CoverStory

Lessons from Scotland

Scotland provides the independence movements in Europe with helpful tips, but not a blueprint

By Simon Heffer

In the final ten days before Scotland voted by 55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent to remain a part of the United Kingdom it was not only the British government that started to feel the stirrings of panic. Europe is littered with independence or separatist movements of varying degrees of fervour and organisation, and their respective leaders were watching Scotland with acute interest. So too were the parent governments of the countries containing those movements, some of whom, because they have different histories and traditions from those of the United Kingdom, might have been prepared to handle such a movement in their own back yard with distinctly less tolerance and forbearance than UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his fellow party leaders did in Britain.

In modern times there have been numerous countries shaking off the shackles of control from elsewhere, but mostly in the developing world. In Europe there was a great convulsion at the end of the Soviet era, when former parts of the USSR went their own way, with the Baltic States asserting their right to self-determination, Yugoslavia breaking up, and, after a trial marriage in the arms of democracy, the Czech Republic and Slovakia becoming separate entities. There are no other post-war precedents for fracture in Europe, and certainly not in Western Europe. For a time Scotland seemed about to set one.

The most serious independence movement in mainland Europe is Catalonia, which was preparing, like Scotland, to vote on its future. In September the leader of the Catalans, Artur Mas, called a referendum for November, which resulted in an immediate announcement by Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, that the attempt to hold a plebiscite would be challenged in Spain’s constitutional court on the grounds that it was “anti-democratic.” Such was the ferocity of opposition from Madrid, including legal challenges to Catalonia’s right to do this, that in October Mas put the plan on hold, saying he would find “other ways” to gauge opinion on the question. The discussion is postponed, not cancelled.

Catalonia is one of the richest areas of Spain, an increasingly poor country that has been hamstrung by its membership in the eurozone and the contingent inability to devalue its currency. Were it to leave, the economic blow to Spain would be severe, and completely opposite in effect to what would have happened had Scotland left the Union with England: England subsidises Scotland to the tune of around £17– £18 billion a year. And the Spanish prime minister is also sensible of something felt keenly by the English: that when a minority party of a larger country decides to vote on secession, the majority of citizens of the existing state don’t get a say. Many English were outraged not to have been consulted about the future of Scotland.

Depending on the philosophy of Spain’s constitutional court, many Spanish may yet have to cope with not being consulted about the future of Catalonia. In the United Kingdom, it was a little as though one party to a marriage had elected to file for divorce without bothering to seek marriage guidance counselling. At least there, at the last moment, the spouses decided to stick together, albeit after a hell of a row.

The Catalans are the biggest and most organised, but far from the only, independence movement in Europe. A little to their north-west is the Basque country, where for decades a terrorist organisation, ETA, sought to secure separatism from Spain. The Basque country spills over into France, where the feelings against Paris were far less virulent than those towards Madrid were south of the border.

In France itself there is a nasty separatist movement in Corsica, nasty because it is a mixture of terrorist and mafia, and the perception in mainland France is that it seeks separateness in order to become a criminal state. In north-western France, the Bretons seek at least the right to use their separate language and to promote their distinct culture, but a good part of Brittany has no interest in either and cleaves very strongly to Paris. In the 1990s, slogans advocating Breton separatism were commonly seen daubed on motorway and railway bridges in the region. That stopped for a while, only to have been revived in the last year or so; as France undergoes economic trauma, the Bretons think romantically of self-government.

Their case is rather like that of the Cornish, a Celtic people with whom the Bretons have much in common, and who look at each other across the widest part of the English Channel. Cornwall is the last county in England before one reaches the Atlantic Ocean, but it has for many years advertised itself as distinct from England. Until a generation ago it still had a clutch of Cornish speakers, but the language is now virtually dead. In a stunt designed to shore up the Liberal Democrat vote in the county, the British government — a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats — earlier this year agreed to recognise that Cornwall had the components of a distinct nation, something that caused ridicule in most of the rest of the country.

North of Cornwall is the next part of Britain’s Celtic fringe, Wales, where hopes were said to be high that if Scotland voted for independence, Wales — incorporated into the English state since an Act of Henry VIII in 1536, and de facto part of England for two centuries before that — could do the same. Scotland didn’t, and Wales doesn’t want to — a poll taken shortly after the Scottish referendum showed a mere three per cent of Welsh wanted out.

