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To Save the U.K. Give Scottish Nationalists the Canada Treatment

Niall Ferguson

By Niall Ferguson

Scottish nationalism was my gateway drug to politics. The year was 1979. I was 15 — an age when it is easy to confuse the mood of a crowd of football fans with the case for a constitutional change. The year before, Scotland had made it to the soccer World Cup finals in Argentina. They had not progressed beyond the first round, having lost to Peru and drawn with Iran, but they had somehow managed to beat the Netherlands 3-2, and the beautiful goal scored by Archie Gemmill was engraved in all our memories.

Even more importantly, just weeks before the first referendum on Scottish devolution — which was held on March 1, 1979 — Scotland’s rugby team had held England to a 7-7 draw at Twickenham Stadium. (In Scotland a tie with the English is a “moral victory.”) I still recall the rush of adrenaline, the tingling of the spine, the readiness to fix bayonets and charge that I felt in those days when my school friends and I sang “Flower of Scotland,” the unofficial national anthem. Marx famously wrote that religion is the opium of the people. But nationalism is the cocaine of the bourgeoisie.

What happened next was cold turkey; my painful introduction to the prosaic realities of politics. The 1979 referendum asked: “Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?” This was a reference to legislation passed by the moribund Labour government of Prime Minister James Callaghan, which envisaged the creation of a Scottish Assembly. Just over half of those who voted (51.6%) said “Yes.”

However, an amendment to the act (the work of George Cunningham, a Scot who was member of Parliament for a London constituency) had required at least 40% of the total electorate to vote “Yes” or the entire act would be repealed. As turnout was just 64%, the yes vote fell short, as it represented less than a third of those eligible to vote. I was in equal measures dejected and indignant. I dimly recall at least one fistfight on the train to school with a boy who expressed satisfaction with the result.

Those days are past now, in the mawkish words of “Flower of Scotland,” and in the past they must remain. Political sentiments such as these — the intoxicating cocktail of patriotism and pugnacity — are things to be grown out of, like binge drinking and attention-seeking clothes. I went to university in England, studied history, and realized what utter rubbish it all was.

The poor, oppressed Scots, ground down by the English? King James VI of Scotland could not have been more delighted when he inherited the English crown in 1603, becoming James I.

The Scottish elite embraced the union of the nations’ parliaments in 1707 because it gave them access to English wealth after the disastrous losses of the Darien scheme (to colonize what is now Panama). As the British Empire expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, Scots were overrepresented in almost every role, staffing the East India Company, running the Caribbean plantations, and settling the Americas and the antipodes — a central theme of my book “Empire.”

In the world wars of the 20th century, the Scottish regiments did a disproportionate share of the fighting for king and country. “Not f***ing likely, you yellow bastard!” was the reaction of one member of the 51st (Highland) Division when ordered to lay down his arms by an English officer in June 1940. Such evidence lends credence to the story about the two Highlanders watching the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk. “Aye, Jock,” said one to the other, “If the English surrender, it’ll be a long war.”

In peacetime, too, the U.K. has given generations of Scots far greater opportunities for advancement than they would otherwise have enjoyed. In all, 11 prime ministers can be counted as Scots (Bute, Aberdeen, Gladstone, Rosebery, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Law, MacDonald, Douglas-Home, Blair and Brown), while David Cameron’s father was Ian Donald Cameron, born in Aberdeenshire. One reason the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, polls very badly in Scotland is that, although he is the American-born great-grandson of an Ottoman pasha, he has risen to power by playing the part of a caricature English toff.

Unfortunately, and partly because of Boris-itis, the utter rubbish of Scottish nationalism is back — yet again. On May 6, voters in Scotland go to the polls. The latest opinion surveys suggest that the Scottish National Party could win an outright majority. If so, they will demand a referendum on independence, which would bring the total number of referenda on Scotland’s constitutional status to four in the space of five decades.

Scotland got “devolution” at the second attempt in 1997. Soon after his landslide victory in May of that year, Tony Blair (born in Edinburgh, educated at Fettes College there) fulfilled a manifesto commitment by allowing another referendum, this time posing two questions: whether or not there should be a Scottish Parliament; and whether or not such an institution should have “tax-varying powers.”

Both questions were answered decisively in the affirmative (with 74.3% and 63.5%, respectively), and this time turnout didn’t matter. In 1999, a Scottish election was held and, for the first time since 1707, a parliament met in Edinburgh.

The canny Scots who ran the Labour Party and thus the entire U.K. in those days — not only Blair but also Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and many others — fondly imagined that devolution would draw the sting of Scottish nationalism. They were catastrophically mistaken.

