There is a myth that there is something cosy about the United Kingdom; that it’s just one big group of friends; England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, hanging out for mutual benefit. This is shown, if nothing else, by the reaction of many English when Scotland’s referendum plans mutated from radical dream, to political reality. ‘How dare they?’ they exclaimed, ‘How ungrateful!’ They felt betrayed.
Historically, though, it’s hard to see the UK as anything other than England’s most effective piece of imperialism. Wales and Ireland were brought into the fold, not by pledges of mutual benefit, but by the swords of Norman knights, and subsequent invaders, whom the Scottish only narrowly managed to fend off. Then, we have the venerated Act of Union of 1707. It is not really in Alex Salmond’s interests as panda-loving, kilt-wearing, Braveheart-watching avatar of Scottish patriotism to admit this, but Scotland was largely forced into union with England by London financiers. England needed Scottish troops to help fight the French, and it needed its northern border secure. If Scotland did not comply, England could have slapped on trade tariffs to bankrupt the indebted state with ease. There were riots by outraged Scots, but to no avail; the Act was driven through, and England’s Parliament and England’s currency suddenly became British.
But how is this relevant? Surely, what started as a piece of national blackmail could still develop into a prosperous agreement for all parties? Unfortunately, no. The point is that the UK existed because England wanted it to. When James VI of Scotland became King of England in 1603, and tried to unite his two realms on Scottish terms, the English would have none of it. And, just as the UK was England’s plaything, so it remains. The UK might just fall when England, not Scotland, wants it to.
Yes, there remains a hard-line of Mel Gibsons in Scottish society who are determined to leave. But there is a difference between voting SNP, and wanting independence. It is fair to say that most Scots are fairly patriotic people, who will happily wring concessions from the Auld Enemy. However, the SNP’s economic plans, in the eyes of most, simply do not add up. An environmentally-friendly state surviving off North Sea oil? An ‘independent’ power, shackled by a foreign currency? For most Scots, this is not a viable option, and this would explain why Mr Salmond is so keen, and Mr Cameron is not, on ‘independence lite’; a second question, which would see the Union survive, but the Scots with even more devolved powers.
And herein lies the greatest threat to the Union. Whether or not Salmond gets his second clause, the English are becoming increasingly fed up with Scottish demands for special treatment. There is BBC Scotland, there is no BBC England. Where is the English Parliament, the English First Minister, the English Nationalist Party? Not only do Scottish students get free university education, but the fact is that, under the Barnett Formula, the mechanism which divides expenditure between the home nations, Scotland is given preferential treatment, receiving £1,600 more per head, according to Treasury figures. Moreover, the West Lothian question means that Scottish MPs in the House of Commons can vote on issues that affect England, but the English have no reciprocal power. It is also worth noting that such benefits apply similarly to Wales and Northern Ireland, who also have political faculties that the English help fund, but lack themselves. This goes some way to explaining why recent surveys have shown support for full Scottish independence is often higher in England than in Scotland.
At the moment, then, it would seem unlikely that, unless he resolves concerns about his economic policy, Mr Salmond will mobilise enough support for full independence. However, presuming it is not vetoed by Westminster, an option for ‘independence lite’ would probably stand a good chance of success. Yet, the English who fashioned the UK for their benefit are unlikely to watch idly as the conglomeration increasingly victimises them. If that should happen, the spark for popular English nationalism would be lit, and it might only be a matter of time before, after a three-hundred year hiatus, the Kingdom of England returned.