Romance of nationalism ignores too many realities

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

I blame Labour for the referendum on Scottish independence.

The party made such a dog’s dinner of the Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 (assuming that the SNP, while it may have remained as the largest party, would be restricted in terms of gains) that Alex Salmond was able to lead his party to an unexpectedly comfortable overall majority.

The SNP was also helped by the Scottish Sun, which decided to support it even though its editorial stance is anti-independence. It benefited, too, from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who were punished for propping up the Conservatives in Westminster.

But once he had that majority – 69 seats out of 129, an overall majority of four – it was inevitable that Salmond would pursue his ultimate goal of independence by way of a referendum.

That said it’s not as clear-cut as it looks on paper. The SNP may have taken 53 per cent of the parliamentary seats, but they won only 44 per cent of the vote: and the turnout in 2011 was just 50.4 per cent. In other words the electoral mountain the SNP has to climb is an enormous one.

Most of the polling evidence suggests that it won’t make it – may not even come close – but you can never be certain when it comes to the myth and emotionalism that lies at the heart of any independence campaign. This is the ‘a nation once again’ territory that appeals to voters who may not have been coming out for any other election.

For the first time in living memory there is a chance – albeit an outside one – that independence can be delivered. The SNP is on a high and Salmond is hugely likeable and hugely popular, the sort of charismatic figure who has already proved that he can deliver unexpected results. And he’s helped enormously by the fact that the three champions of pan-UK unionism are Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.

But myth and emotionalism work both ways. There may be substantial numbers of voters in Scotland who don’t like Cameron, Clegg and Miliband and who think that the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK is weighted against them, but they would draw the line at ending the Union and dismantling the UK. That’s a very big step for any Scottish voter to take – even those who desperately want independence.

Let’s be clear about this, if Scotland chooses to uncouple itself from the United Kingdom then it does become a place apart. Oh yes, the SNP can spout all it likes about sovereignty, independence, pride and ‘righting a great wrong,’ but that won’t mask the blunt reality that Scotland will have changed.

And the SNP needn’t kid itself that independence on the back of a paper-thin majority (which is all it could possibly be) will end the debate.

Does Alex Salmond really expect the anti-independence lobby to shut up and go away if they lose the referendum? Does he really think that the pro-Union voices and vehicles won’t continue to be heard in the Scottish Parliament? Does he believe that the SNP will run an independent Scotland without massive and sustained internal opposition? Here’s the reality: in precisely the same way that the SNP has spent decades pushing the pro-independence agenda, a new pro-UK vehicle would emerge in an independent Scotland and push a reunification agenda.

And the reason I say that is because when independence is rejected (and I fully expect a very comfortable majority to vote against independence) the SNP is not going to go away. They will take it on the chin, dust themselves down, continue as a significant force in the Scottish Parliament and continue with their ‘fight for freedom’.

That being the case why does anyone think that those who oppose independence would, if they lost on September 18, simply shut up and shove off? This is the sort of battle that goes on forever.

Which brings me neatly to Gerry Adams and his claim that the ‘union of the United Kingdom is hanging on by a thread’. He’s obviously convinced himself that if Scotland withdraws from the UK then Northern Ireland will inevitably follow suit.

Well, as I say, I don’t expect Scotland to withdraw anytime soon and nor do I expect a majority in Northern Ireland to withdraw, either.

I have no fear of a border poll here; indeed I would welcome it. But even when Irish unity is rejected (and again, I think it would be by a comfortable majority) I have no expectation of Sinn Fein merely shrugging its shoulders and accepting the result.

It is not in the nature of either Sinn Fein or the SNP to accept, let alone acknowledge, defeat on the one issue that really matters to them. It is in their DNA to keep on with the just-one-more-push approach to independence. And it is their DNA not to bother dealing with the question of how they would deal with those who had voted no to independence.

They are so blinded by romanticism that they ignore the reality of what it would mean if, by chance, there ever were a vote for Scottish or Irish independence. And they ignore that reality because in their world if they emerge as the winners then everyone else should just take it as a final and forever settled outcome.

I do find it odd that neither Sinn Fein nor the SNP makes much of an effort to address the issue of what to do with the ‘losing side’ if either Northern Ireland or Scotland left the United Kingdom. I know what they would do if they lose: keep going. And I know what I would do: continue to champion my unionism.

But maybe they don’t address the issue because, deep down, they know that they will never have to address it. But let’s keep asking them, anyway!