I hope it doesn’t. This is not because I have any particular sentimental attachment to our northern neighbours, but because if they do so, they will reduce England. They will reduce themselves also. But then, what is security, prosperity and peace held against the solemn attraction of joining the “family of nations”? We are about to find out.


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Image credits: banner; compass; landscape; castle; currency