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Giving only Scotland a say on independence negates the existence of Britain

David aka Britology Watch
9 August 2008

David (Cambridge, Britology Watch): What is the Union from which Scotland would separate if it voted for independence? Is it the United Kingdom (that is, of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: the continuation of the 1801 Union between Great Britain and the whole of Ireland); or is it merely Great Britain (the Kingdom that resulted from the 1707 Union between England & Wales and Scotland)?

If it is the former, then I would concede the point that only those living in Scotland should have the automatic right to vote for Scottish independence in a referendum: irrespective of questions of national sovereignty, it satisfies the demands of natural justice that it is the people living in a particular country or region who should decide whether to separate from a larger national or supra-national entity of which that country or region has hitherto been a part. The analogy here would be with the 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec. It was right that only those living in Quebec were entitled to vote; and even if independence had been carried, the rest of Canada would have remained Canada without Quebec. Similarly, the United Kingdom would still be the United Kingdom without Scotland, albeit a continuation of the 1801 Union in which the absence of the southern part of Ireland would now be paralleled by the absence of the northern part of Great Britain. I hope we could then sensibly call it the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland' rather than what could well be regarded as a ‘logical' alternative in view of this ironic ‘symmetry' of Irish and Scottish independence: the ‘United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland'! Let's at least include England in the name of the state now that Great Britain was no more - even if England did continue to be governed, as it is now, as if it were the UK.

‘Now that Great Britain was no more', I said. Well, that's the problem. If a Scottish vote in favour of independence is viewed as breaking up Great Britain, rather than the UK, then the question of who has a right to vote on Scottish independence takes on a different character. This is because the result of a ‘yes' vote would now not be merely the reduction in size of a state that would continue to exist but the actual breaking up of what many still regard as a nation: Great Britain, or Britain for short. The point of the above discussion on the absurdity of calling the resultant rump state the ‘United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland' is that it makes it obvious that Britain as a nation would indeed cease to exist if Scotland became an independent nation: we'd be left not with Southern Britain, or Lesser Britain, but just England and Wales.

In view of these facts, if Britain is regarded as a nation, then it should really be all of the people of Britain (i.e. of England, Wales and Scotland) who should have a democratic say on Scottish independence; because then what is at stake is whether the British nation continues to exist or not. It should not be down to just one part of a nation to decide whether the nation as a whole remains. The analogy here would be with the so-called ‘Velvet Divorce' between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992: a peaceful dissolution of a bi-national state into its two constituent parts that carried the consent of the majority in both parts. From this point of view, it really is a matter of national sovereignty: if Britain is a nation, then its dissolution should be an expression of the sovereign will of all her people. In other words, if you advocate the view that only the Scots should decide on Scottish independence, then you are saying that Britain is not a nation, i.e. a national polity whose sovereignty is founded on the will of its people. Unionists who concede that the issue of Scottish independence should be resolved through a Scotland-only referendum should be aware that they are thereby also conceding that Britain is not a real, sovereign nation.

Indeed, many who consider themselves to be unionists have gone even further than this and have accepted the Scottish Claim of Right of 1988: the claim that it is "the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs". As is well known, one of the most notable signatories of this declaration was Gordon Brown. Ironic that one of the most impassioned defenders of the idea that Britain is a sovereign nation should doubly negate that nationhood by 1) accepting that only one part of that ‘nation' can decide to break it up; and 2) that the part in question is itself a sovereign nation.

Now, if Scotland is a sovereign nation, it is of course profoundly illogical and unfair to deny that England in particular (the other, and larger, part of the 1707 Union of Great Britain) is a sovereign nation. [This is quite apart from the question of the status of Wales, which is beyond the scope of the present posting; but at the time of the 1707 Union, Wales was subsumed into England.] Therefore, if Scotland's right to decide on its independence is seen as a rightful expression of its sovereignty, it is wrong to deny the same right to England. Logically, therefore, England should be allowed to hold a referendum on independence alongside a Scottish poll. Note, however, that - if these referendums are based on the principle of Scottish and English national sovereignty - the vote in England would not be just about dissolving the 1707 Union and, as a consequence, departing from the 1801 Union which otherwise might remain intact: this would be Scotland's choice. In England, the vote would be about separation from all of the countries of the UK, including Wales; and it would therefore result in a dissolution of the UK, not just of Britain.

To summarise:

  • if Scottish independence is seen as separation of one part of the UK state from the rest, this means that the right for the Scots alone to decide the issue is based merely on natural justice and fundamental human rights
  • if, on the other hand, Scottish independence is viewed as breaking up the nation of Britain, then according the right to decide on that break up to the Scots alone negates the proposition that Britain is a real nation and violates the sovereignty of its people
  • but if the right of the Scots to vote for independence is based on a view that Scotland is a sovereign nation, then England must also be regarded as a sovereign nation and cannot fairly be denied a vote on its independence, which - if carried - would break up not just Britain but the UK
  • but logically, the right to make that decision on English independence should also be offered to the Welsh and the Northern Irish: only if the (rump) UK is a nation, that is, in which case all the people of the UK should decide on its break up.

However, this last scenario scarcely seems imaginable; which only goes to show that the UK - even less than Britain - is not a real nation at all.

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