Off to the west there is Northern Ireland, which, following the partition of Ireland in 1922, is something of a special case. Terrorism has not gone away there, though it is used today largely to operate a drugs industry on both sides of the Protestant–Catholic divide. But republicans who dream of reuniting the six counties of Northern Ireland with the other 26 also recognise, as does everyone else, that the present basket-case economic situation of the Republic effectively rules out any chance of that happening.

Back on the European mainland, there are troubles in Belgium, which from time to time finds itself unable to form a government because of hostilities between Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and French-speaking Walloons in the south. Belgium was invented largely by the British as a buffer state following the Napoleonic Wars, having previously at different times been part of the Netherlands or, in its southern half, part of France. 

If there is international uncertainty now about why it should exist, that uncertainty is shared by numerous Belgians. Threats to divide the country have come to nothing, but logic would seem to dictate that Holland and France should split it between them. The main problems are, first, that the predominantly French-speaking capital, Brussels, sits in the Flemish part of the country, and, second, that it houses the headquarters and parliament of the European Union, which for all its talk of a “Europe of the Regions” is not yet prepared to see the countries that house those regions shattered to pieces.

In Italy — united only since 1861, so a newer entity than Belgium — there remains deep hostility between the sophisticated, rich, industrialised North and the Mafia-soaked, peasant, agricultural south. The Lega Nord, or Northern League, was active in the 1990s in calls for the country to be divided, but is more quiescent today, as Italy pulls together to deal with its own euro-inflicted economic crisis. Should the country descend further into economic meltdown, the tensions now barely below the surface could all too easily erupt.

But what these various movements need to judge is how best to succeed in their aims. The support of a majority of people within the part that wishes to separate is, if we are playing by democratic rules, essential, but it is not all that is required. A country must be able to survive economically post-separation, and it must be on good terms with its neighbours and former parent. In these respects, there are many lessons to be drawn from the Scottish experience.

That said, it was notable that the Scottish Nationalists defeated on 18 September were in many cases alarmingly bad losers. There is not only talk of having another plebiscite as soon as a decent interval has elapsed — though how long that interval may be is not easy to settle — but of more radical action yet. The United Kingdom parliament has 650 seats, 59 of which are in Scotland. At the last general election, in 2010, just one of those 59 seats returned a Conservative MP. Luckily, there were a handful of Liberal Democrats, so when the coalition was formed the new Government could at least boast a small minority of MPs in Scotland rather than a singularity. However, the Tory party’s fortunes have declined in Scotland even more since 2010, and it is quite possible that the party will be left without a single MP in Scotland after the next general election, scheduled to be held on 7 May 2015.

Some more militant nationalists are arguing that, if that is so, and if the Conservative party should manage to form a United Kingdom government, it would have no legitimacy in Scotland, and Scotland could make a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). This creation of a Rhodesia of the North would pose some vexing questions not just for what was left of Britain, but also for nervous governments around Europe who look at their own separatist movements and fear that they, too, might kick democracy aside.

The remainder of the United Kingdom would have to decide whether it was prepared to coerce Scotland, or accept the fait accompli. The country’s experience with Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising in 1916 suggests that arresting the leaders of a Scottish government post-UDI and sending some sort of militarised police force or army of occupation into Edinburgh and Glasgow to restore order would have catastrophic consequences — even if the British state had such forces at its disposal which, following excessive defence cuts, it does not.

Other European nations, with different nations and different cultures, would probably act differently; the idea of France shrugging its shoulders at a UDI by Corsica or the Spanish taking on the chin a decision by Catalonia to break away is unthinkable.

The great advantage Scotland had in its attempt to secure independence — and one not currently being enjoyed by Catalonia — was the compliance of the parent state with the local wish to use the democratic process to settle the question. That at least obviated complaints about the legitimacy of the exercise — the United Kingdom government had to give its approval both of the referendum and of the question asked in it — even though there was the lingering controversy about the failure of the English to be given their say.

Being allowed to hold your vote without the parent nation arguing that it is not lawful, and therefore refusing to recognise its outcome, is a fundamental requirement. If it does not happen then the opposition of the parent nation may well act a recruiting-sergeant to the separatist cause, but it promises a destructive and debilitating fight if the result is to separate. Had Scotland voted to go, the rest of the United Kingdom was pledged to accept the result.

