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Scotland step by step but what about England?

The Scottish Government has outlined its vision for independence from Westminster. But what the British elite is most afraid of is that the English start to demand independence from them too...

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 November 2013
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Will demands for independence seep over the border?/wikimedia

The publication of the Scottish government's White Paper on its program for independence is proof of a truism. One that the London media, which hates truth generated by others perhaps more than anything, will ignore, repress, distort or deny (you can take your choice). For it is neither a ‘historic document’, nor a doomed message of reassurance, nor a suicide note or even a “fairy tale”. It is instead proof that independence is a process not an event.

That this observation is becoming a cliché does not erode its veracity. There are some echoes of it, of course. Steve Richards, in his column in the Independent, for example, a paper which otherwise pilloried rather than reported Alex Salmond’s announcement of the White Paper, wrote, “Scotland is already going its own way and will continue to in the coming years. The referendum is something of a red herring.” But this is absurd, for if the White Paper consolidates an irreversible direction of travel it is hardly a diversion.

What might seem fishy is a characteristic that misled the same London media in 1999 when the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament within the UK took place. Journalists sent from London reported with disappointment that there were no barricades or smell of cordite in the streets as the country said ‘Yes’. Where was the revolution, they asked, as people voted and then went shopping. But Scotland is becoming normal by becoming more self-governing (an attribute it shares with the 1989 revolutions I have argued). This is Salmond’s calling card and it is not a deceitful reassurance. When he waves the huge white tome and says, in effect, ‘It will all be fine we are not trying to leave the planet’ it is not spin.

A parallel argument that independence is a better form of living with interdependence is set out by Tom Nairn in his Edinburgh lecture on Globalisation and Nationalism. The real revolution is the international reshaping of production and the world economy in which “dwarves” like Scotland have a better chance on their own than being part of lumbering middle-states like the UK.

The real difference then is human not material. It is the spirit that matters - the spirit of self-government - more than any ‘case’ for independence. Simon Jenkins, at least, understands this. It is about freedom. And it is this that the 'Great British' political class will try to isolate and asphyxiate, to prevent the spirit of independence from spreading across Britain. Underlying every assault on the call for Scottish independence by Darling and his cohorts is a pre-emptive attack on the English to ensure that English voters do not lose their fatalism and submissiveness, that the rule of Westminster and Whitehall now depends upon. For the declaration of independence the UK’s political class fears most of all is getting the finger from the English. Scottish contagion not Scottish independence is their main concern as “more and more English people are thinking, what the hell: if the Scots want to walk out, why don’t we just let them?” to quote from this week’s Boris Johnson column in the Telegraph that makes my case for me.

Unlike ‘constitutional reform’ in England, which remains the preserve of an elite that trades on the unique advantage given it by the absence of codification, the Scottish process is a rooted in the sovereignty of the people. When the Irish exercised theirs, the Protestant ascendency in the North created a popular Unionist barrier between the force of Irish republicanism and the main British island (creating a peculiar, religiously branded politics of a mobilized minority democracy). But this time, as the Scottish people exercise their sovereignty, it will be much harder to isolate their claim of right to do so from the rest of us. The positive formulation that lies behind Boris Johnson’s lampoon is far more threatening, “If they can decide whether or not to be ruled by Westminster, why can’t we?”

The sadness is that there is no English party or movement capable of making this challenge in a positive fashion. For the energy and spirit of Scotland’s example could lead to the emancipation of us all with the declaration of self-government by England and the emergence of an English parliament. This would be able to co-create a federal Britain with its Scottish and Welsh sisters that could command the lasting, positive assent of the Scottish people, as Carwyn Jones has said as the First Minister of Wales. The case for this currently improbable scenario is something I allude to in a short contribution to Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell's After Independence just published by Luath Press. It would not mean the failure of the White Paper for it would be an expansion of the process of independence not its frustration.

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