By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 03/05/07):
As an Englishman, I’ve been trying to work out what I think about Scottish independence. After all, the party that is tipped to win most votes in today’s elections, the Scottish National party, has this as the central plank in its platform. Even though 60% of those asked in this week’s Guardian/ICM poll of Scottish opinion said they did not expect to see an independent Scotland in 25 years’ time, the question is clearly posed.
My first reaction is to say, well, it’s up to them. Scotland is a nation. Nations have the right to self-determination. As I have seen many times in other parts of Europe, national independence is an important complement to individual freedom. What’s sauce for the Polish goose is sauce for the Scottish gander. And I’m sure Scotland would do fine on its own. Over to you, Jock.
A little reflection leads to a more complicated answer. First of all, the phrase “up to them” doesn’t quite capture the fullness of our relations. I am English first and British second. I like Britain but I love England. All the poetry, in the broadest sense of the word, that speaks to my imagination is English rather than British. “That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever Britain” just won’t do. If I had to die for anywhere, I’d wish to die for England – and I’d hope to go down fighting for an idea of England which is inextricably linked with an ideal of liberty. Brit, Briton, Britisher: these are all slightly cringe-making tags. “Britishness” seems to me an abstract, artificial concept – almost as if it has been translated from the original German (Britentum).
And yet, and yet, to say “them” of the Scots strikes a false note too. Because we have been so much intertwined, constitutionally since the Act of Union 300 years ago, in practice for longer, “they” are also part of “us”. England would not be the same England after separation. It would have to rethink itself. Moreover, while the ethical position is clear – “it’s up to them” says, in my view, all that needs to be said on that score – the political reality is that it’s also up to us. English attitudes will be a crucial determinant of the outcome. If it takes two to tango, it also takes two to disentango. And the English partner could, in the end, be the one who breaks off the auld dance.
Increasingly, I hear talk of a Slovak scenario. Readers will recall that, after the end of communism in 1989, it was initially the Slovaks, stirred up by the nationalist-populist Vladimir Meciar, who emitted Braveheart-like cries of victimhood, defiance and folk yearning for independence. But it was then the Czech Thatcherite politician, Vaclav Klaus, who engineered a situation in which the Slovaks, as it were, fell into independence, without stopping to consider whether they really wanted it. Klaus’s analysis was that the larger, richer Czech lands – now the Czech Republic – would have a better chance of success on their own.
Might an English Conservative leader one day do the same? It could, after all, secure a Conservative ascendancy in England. If the Conservatives feel themselves to have lost another general election because of the Celtic vote, the temptation will surely be there even for David Cameron. (He could change his Scottish name to Smith.) This is unlikely in the next few years, to be sure, but far from unthinkable. In any case, what the English do, not so much about the so-called West Lothian question – the arrangements for English self-government on purely English domestic matters – but certainly about the financial arrangements to replace the now dysfunctional Barnett formula for the regional distribution of public expenditure, will impact on Scottish decisions.
So we English must ask ourselves this question: would Scottish independence be good for England? On balance, my answer is no. I don’t accept the proposition that a nasty, racist lion of English nationalism would necessarily be awakened as a result of separation. Those would remain minority voices. Nor do I think that the slight loss of international power and influence for a post-UK England weighs much in the balance. But I do think that England would be culturally the poorer for the separation – just as, in my experience, the Czech Republic is today culturally the poorer, less polychrome, simply less interesting, as a result of its velvet divorce from Slovakia.
With scarcely a moment’s thought, I can reel off a list of Scots who enliven and enrich my own fields of history, politics and journalism – James Naughtie, John Lloyd, Niall Ferguson, Gordon Brown, Hew Strachan, Neal Ascherson, Iain McLean, Kirsty Wark, John Reid, Andrew Marr, Ian Jack, Kirsty Young. I could go on and on. Doubtless many, if not most, would remain active in English (more specifically, London-based) intellectual, cultural – and at least initially – political life, as some Slovaks remain active in Prague, but over the decades and generations there would be a gradual disentangling. And England would be duller as a result.
Behind this, there is a larger argument. In its origins, being British is without question an imperial identity. It grew with what the historian John Seeley called The Expansion of England. First, there was Great Britain, the empire within these islands. In the early 17th century, King James VI of Scotland and James I of England called himself “Emperor of the whole island of Britain”. Then there was what Seeley described as Greater Britain, the overseas empire in which Scots played such an important role. Scottish nationalism re-emerged as a political force, surely not accidentally, at the end of that overseas empire. In his book The Day Britain Died, Andrew Marr projects forward: “The empire made Britain. But its disappearance may mean the end of Britain.”
But hang on a minute: why should it? After all, my parents made me, but their disappearance, long may it be delayed, will not, I trust, mean the end of me. Things outlive their origins. Things change. And being British has changed into something worth preserving, especially in a world of migration where peoples are going to become ever more mixed up together. As men and women from different parts of the former British empire have come to live here in ever larger numbers, the post-imperial identity has become, ironically but not accidentally, the most liberal, civic, inclusive one.
By accident rather than design, we have created something special here: a nation of four nations, a multinational nation, including the glorious sporting institution of the “home international” between Scotland and England or Scotland and Wales. The humorous joshing that whizzes to and fro between the Scottish James Naughtie, the Welsh John Humphrys and the English Edward Stourton on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on such sporting occasions is a model of the kind of civilised, mildly ironical, post-nationalist patriotism that we desperately need in today’s mixed-up world. If all our identity differences – secular, Christian and Muslim, for instance – could be organised and tamed in this way, the world would be a better place. So why walk backwards along a road on which the world needs to go forwards?