Sunday, December 31, 2006

God Save the Queen: Scotland is a country which, at one time, was a proud and independent little sliver of land; but since the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland's been little more than a hand-puppet of England. But unlike Wales, which has been all but part and parcel with England for seven centuries, the Act of Union has long stuck in the craw of the Scots. Some ten years ago, Scotland voted in a national referendum for what the British call 'devolution,' which gave Scotland a parliament with about as much power as the state government of Florida. My brother was an intern in the Scottish Parliament last year, while he was doing the usual collegiate junior year abroad, and he worked for an MP in the Scottish National Party, which believes that Scotland ought to be separate from the Union.

It seems that the SNP aren't the only ones who believe that Scotland should stand alone, now; some 51% of Scots support a referendum that would remove Scotland from the Union (and which would, I guess, dissolve the Union outright, since there would be no more Great Britain in "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"). Matthew Parris, writing in the Times of London, sees the parallels between Catalunya and Scotland, both proud would-be nations whose contributions to the larger country are vastly beyond their population impact -- though I should note that Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city and that Catalunya makes up 15 percent of Spain's population, versus Scotland's 6 percent. I've always thought that independence for Scotland was a monumentally wrong-headed idea, that Catalunya represents such a huge chunk of the Spanish national economy that it might well have a higher per-capita GDP, independent, than the rest of Spain; but that Scotland's is an economy overwhelmingly dependent on banking, services and tourism, and that does not a successful First World country make. It would be like Delaware seceding from the United States. But I'm not the one voting on the referendum.

Anyway, Parris wonders that, given their history, neither Catalunya nor Scotland has any conservatives. He argues that the problem is that, for so long, conservatives have viewed devolutionist movements as dangerous and radical, and that this is not only silly but condemns them to marginalization:

So why, by persistently (and unsuccessfully) pouring cold water on the nationalisms of small nations, should conservative politics lose the affections of millions of inherently conservative people? Why hand the initiative to opportunistic single-cause nationalistic movements? When, as a conservative party, you have so few votes to lose in a devolved part of the kingdom, why not surrender to reality and embrace what no conservative should have difficulty in embracing: a people’s sense of nationhood? I have slipped unintentionally into talking about Scotland and the Tories. Good. Other columnists, too, have been writing about the apparent rise in separatist sentiment there. They rage entertainingly against Alex Salmond and the SNP. It is not difficult to rage against Mr Salmond but it is not enough and it will not do.

Among English commentators the default position (never quite stated but never far beneath the surface) is that separatist politicians are dishonest opportunists and it is about time the Scots grew up and realised which side their bread is buttered on. Among Scottish commentators in our national British media the view tends to be that separatist politicians are dishonest opportunists and it is really rather sad that they want Scotland to turn its back on so much that we in the United Kingdom can share.

The Conservative Party should arm itself against both approaches. We should ask why, if the Scots Nationalists are such transparently dishonest opportunists, they are doing so well. Naturally a separatist party will pick up what grievances it can find lying around and make hay with them. Naturally it will sow mischief and trade on resentment. Naturally it will gloss over inconsistencies in its vision for the future, fudge logic, shun hard choices and play to emotion. That is what independence movements do. If Mr Salmond is to be indicted for rabble-rousing, playing up the promise and playing down the difficulty, he must share the dock with George Washington, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela.

If a people are treated like children, we must not be surprised if their politicians do not always play politics like grown-ups. Until a people start visualising themselves as a country — not just in the realms of the patriotic imagination, but at the practical level of tax, law and administration — there will of course be a romantic unrealism, and a negativism too, in the attitudes they strike.


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