The Null Device

The Scottish independence referendum

In just over three days, Scotland will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom and go it alone.

The Scottish independence debate, in its present incarnation, has been going on for over a year, though through most of its course, it has had an air of phony war about it. While there was always a possibility of Scotland voting to secede, it was classified somewhere alongside the theoretical possibility of Scotland winning the World Cup, or perhaps one of the fantastic catastrophes in Hollywood action flicks, as something remote enough to be a mildly entertaining diversion worthy of a few minutes of hypothetical conversation. Were the debate a film, it would have borne a sticker reading “Rated 12A for mild peril”; as with a family movie, there was the assumption that, when the adventure was over, everyone would make it home (having learned a life lesson but being none the worse for it) and everything would be as it was before. So much so that the Treasury admitted to not having actually made any contingency plans for Scotland actually seceding.

The polls had been narrowing for a while, as the “Better Together” campaign against independence lumbered on uncharismatically, slowly being bled by Yes’s guerrilla tactics, though it did look as if No had time on their side; at the present rate of attrition, there was little hope of the Yes campaign making it over the line. But then came last weekend’s YouGov poll, showing the Yes campaign in the lead (albeit well within the margin of error), and subsequent polls showing similarly close results, sending the defenders of the status quo scrambling like headless chickens. The three parties made the undignified spectacle of climbing over themselves to promise Scotland the moon and stars if only it would stay, often getting the details of their actual promises mixed up. A second Royal Baby was hurriedly conceived. Banks and supermarkets were discreetly urged to warn their Scottish customers that prices would go up and jobs would move to London. A trainload of Labour party workers made its way from London to Scotland. People in England were urged to obtain Scottish saltire flags and fly them, in the hope of love-bombing the Scots into taking the sassenach back. There was even discussion over whether the Queen, serene and impartial unlike her son, should break her silence (and centuries of protocol) and urge her subjects to vote No. (Her Royal Highness demurred, instead gnomically imploring her Scottish subjects to think carefully about their future.) And, of course, the volume of the scare stories went up.

It seemed to have an effect, with polls showing No having regained the lead, and Labour grandees scenting victory and trying hard not to gloat prematurely. (Not all polls, though; some have shown the result being evenly split; a Sunday Telegraph poll showed Yes ahead by 8 points.) Of course, things are still close, and there are three days left to run. And while things could go either way, at this stage it looks like the more likely outcome is that No will win (by a narrow margin, unless the polling is off). The question of Scottish independence will be deemed to have been settled in the negative, once and for all, with the United Kingdom remaining one nation, united under the axioms of Hayek-Friedman Thought, administered in perpetuity from the City of London, and quite being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by PM Boris Johnson and deputy PM Nigel Farage in a few years’ time.

Of course, there are all those promises that the Scots have been offered in return for voting no: greater powers for setting tax rates, more financial and legislative autonomy, and everything up to a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” settlement. Of course, these promises were made in the heat of the campaign (often feverishly blurted out by politicians on the campaign trail), their very existence contingent on Scotland’s ability to make good on its threats to leave. Come 19 September, once that window is closed for the foreseeable future, showering the Scots with gifts will no longer be a priority; and, in fact, the English electorate may not be happy about rewarding what could be seen to be a tantrum. The boot will be on the other foot, and how gracious the victor would be to the vanquished remains to be seen. At one extreme, a Tory-UKIP coalition government would have in its power the ability to dissolve the Scottish parliament (which can be done by a vote in Westminster), and crush the rebellious Scots; perhaps using Scotland for punitively testing new austerity policies (as Thatcher did with the poll tax, which effectively annihilated the once influential Scottish Tories and propelling the idea of secession from the UK, once seen as bordering on lunatical, into the mainstream).

What if, however, Yes wins? Well, that would only be the start of a long process of negotiation, with both sides honing threats and promises into compromises. There’d be points of contention about everything from shared use of the pound to the basing of nuclear weapons and reconciling Scotland’s intention to increase immigration with its intention to maintain a common travel area with the UK. One way or another, these would all get resolved within a decade or so. Perhaps prices would go up, or go down, somewhat; businesses serving a largely UK market may relocate to south of the border (or may not, given how many companies trade with their British clients from Ireland or the Channel Islands). Though it’s unlikely that the Scots would be reduced to abject penury as some of the naysayers have been predicting. For the most part, things would remain the same, though a process of divergence would begin, as Scotland and the rest of the UK make their own ways. (Whether Scotland becomes a Scandinavian-style Jante-law market-socialist state while England remains wedded to neoliberalism (possibly shading into some kind of neoreactionary oligarchy) is by no means certain; it’s quite plausible that Scottish politics will grow its own right wing, one that is not beholden to London.)

The Scottish Herald has a piece by Fintan O’Toole, editor of the Irish Times, looking at the issue through the perspective of the history of Ireland (which got its independence from the UK some 90 years earlier). Of course, that is not the only possible precedent; another one is Norway, which gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Meanwhile, Charles Stross (who is firmly in the Yes camp) brings his usually deep perspective to bear on the issue; in his opinion, Scotland should be independent, because the post-Treaty of Westphalia idea of the sovereign nation-state is no longer fit for purpose (due to technological changes), and smaller states have less catastrophic failure modes than larger ones.

I, of course, don't get a vote, though if I lived in Scotland, I would vote Yes. For all the risks, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Scotland to redefine its destiny and what sort of nation it wishes to be. If Yes succeeds (and perhaps even if it fails), the results will be interesting to watch.

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