Mark Steyn

Steyn on Britain and Europe

Kingdom Come, Kingdom Go

A somewhat intemperate Philadelphia Tweeter called Christopher Reynolds spent his breakfast time trying to catch my eye:

@DanHannanMEP@MarkSteynOnline Steyn,your libertarianism in the USA is a joke now that I see your really a no to freedom#YesScotland

And a few minutes later:

@MarkSteynOnline You cry liberty and freedom while at the same time rejecting the real-life implementation of such in Scotland#YesScotland

As far as I'm aware, I haven't expressed an opinion on the referendum in Scotland, but, given that I'm spending most of this month in the British Isles (if anyone still calls them that), I might as well put in a word on the subject. Let us first dispense with Mr Reynolds' endearingly deranged notion that Thursday's big vote is anything to do with "libertarianism". The Scottish people are being invited to decide whether their cradle-to-grave welfare state will be more flush as a semi-devolved entity dependent on subventions from Westminster or as a reborn Kingdom of Scotland dependent on subventions from the European Union. In such a political culture, there are no takers for "libertarianism".

I certainly accept the right of the Scots to secede from the United Kingdom, as I accept the right of the southern Irish to secede from the United Kingdom in 1922, or Quebec to secede from Canada in 1995. I'm not sure there's anything particularly "libertarian" about that. But, if Mr Reynolds believes otherwise, he might start with his own rights as a Pennsylvanian. As we have had cause to note glumly here before, the 1869 Supreme Court decision says America's Union is "perpetual" and "indissoluble", and therefore if Mr Reynolds and 99 per cent of his neighbors vote to secede, tough: They can't. What Irish nationalists sought in 1922 and Scottish nationalists are seeking on Thursday is forbidden to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Which is not necessarily an abstract consideration. When an identity is not ethnically or geographically defined, its fortunes can wax and wane. "Britishness" is presently on the wane, which is surprising only to David Cameron and the boobs he relied on for his pro-Union campaign. But, over on this side of the Atlantic, it's not hard to foresee circumstances in which in portions of an ever broker, ever more centralized unitary America the idea of "Americanness" might wane, and the least dysfunctional states might pine for the same right as Slovenia, Slovakia, and East Timor: the right to go it alone. In 1897 Britishness looked like a permanent feature of the map. But it's had a rough half-century, and mostly at the hands of the British state. For half-a-century, it has been associated with - and, indeed, taught to three generations of schoolchildren as principally responsible for - all the worst -isms in the dictionary: imperialism, colonialism, racism. You can understand the attraction to England's Celtic fringe in casting off the unloveliness of Britishness and presenting oneself as the last victims of Anglo imperialism. As David McWilliams put it the other day in The Irish Independent:

When the Scottish become Scottish and not British they might even become as well-liked around the world as us.

Indeed. The colonial oppressors in London appear to have been caught on the hop by what started emerging in the polls a couple of weeks back, and their response has been feeble. You can't beat something big with something small. An appeal to identity is primal. In response, the Westminster side has attempted to sell the UK as an administrative convenience. The "Yes" side cries: "Scots wa'hey! A nation reborn!" The "No" side rolls its eyes and sighs: "You hayseeds have no idea of how fiendishly complicated it's all going to be once you've stopped tossing your celebratory cabers and reeling your Independence Day Gay Gordons." As Mr McWilliams observes:

When you are up against a cause, technocratic arguments get on people's nerves.

Especially when most of the technocrat objections are specious, if not downright mendacious. The Governor of the Bank of England says a currency union - whereby Scotland would continue to use sterling - is incompatible with sovereignty, which is nonsense. The Irish had a currency union with England from 1922 till they got the Euro-fever six decades later. The United Kingdom has set up more currency unions than any other nation in history: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent are all sovereign states but they all use the East Caribbean dollar, with the Queen's portrait on the bills. If the "No" team goes down to defeat on Thursday, it will be because its scaremongering has been so risible.