Having won 56 seats out of 129 in the first Scottish election in 1999, Labour saw its representation shrivel to just 24 in 2016. The Scottish National Party took power in 2007, when it won 47 seats, and gained a majority in 2011 (69 seats). It was in the wake of that victory that Cameron agreed to a third referendum in 2014, this time on the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Full disclosure: I campaigned for a “No” vote seven years ago and was relieved when we won, 55.3% to 44.7%, despite or perhaps because of a remarkably high turnout (84.6%). That should have settled the matter, especially after the Scottish National Party lost its majority in 2016, but no.

Earlier this year, Johnson seemed determined not to yield to SNP pressure for another referendum on independence. Now, however, the Scottish Conservatives have muddied the waters: “With just four more seats,” they tweeted on April 8, “the SNP will win a majority and hold another divisive independence referendum. YOU can stop it — but ONLY by giving your party list vote to the @ScotTories.” The obvious problem with this argument is that, if it doesn’t work — if people still vote SNP in sufficient numbers to give them a majority — then another independence referendum will be rather hard to refuse.

This helps to explain the recent warning of my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Max Hastings that the U.K. is “dangerously close to an existential crisis,” not only because of the rising risk of Scottish secession, but also because of the increasingly fraught atmosphere on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (Hastings foresees “Irish reunification … within a generation.”)

For those who have lost their copies of Tom Nairn’s “The Break-Up of Britain,” published in 1977 when I was a teenage “Scot Nat,” there is a new and updated work: the Scottish journalist Gavin Esler’s “How Britain Ends.” Recent polling bears out Esler’s analysis. Support for Scottish independence surged last year, though the separatists have seen their lead dwindle in recent months, from an average of 6.3% in January to just 0.6% in March.

More striking is the evidence that the British population as a whole would not mind very much if the U.K. fell apart. In a Sunday Times poll in January, nearly half (49%) of English and Welsh voters and 60% of Northern Irish voters said they thought Scottish independence was likely in the next 10 years, and 45% of English voters said they would be either “pleased” or “not bothered” if it happened. No fewer than 71% of Scottish voters and 57% of English voters would be either “pleased” or “not bothered” by Irish reunification.

These shifts in attitudes would seem to illustrate that the only law of history is the law of unintended consequences. When the votes were cast for and against Brexit back in 2016, the divergences were almost as startling as the overall result. England and Wales voted to leave the European Union by roughly the same margin (53% to 47%). But Scotland voted to remain in the EU by 62% to 38%, and Northern Ireland by 56% to 44%.

The conventional view is that this divergence presented the SNP with a perfect opportunity to resuscitate the dream of Scottish independence. It is not just that Brexit is posing real problems for parts of Scotland’s economy. It is the fact that staying in the U.K. no longer looks as economically safe an option as it seemed to be in 2014. And now independence can be represented as a way back into Europe.

And yet, I wonder just how convincing this argument really is. Unlike in 2014, Scotland is already out of the EU but, just as in 2014, it would have to apply to rejoin it after an independence vote. There is enough opposition to separatism per se among existing member states to make this hard or, at least, slow (step forward Spain, which has its own separatists to contend with in Catalonia). And Scotland would find the waiting room already crowded with “candidate countries”: Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. (Some would say the SNP would feel right at home in such company, as the party’s culture is much more Balkan than Baltic, much less Scandinavian.)

Independence would also create a significant headache from the point of view of national security. Since 1998, when the U.K. decommissioned its tactical WE.177 bombs, the Trident program has been Britain’s only operational nuclear weapons system. It consists of four Vanguard-class submarines based at Faslane on Gare Loch, 40 miles northwest of Glasgow. It is also rather hard to imagine the British army without the Scottish regiments ­— even if, as Simon Akam shows in his unsentimental book “The Changing of the Guard,” the Caledonian martial tradition today is a shadow of its old self.

As for the monetary and fiscal difficulties of independence, they are all but insuperable. What share of the U.K. national debt would an independent Scotland inherit? What currency would it use? The country’s biggest banks already issue their own distinctive banknotes, but they are entirely backed by Bank of England notes. Scotland could not easily adopt the euro while outside the EU (though Kosovo has done this).

And let’s not forget that the pre-1707 “pound Scots” was worth one-twelfth of an English pound. How would Scotland fare without its current subsidy from the South? “It’s Scotland’s oil” is not much of a slogan when fossil fuels are supposedly being phased out, and North Sea oil is running out anyway (production peaked in 1999, and has declined steeply since then).

Then there is the small matter of the SNP’s far-from-impressive record in running those public services that have been its responsibility for the past 14 years. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s boasts last year that Scotland was handling Covid-19 better than England now look hollow, while credit for Britain’s successful vaccine rollout is justly going to the U.K. government. A new report by Oxford Economics for The Hunter Foundation sheds unflattering light on Scotland’s recent economic performance, pointing to low productivity, too few startups and even less success in scaling businesses.

