Monday, 28 April 2014

Why The UK Is A Dead Duck Whatever Happens In The Scottish Referendum

Nobody can predict with accuracy what will happen in the Scottish independence referendum in September, though the unremittingly negative cast of the ‘no’ campaign is probably helping narrow the gap between the two sides.  That negative cast is certainly in part due to the obtuseness which is to be expected of a metropolitan elite trapped inside its own bubble: how else to explain the catastrophe of the CBI’s decision to alienate large sections of Scottish business, or Ed Balls’ decision to line up with George Osborne, a hated figure in Scotland, to try to put the frighteners on the Scots about currency union?

But the negative campaign is not mainly due to obtuseness.  It is due to influences which suggest that, whatever the outcome in September, the ‘United Kingdom’ as a historical project has had its day.  The ‘no’ campaign is overwhelmingly negative because the historical conditions that gave rise to a positive case for the United Kingdom no longer exist.  It is necessary to put the frighteners on the Scots because there is no longer a convincing case for the United Kingdom which can attract the Scottish imagination.  The idea of states and nations as ‘imaginary communities’ of course owes much to Benedict Anderson’s classic.  And it certainly conveys the notion that a political construct like the United Kingdom had a fictional quality: in Renan’s famous words, ‘getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.’   But it is not the fiction that is important; it is the success of the appeal to imagination.  A century of so ago any case for Scottish independence could have been met with a positive case that appealed to the imagination – especially to a Scottish imagination which was bound into the project that was the United Kingdom.  That project fused economic and militaristic imperialism (to both of which the Scots made a quite disproportionate contribution.)  It invoked Protestant providentalism, a providentialism which also drew special strength from the messianic character of Scottish (missionary) Presbyterianism.  And it promised unity under a crown which had invented a part Scottish identity via Victorian Balmorality.  Just imagine an attempt to mount a campaign now against the nationalists based on the empire, Protestant providentialism and unity under a crown: to pose it is to see immediately why it is necessary to try to frighten the Scots with horror stories.

This means that even if the ‘no’ campaign succeeds in the September referendum the conundrum of what the United Kingdom is about will still not be solved.  Solutions – and a positive campaign – are indeed conceivable, but they are not feasible for the metropolitan governing elite.  Just across the Irish Sea the problem of what to do about an exhausted national project was solved in the 1970s.  By that date it was plain that the Irish nationalism ‘imagined’ out of 1916 was exhausted: Ireland was never going to be a rural, traditional, Irish speaking, Catholic outpost sealed off from the modern world.  That was De Valera’s fiction, but a fiction which no longer commanded imaginative power.  The Irish nation was instead successfully reimagined as a modern community enthusiastically committed to the project of European unification: people gave up on speaking Irish, practising Catholicism and listening to the Kilfenora ceilidh band.  In principle it is possible to conceive a campaign against Scottish independence which reimagines the United Kingdom as precisely this sort of committed participant in the European idea.  And for  reasons that are obvious it is exactly the kind of campaign which hardly any Conservative can now imagine; and nor is it something which Labour, still grudging in its attitude to Europe and an intellectual prisoner of Unionism, is able to conceive.
On Friday 19 September, whatever the result delivered on the previous day, the problem of what the United Kingdom positively stands for will still therefore be unresolved.