It would also be emblematic of Cameron's characteristically self-defeating cynicism. He will well deserve to be the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Whatever's Left. The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is a bit of a lumpy name. The United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland? Maybe a few years hence the Scots and Irish can form the mirror state of the People's Republic of Southern Ireland and Northern Britain. Or maybe secession will prove contagious. London and the South-East might find it prudent to secede from the dependistans of Wales, Ulster and Northern England, and relaunch themselves as the Singapore of Europe. Indeed, it's not clear whether what remains would be entitled to call itself a "united kingdom". At its height, the UK was a union of three kingdoms - England, Scotland and Ireland - and with one-and-a-half of them gone what's left would be a union of a kingdom, a principality and a province, and, if there's a catchy name for that, they're keeping it under wraps.

Whatever happens, the result, as in Quebec, seems likely to be close enough that even a "defeat" for Mr Salmond would keep the issue in play as a permanent and destabilizing feature of British politics, especially if a majority of young Scots vote "yes". Mr Cameron would deserve to be reviled as the man who broke the Union: He had a much easier hand to play than Lloyd George did in 1922, and he bungled it.

The British state itself set Thursday's decision in motion, with Tony Blair's devolved toytown parliaments of his first term. Seventeen years ago, I wrote in The Sunday Telegraph:

For the first time in its history the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom - which are (at the time of going to press) England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - will have four quite separate forms of representative government. Progressive thinkers in Labour and the Liberal Democrats, aghast at the thought of a "multi-speed" Europe, are apparently quite happy to conjure into existence a multi-speed UK. The difference, of course, is that in Europe the constituent parts are either speeding or dawdling towards an ever closer union, whereas in the UK they'll be either speeding or dawdling away from it... The fact that all three Celtic quasi-nations will be on variable degrees of loosened leash is bound to be destabilising: it is not difficult to foresee, a few years down the road, a frustrated Welsh Assembly demanding the primary legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament; or Scotland seeking the same right to enter into agreements with sovereign states as has been proposed for Northern Ireland vis-a-vis the south. Inevitably, each Celtic model will wind up setting precedents and providing incentives for the others...

None of this will happen in Scotland or Wales tomorrow. But one day an unpopular Government in London will provoke the election of a hostile legislature in Cardiff or Edinburgh, determined to exercise its powers to the limit and shrewd enough to use its toytown parliament as a launchpad towards the real thing.

And so it has proved. Likewise:

In my native Canada, Quebec City is home to a provincial legislature, but it is known as the National Assembly; they refuse to let the Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen's representative, read the speech at the Opening of the Assembly. It's not hard to imagine similar slights from a Scottish Parliament: most of those elected will be openly contemptuous or at best boorishly indifferent to their Sovereign. If you provide structures that enable a region to pretend to be a nation state, eventually it starts to become one.

This observation is also pertinent:

Fifty years ago, when Pakistan became independent, it divided its dignified and efficient roles between a ceremonial Governor-General and an executive Prime Minister. The British were surprised when Jinnah opted to become Governor-General, pointing out that the office had no real power. "If I am Governor-General," he said, "then that is where the real power will be." Likewise, if ambitious, charismatic, mischievous, talented Scots and Welsh politicians choose Edinburgh and Cardiff, then that is where the real power will come to lie.

Alex Salmond grasped that as clearly as Jinnah did. In Westminster, he'd be an unimportant backbencher from an irrelevant fringe party. Devolution gave him a pre-Broadway tryout as Prime Minister, and now he's ready for opening night.

The only powers Westminster will be exercising throughout the realm are precisely those most coveted by the EU (defence and foreign affairs). Otherwise, given the disproportionate per capita spending on the Celts, Westminster will mostly (as Ottawa does with Quebec) be subsidising its own eclipse.

Oh, dear. Frantically trying to wheedle enough romantic reborn Scots back into the Union camp, Westminster is now promising to subsidize its own eclipse even more lavishly - narrowly winning this referendum by ensuring its loss of the next.

Even the biggest ideas outlive their usefulness: Together, as "Britons", the English and the Scots built much of the modern world. But if the world no longer has use for Britain, why should they? If the Scots vote "Yes" on Thursday, they will not be the last to secede.

You can read that 17-year-old Sunday Telegraph column in full here.

from Steyn on Britain, September 15, 2014


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