Friday, December 23, 2011

Disunited Kingdom

As London journalists contemplate the year ahead, a great number of them have finally begun to understand the high probability that now exists that the United Kingdom will not long survive.

Few commentators, on either side of the border, seem prepared to make a principled case for continuing the common British state. Many, are increasingly inclined to welcome the idea that Scotland and the rest of the UK should part company.

However, even if you accepted the inevitability of the break up, there is little thought being given to what happens afterwards. From the Scottish perspective, the advent of independence is currently being seen as a relatively small step. However, it would not be. The economic adjustment that wold be required to stabilize the economy of newly independent Scotland would be of the same kind of order as the adjustment that was forced on the post-Communist economies of Eastern and Central Europe. The banking sector alone would need significant changes, and will be a major sticking point in the negotiations- even without taking on the full liabilities of the bankrupt Scottish banks, the Scottish government would still need to run significant deficits for at least the first decade of independence. Yet in order to maintain a currency union with the Euro, which as a new member of the EU, Scotland would be pledged to join, then deficits would need to be strictly limited. The cost would be drastic austerity. Even the alternative of maintaining a currency union with Sterling would still require significant fiscal discipline, since the Bank of England would insist that the new state would not undermine its own monetary policies. The third alternative- a fully independent Scottish Pound - implies, at least in the short term, a significant devaluation. All options are unattractive. All carry real risks for the prosperity of Scotland and the rest of the UK

If Scotland faces significant economic adjustments, the rest of the former Kingdom would face major political challenges as well. The relationship of the three remaining participants would need to be completely recast. Though people casually argue that Northern Ireland could join with the Republic, that is to ignore the bitter bloodshed that has been taking place over the past 40 years to prevent exactly such a thing from happening. The integration of Wales into the UK is closer than Scotland, but the initial  break-up would probably lead to the independence of Wales too. The result would be the end of nearly 1000 years of the gathering of the nations of Britain- the end of the British State. Internationally that removes a country that is a major support of NATO. Though people seem calm about the prospect of such a diminution of global power and influence at the moment, they may become much less so, when the reality of the end of the state leads to ends that they did not foresee and find hard to accept. The British state is woven into the ways we do things at a fundamental everyday level. Things we take for granted, the BBC, the armed forces, even the flag- all will be totally recast.

The break up of Britain will be a wrenching and often bad tempered affair, and the price will be very real. Some in Scotland argue the case that independence will genuinely liberate the country, and unlock stifled creativity. I can see no reason why it would- Scottish health will remain worse than south of the new border posts, the impact of poor diet and exercise regimes are not wished away so easily, as the spreading waistline of Alex Salmond eloquently testifies. The temptation to cock a snook at the former partners in the Kingdom will not be resisted either- and that could quickly undermine the initial goodwill.

So, Scottish Liberal Democrats should continue to make the case that the common state serves all of the peoples of the Kingdom better than a break up would. We should not be afraid to point out the reckless and unnecessary economic damage that we could do to ourselves. We should work to create a federal Kingdom that we can all respect and trust.

The coming years are going to be difficult, because selling independence is a much easier prospect that the complications of the common state. Yet even with the portly first minister at his triumphant-  rather smug- best, the majority of Scots do not want to forget the opportunities that the common state offers us. There are millions of people who are waiting to be reminded that our multi-national state remains a tolerant, open minded and - yes- even prosperous place. Though we are no longer the most powerful military, political and economic force in the world, yet our example delivers an enviable society. We are not perfect, and we should redouble our efforts to recast our society in a better and fairer way, but what we lose if the kingdom is lost is precious- it would be a profound tragedy if we have to wait until it is irrevocably gone for us to understand that.  


Unknown said...

As England accounts for more than 90% of the UK population and GDP, the end of the Union would hardly be a massive change. The choice for Wales of reintegration into one system of government or complete independence could well lead to the end of the experiment in devolution. As for Northern Ireland its historical links are with Scotland, perhaps they would be willing to take it as a leaving present!

Anonymous said...

The above comment shows you what the reaction to Scottish independence will be from London. They'll try desperately to behave as though nothing has happened, just as they do with the empire that's gone (and with the Irish Republic for that matter).

I (English and living in England) will be sad to see the end of the union, but the London clique have driven them to it over many years.