A disunited Kingdom

I remember taking part in a debate at Cambridge university in 1984 when the prospects for the union came up. Being in Cambridge was fascinating.  It really is a beautiful mediaeval town.  The debate was organized by libertarians but there seemed to be mainly English people present.   I think I was  the only non-English person who spoke.  As I am Australian I was in an unusually good position to speak, being both an outsider and someone who is culturally largely British

Debates are often rather jolly affairs and this one was apparently expected to be of that kind -- with a topic on which nothing very controversial would be said.

I however made a strong case that Scotland should be independent. I have always believed that -- perhaps in part because of some Scottish traditions in my mother's family. The fact that I was once married to a fine Scottish wife might also be relevant.

I included mention of the different attitudes in Scotland and England. I actually have papers in print (e.g. here) reporting survey evidence about that so I have some claim to being well-informed on the subject.

At any event I mentioned that the Scots hate the English and that the English find the Scots merely amusing.

That was very poorly received. It was no fun at all. You are not supposed to mention that. Only an "ignorant colonial" like me would mention it. The English have a great tradition of certain important things being left unsaid. And the libertarians present turned out to be English first. So I received considerable hostilty over my talk. I doubt that attitudes have changed much since

I didn't mean to upset the people present but, being a bit autistic, I had not foreseen that possibility

Would the United Kingdom be better off without Scotland and Northern Ireland? This question arises in the light of the demand by the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for a second referendum on Scottish independence and the victory in the recent Northern Ireland election by Sinn Fein who insist that Northern Ireland become part of the republic of Ireland.

Both provinces have plagued UK administrations with their problems for centuries. King James II said of Scotland to the Duke of Hamilton in 1685: ‘My Lord, I only wish it were a hundred thousand miles off and that you were King of it!’ Great War prime minister Asquith lamented that Ireland was the ‘most perplexing and damnable country’.

Financially, of course, England and Wales would be better off without Scotland and Northern Ireland because both provinces receive significantly larger government funding than they produce in tax revenue. But this ignores the political question of whether and in what circumstances a province should be allowed to secede from an existing nation state. The most costly attempt at – unsuccessful – secession was made by the Confederate states in 1861, resulting in the US Civil War and the loss of 700,000 lives. In more recent times northern Sri Lanka’s Tamils and the Chechens in the Russian Federation both failed in military attempts to achieve independence. And in 2019 leaders of the Catalan separatist movement received lengthy jail terms from Spanish courts after holding a referendum on independence for Catalonia without the consent of the central government in Madrid.

It might be thought that one solution to this problem in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland is a referendum. But in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence only those resident in Scotland were entitled to vote even though this amounted to only 7 per cent of the UK population. Northern Ireland has less than 3 per cent of the UK population. Why should these small percentages of the overall UK people be able to break up this political entity without the vast majority of those people having a say? In any event, it is only eight years since there was a vote on Scottish independence and, even confined as it was to Scottish residents, the vote was lost. Is there going to be a vote every few years until the Scottish National party finally succeeds in getting approval for its proposal? The British government consented to the 2014 vote and this consent would be required for a second referendum. Sturgeon has threatened to go ahead even without this consent, presumably confident that she would not suffer the fate of the Catalan leaders!

In economic terms there is a distinctly suicidal aspect to the SNP’s obsession with independence. As already noted, there is a significant gap between Scotland’s expenditure and its tax revenue with this deficit being met by the central government at Westminster. The SNP says that an independent Scotland would apply to join the European Union but at present approximately 60 per cent of Scotland’s exports go to other parts of Britain so that these exports would no longer have the same access to their existing market. In the lead-up to the 2014 referendum the SNP proposed using the British pound as its currency if the independence vote succeeded.

This proposal was rejected by the British Treasury which means that there would have to be a separate Scottish currency. And how would an independent Scotland deal with its current share of existing UK government debt which is roughly twice the size of Scotland’s GDP?

The latest problem with Northern Ireland is the British government’s intention to amend the so-called Northern Ireland protocol. This was part of the agreement negotiated between Britain and the EU as to the post-Brexit relations between the two parties. The protocol provides that there will be customs control on British goods when entering Northern Ireland from Britain, seemingly to satisfy the EU’s concern that some small proportion of those products, although apparently destined for Northern Ireland, might leak into the EU member Irish republic. Why any customs control could not be on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has never been satisfactorily explained. The notion that this might provoke a return to sectarian violence seems rather fanciful.

At any rate, the protocol has proved to be essentially unworkable and the British government has introduced legislation to amend it. The EU, which fought Brexit’s implementation tooth and nail, has threatened Britain with legal proceedings, presumably in an EU court, and complained that the legislation is a breach of international law. Britain can legitimately be criticised for reneging on one aspect of the post-Brexit agreement but a nation-state cannot be forced in any legal tribunal to honour an agreement if it chooses not to. It is hard to see what international law means in this context but there can certainly be no legal remedy for any breach of the agreement if the British government takes its proposed course.

In the longer term, yet another problem for the British government with Northern Ireland is that, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between Britain, then led by Tony Blair, and the Irish republic there must be a referendum, presumably with only residents of Northern Ireland voting, if it ‘appears likely’ to the British government that most people in Northern Ireland would support unity with the republic. Given the victory of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and its prospects of winning the next Irish election, this would entail negotiations with the body that was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and so supported a program of murder and terrorism over decades. Hardly an attractive prospect for the British government.

Scotland and Ireland have caused considerable angst for Westminster governments over hundreds of years and it seems that there is little prospect of any change to this troubled history in the immediate future.


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