But even that is not enough. It is widely supposed in the United Kingdom that Scotland’s bid failed for two reasons. The first was that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, could not answer the question that was insistently put to him about what currency Scotland would use after separation. He said the pound sterling: but the Bank of England, from a neutral standpoint, pointed out that an independence in which one could not control the economic policy that affected the currency would not be independence at all; and British politicians of all parties said such a currency union would not be permitted, because retaining the Bank of England as the lender of last resort would entail liabilities for any disasters in the Scottish economy falling on the English taxpayer, and would weaken England’s currency. Salmond then said he would use the currency anyway, which would have reduced Scotland to the status of a Caribbean banana republic using the US dollar.

The fact that he had no viable plan of establishing Scotland’s own currency suggested he feared, despite his protests to the contrary, that a post-independence Scotland would have an economy insufficient to command a serious currency of its own. This was exceptionally damaging, and should tell other independence movements that they need to determine what the currency will be before they announce their intention to seek a democratic mandate to break from their parent country.

Scotland’s other problem was the European Union. The Scottish National Party has since the late 1980s used the mantra “Scotland Independent in Europe.” That was meant as a political, and not a geographical, statement. However, Europe — in the person of José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, which regulates the EU — told Salmond that if Scotland seceded from the United Kingdom it would have to apply ab initio for membership of the EU, a process that might have taken four years. Salmond’s response, as with the currency question, was one of contradiction, which, since he was contradicting the ultimate authority, was a remarkably unconvincing posture.

Had Scotland been suddenly outside the EU it would have raised all sorts of problems for the independent state — including having to endure border controls with England, the question of Scots nationals working illegally in other European countries, and EU nationals suddenly finding themselves working illegally in Scotland. It might also have had to commit, if did eventually join the EU, to joining the euro currency zone, an utterly toxic prospect for small economies and unthinkable to Scots who have seen what the effects of euro membership have been on Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and other such countries. And existing trading arrangements with the EU would have been ended, with a possible disaster ensuing for big exporters such as the Scotch whisky industry.

So the second big lesson for any potential separatists is that if your parent country is part of any international organisation, and you consider yourself to be a beneficiary of that membership, make sure you can join it yourself quickly before you leave. For Scotland, the problem wasn’t only with the EU: it was also with NATO.

Salmond had promised a nuclear-free pacifist state, and opinion canvassed among Scottish soldiers serving in the UK armed forces showed that most of them would far rather stay in an English army, where they could have proper careers, than in a Scottish one where they would not. A country with no stomach to fight and with few men capable of doing so — not to mention without any obvious military hardware — was hardly going to be regarded as a great catch.

One of the other great uncertainties, never resolved in the Scotland– England debate, was how assets were going to be divided up. Salmond was also foolish to tell the English that unless he got a currency union he was not going to repay his share of the UK national debt. He forgot that it is not just the English, but the international markets, that he has to worry about. To begin life as an independent nation with a default to your main creditor does not give much hope to others, and is hardly an encouragement to new lenders.

So the third great lesson is to be aware of and to admit your liabilities, and give your own people and the rest of the world watertight assurances that you will be able to meet them.

The Scottish bid — which several world leaders including US President Barack Obama opposed — failed in the end because too few of Salmond’s voters believed his assertions that Scotland could cope alone. It is not for nothing that the Scots are stereotyped as “canny,” and they were canny enough to realise that without a stream of English money, and the political infrastructure that goes with being part of a substantial nation, they would come seriously unstuck. Once the IMF had to be brought in, or Scotland had to substitute being a colony of England to being a colony of the EU, its independence would be worthless.

That is not to say that many of us will never live to see an independent Scotland. Whether by UDI, or another referendum, the matter is not settled yet. The fourth big lesson to other movements is that if you lose, lose well — not just in terms of numbers, but in terms of spirit. The acrimony coming out of Scotland now makes the nationalists seem bad losers, which, on top of the bullying and intimidation that were widely reported from the Yes camp during the campaign, is extremely counter-productive. If you fear you might lose, lose graciously, the better to make your case for a new plebiscite a few years hence, and not to alienate those who would facilitate it for you.

Fundamentally, however, one point cannot be stressed too much. The Scottish referendum was dealt with in a very British, casual, do- what-you-will way. It was perhaps too casual, hence the shock and convulsions when an opinion poll ten days before the vote showed the separatists leading, triggering panic. In other European countries where separatism is an issue, the attitude of the parent government is anything but casual. Scotland provides the movements in those countries with helpful tips, but not with a blueprint.