The writer is a former UK prime minister
After the breakaway from the EU, focus is turning to the UK’s possible break-up. In Wales, support for independence has risen. In Northern Ireland, the risk of a reunification poll has grown. But the chief risk is in Scotland.
In 2014, a key argument used to persuade Scotland to remain in the Union was that, by doing so, she would remain in the EU. But, two years later, a UK-wide vote yanked Scotland out of the EU against her wishes and those grounds for supporting the Union disappeared. There is now a genuine danger that the separatist ambitions of Scottish nationalism and tepid Unionism in England may break up a Union that has served the UK well for over 300 years.
To achieve that outcome, the Scottish National party will highlight genuine and imagined grievances. The Westminster government can expect its every action to be portrayed as hostile to the rights of the devolved administration, or derided as an enticement to discourage separation. This will increase political conflict, create resentment in England and pull the two nations apart.
Scotland cannot be kept forever in an arrangement if her people wish to end it. To save the Union, Scots must be persuaded by hard facts that it is in their interest to do so. Prime Minister Boris Johnson probably has a legal right to refuse to sanction a second independence referendum. But he should be wary how he uses that power.
It is unwise to dismiss Scottish ambitions, or to delay any vote, without action to expose the reality of separation — and remedy shortcomings in the UK’s devolution settlement. A blunt refusal would be a still greater error if accompanied by the provocative assertion that Scots should wait another generation before voting again on the issue. Such a hardline approach is more likely to provoke a break-up than prevent it.
Scotland is a definable and proud nation. She is perfectly capable of self-government and, whether or not it would be a wise decision, has a right to seek independence. Yet it is unknown what that would mean in practice. The Scottish government has not set it out in detail, and the British government shows no appetite for doing so.
With a population of 5m, Scotland — if allowed to join the EU — would be a minnow in a bloc of 450m people. It would have a minnow’s voice in EU policy. The economic cost of separation would be harsh on Scotland. There is no longer an oil bonanza to boost the economy. The fiscal deficit is above 7 per cent of economic output. Over 60 per cent of Scottish trade goes to the rest of the UK, three times her trade with the EU.
Does Scotland really want a trade border with England? The “Barnett Formula” boosts Scottish public spending by nearly £2,000 per person per year from Westminster. If lost, can Scottish taxpayers make up that sum? This is not Project Fear. It is reality. In the 27-nation EU, the Scottish voice would count for far less than it does to any UK government. This, too, is reality.
Unionists have strong arguments to deploy against separation. Their weakness is that they touch the wallet, not the soul. Scotland needs to know she is cherished as a vital part of the UK. Unfortunately, after Brexit, the Westminster government is poorly placed to argue the value of the Union. It has taken the UK out of a union with Europe with the cry of “Sovereignty” and “Take Back Control”. Now it must argue against the SNP, which seeks to take Scotland out of the UK for precisely the same reasons.
If the Union is to be kept together, it must be as a true partnership. The government must engage, encourage, examine and explore arrangements to emphasise the value of a UK working in harmony. I doubt we will be able to change the minds of hardened separatists — to them, independence is worth any price. But, with facts and reason, it should be possible to persuade a majority of Scots that it is better to remain in the Union than to leave it.
The debate must be about the lives and livelihoods of the Scottish people. It must not be decided by Scottish distaste for Conservative rule, or by a trivial popularity contest between the prime minister and Scotland’s first minister. Fanciful promises did not persuade the Scots to back Brexit. Only facts will persuade them to rally to the Union.
The government must engage Scottish opinion so that every family and business is informed about what the Union does, and what would be lost by leaving it. As Gordon Brown has pointed out, the wider British public deserves an independent assessment of the pros and cons of separation. If the two governments will not commission such studies, then their parliaments should — and academia, too.
In parallel, the UK must address any constitutional amendments thought to be necessary by changed circumstances, frictions in the devolution settlements or the impact of Brexit. A global Britain will thrive best with a constitutional arrangement acceptable to every part of the UK. For a reformed UK may look much more appealing to disillusioned minds in and beyond Scotland.
The UK and Scottish governments have a duty to present their people with a clear understanding of what separation would mean. If either fails in placing the best of options before our two nations, it will stand condemned by its refusal to give unity a chance.