As for education, where the country once led both England and Europe, today Scottish pupils do worse in mathematics than those in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia — and England. Funnily enough, an independent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the state of Scottish schools won’t be appearing until after next month’s election.

If the Scots were taught their own history better, they might also be less attracted by the idea of independence. For the country’s experience prior to the Union was hardly one of unalloyed happiness. To read the historical novels of Walter Scott — notably “Waverley” (1814), “Old Mortality” (1816), “Rob Roy” (1817), “A Legend of Montrose” (1819) and “The Abbot” (1820) — is to be reminded vividly that Scotland up until the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746 was an exceptionally violent country, characterized by bitter internecine strife between Highlanders and Lowlanders, Catholics and Calvinists, MacDonalds and Campbells.

The miracle of Scottish history is that a country that for centuries so closely resembled Afghanistan in our own time — torn apart by compulsively warring mountain clans and religious fanatics, and subject to recurrent foreign interference — should have transformed itself in the space of a generation into a cradle of the Enlightenment. As Scott observed in the postscript to “Waverley”: “There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland.”

Even in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson (in many ways, Scott’s spiritual heir) was still struck by the fissures within Scottish society. “Two languages, many dialects, innumerable forms of piety, and countless local patriotisms and prejudices, part us among ourselves more widely than the extreme east and west of that great continent of America,” he wrote, from the safety of California. “When I am at home, I feel a man from Glasgow to be something like a rival, a man from Barra to be more than half a foreigner.” Only when the Scots were abroad, Stevenson observed, were these divisions set aside.

Recent events illustrate that Scotland remains as much a land of brutal rifts and feuds as of bonnie lochs and glens. Scott and Stevenson would surely have relished the schism that has opened up within Scottish nationalism itself between Sturgeon and her predecessor as first minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond. Once, Sturgeon and her husband were Salmond’s proteges. But when Salmond was accused of sexual misconduct in January 2018, the dirks came out.

A governmental probe into Salmond’s conduct was dismissed by a judge as “tainted with apparent bias.” Salmond was charged with 14 offenses, including attempted rape and sexual assault, only to be acquitted. Earlier this year, Salmond told a committee of lawmakers that Sturgeon’s inner circle ran a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to damage his reputation, “even to the extent of having me imprisoned.”

Although an inquiry concluded that Sturgeon had not breached the ministerial code, enabling her to win a confidence vote comfortably last month, there is a lingering whiff of unpleasantness in the air, faintly reminiscent of a Glasgow pub the morning after a stooshie. There is sawdust on the floor and carbolic soap in the air, but specks of blood and shards of glass give the game away.

The upshot is that Salmond has launched his own party, called Alba (the Gaelic name for Scotland), and — though he insists that his goal is to advance the cause of independence — we can safely assume that it is vengeance that he wakes up in the wee small hours thinking about. For the Scottish temperament thrives on retaliation in a way the Corleone family cannot match and the English cannot fathom.

For all these reasons, the nationalists can be beaten again. But we know now that merely beating them in another referendum will not suffice. And it is at this point that the experience of another country becomes highly relevant — a country that was once second only to New Zealand when it came to the share of Scottish immigrants in its population.

As John Lloyd of the Financial Times argues in his new book, “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot,” the Canadian federalists finally got the better of the Parti Quebecois after two referendums in 1980 and 1995 — the first effectively on devolution, which the separatists lost, the second on independence (“sovereignty”), which was nail-bitingly close (50.6% No vs. 49.4% Yes).

The subsequent “tough love” argument of Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government was that it could not solely be up to a slim majority of the voters of Quebec if Canada broke up. The key role was played by Chretien’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, Stephane Dion, who in 1996 posed three carefully crafted questions to the Supreme Court of Canada.

First, was it constitutionally possible for the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally? Second, did international law allow such a unilateral secession?  Third, if there was a conflict between the Canadian constitution and international law, which would take precedence?

The Supreme Court’s answer was that Quebec did not have the right to secede unilaterally under either the constitution or international law. Only if Quebecers expressed a clear will to secede would the federal government be obliged to enter into negotiations with their government, but it was up to the Canadian Parliament to determine if a referendum question was sufficiently clear to trigger such negotiations. The subsequent Clarity Act enshrined this principle in legislation, along with the equally important point that a “clear majority” would need to vote in favor of secession, as opposed to “50% plus one.”

This is how to play the game against secessionists — and it is high time that the Johnson government adopted this approach, rather than unthinkingly accepting the SNP’s argument that it has a moral right to a referendum on secession every time it wins a parliamentary election. The most impressive result of Dion’s approach has been an enduring decline in support for secession in Quebec. One recent poll found that 54% of Quebecers would vote against independence, while just 36% would vote for it. Among younger voters, support is even lower. Only those aged between 55 and 64 still narrowly favor secession.

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