When one partner in a long marriage decides to break away unilaterally, it leaves wounds and hurt feelings. In a few days, we will know if the 307-year-old union between Scotland and the rest of Britain will be broken by the Scots voting for an independent future or, in their vernacular, “going oot.”
Like many people with family history straddling the Border, the Scottish referendum is emotionally wrenching for me. Although raised in London, part of my heart will always remain in Scotland after living there for two wonderful decades and where my two sons grew up and a paternal grandfather was born. It is desperately sad to watch from afar as cross-border resentments ignite fires of antique animosities. If the vote on September 18 goes 20:80 in either direction we should sigh that the people have spoken clearly and respect their will, but a narrow win for either the YES campaign or the NOs will leave an ugly scar.
It is sad when a long marriage breaks down between partners who have achieved much together. Each comes away from the union a loser with less influence or prestige, and often much poorer. And yet, an amicable separation is sometimes the best of a poor choice when partners head in different directions because the old glue that once held them together is dry and cracked.
There is greater hope that sides can move forward as friends on parallel paths to independent lives if they can agree how to split their assets and responsibilities. Regrettably little has been prepared in case this national divorce goes ahead. The Nobel-Prizewinning economist, Paul Krugman, declared in the New York Times last week that nationalist talk of currency union without political union is “mind-boggling.” Switching to the euro is not an early option for Scotland, and meanwhile banks, investors, and some large companies are firing warning shots.
Setting aside the fraught debate about the currency and economics of independence, I understand the political frustration of many Scots. Their nation has an ancient history and an admirable culture, yet they can claim to be poorly represented by Westminster Parliament, which pulls the strings and is consistently more right wing. Moreover, as London becomes more plural, more prosperous and a global capital, the north of Britain (not only Scotland) feels marginalized, with its once proud heavy industries rusting.
When attention seems focused elsewhere, England can be portrayed as a careless spouse, despite two recent prime ministers born in Scotland (Blair and Brown) and the man now in office having a Scottish family name. Besides, there is less to admire in Westminster these days. David Cameron has a prime ministerial manner, but fewer green leather seats in the House of Commons are occupied by inspiring statesmen as in past generations, and the expenses scandal of five years ago fueled voter cynicism everywhere. Lately, the Parliamentary-led campaign to defend the union of the UK has looked particularly lackluster and complacent compared with nationalist fervor and idealism. If English leaders had sent their soccer team to play Scotland without boots in the second half of the match after leading two to one in the first, they wouldn’t deserve to win.
Since Scotland has come within a hair’s breadth of independence, the aspirations of separatist movements are being encouraged elsewhere. This is particularly true across European waters in Belgium and Spain, as well as further away in the Faroe Islands and Greenland that want to break with Denmark. Russia, China, Africa and you name it are also challenged by secessionist movements. After the era of conquest and empire, consenting unions sprouted in the EU, but we may now be entering a new period of Balkanization, a word evoking unhappy memories.
But what will happen if Scots reject independence by a wafer? With hopes dashed, nearly half the population who voted YES will be bitterly disappointed. They will feel like a partner in a broken marriage who is forbidden to walk away. However unhappy the union was before, that situation is far worse.
After living in Scotland for decades while nationalist hopes were gradually rising, I moved overseas to Quebec. The parallels are too obvious to ignore. Both of them have a history of running their own affairs before uniting with a larger country, and both proudly defend their cultural identity. The Parti Québécois has a longer history of struggle for sovereignty but, if that is anything to go by, we may in the event of a NO vote see more referenda in Scotland, which Montrealers call “neverenda”.
So the people of Scotland decided yesterday to stay in the Union by a 10% margin, which I guess will stand for at least the rest of my lifetime. They deserve enormous credit for responding to the call to vote in huge numbers and with civility. With emotions whipped up by politicians and activists on both sides, the referendum could so easily have descended into ugliness. Now it is up to Westminster politicians, who never prepared properly for the outcome, to settle old grievances and publish a White Paper proposing what happens next (which should have been done in the first place). It will not be easy because, in placating Scottish grumbles and devolving more powers to Edinburgh, the process will aggravate regional injustices in Wales and Northern Ireland, and probably in the more deprived parts of England too.
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