Thanks to Boris Johnson’s inept Brexit diplomacy, the United Kingdom may be on the brink of fragmenting into three disunited kingdoms. There is much for India’s dogmatic policymakers to learn from a situation that holds inescapable parallels with the association of Jammu and Kashmir with India. There is talk of the equivalent of our abrogated Article 370 being introduced to save national unity as Northern Ireland threatens to erupt in protest if its present soft border with the Republic of Ireland is sacrificed to European Union membership and Scottish leaders want another if Britain leaves the EU on 31 October. Mr Johnson has vowed to “die in a ditch” if Britain doesn’t. There’s also Wales licking its wounds in the background.
Styled First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has headed Scotland’s government since 2016 when her pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party won 63 of the 129 seats in the Scottish parliament created in 1998 following a referendum on devolution. The SNP, then led by Alex Salmond, came to power in Scotland’s 2011 election (when it actually won six more seats than Ms Sturgeon now controls), but a second referendum in September 2014 failed to push through independence. Although 44.7 per cent of Scottish voters supported the demand, 55.3 per cent rejected it.
Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond believe that Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU changed everything. That vote reflected English, not Scottish views. “If I had but known five years ago that Boris Johnson would become prime minister and Britain would be poised on the brink of a hard Brexit then I would have delayed the Scottish referendum,” Mr Salmond says. He believes that if another referendum is now held, “60 per cent plus” voters will support independence. With another Scottish parliament election due in 2021, the present First Minister argues that Brexit marks a material change and that it is only fair to allow the Scottish people to vote again on whether or not to remain tied to England. London has so far refused to allow this but nationalist Scots hold that a people have a continuing option to decide their future.
Scotland with its 790 islands covers the northern one-third of the island of Great Britain. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, the North Sea to the north-east and the Irish Sea to the south. It was historically an independent kingdom that fought the Romans–witness Hadrian’s Wall–and the English through the centuries. By inheritance King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England and Ireland in 1603. Not everyone welcomed Scotland’s decision in 1707 to enter into a political union with England. While anti-union riots erupted in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, English resentment found expression in Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London. Asked why he had amassed so much gunpowder, Fawkes famously replied to blow Scotsman (meaning James I) back to Scotland.
Other changes followed. The union created a new parliament of Great Britain. In 1801, Great Britain itself entered into a political union with Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from which the Irish Free State seceded in 1922. The UK then became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is still its formal description.
The Scottish Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution turned Scotland into an intellectual, commercial and industrial powerhouse, with Voltaire declaring "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation." Keir Hardie founded the Scottish Labour Party, and militant trades unionists launched the "Red Clydeside" movement. Glasgow became one of the world’s largest cities, Clydeside was the world's pre-eminent shipbuilding centre, and trade blossomed when tariffs with England were abolished. As the demand for home rule gathered strength, First Minister Jack McConnell hailed Vladimir Putin’s visit to Edinburgh as a step towards "Scotland regaining its international identity".
The sense of separateness runs high as Scots recall the fifth anniversary of the independence referendum. There are no “Azaadi” chants, no “Independence for Scotland” posters. But bus drivers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness or Kirkwall in the Orkneys politely declined the bus pass I had acquired in London. “This is Scotland” they said. “That’s only for England.”
It was reported when the SNP first began to attract attention that Queen Elizabeth II had made discreet inquiries through her officials about the party’s stand on the monarchy. That incident was recalled when Ms Sturgeon recently implied that being above politics, the Queen should refuse to be drawn into a future vote on Scottish independence. Her warning came after David Cameron, the former British prime minister, boasted in a BBC interview that he had asked in 2014 whether the monarch could “raise an eyebrow” about independence. Apparently, she did so by telling a well-wisher outside the church near Balmoral where she was staying on the Sunday before the vote, “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” Mr Cameron has been criticised for embarrassing the Queen by breaching the confidentiality of the briefings that the prime minister gives to the monarch.
If Britain does leave the EU and Scotland regains its independence, it will seek direct EU membership. Scotland’s treaty with France, called the “Auld Alliance”, was a historical reality. It also has ancient ties with Ireland. Closer Scots-Europe relations have been on the cards ever since Harold Wilson applied to join the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries on the basis of North Sea gas. It’s said that Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the powerful Saudi Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, agreed on condition the membership was in Scotland’s name.
Mr Salmond can afford to tweet, “On this fifth anniversary we should focus not on what might have been but on the opportunity still to come.” By retaining the Queen as head of state and joining an EU of which Ireland is already a member, Scotland might help to achieve a version of the “confederation” that was Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream for the sub-continent. Nehru expected it to absorb then East Bengal’s emerging nationalism and defuse Kashmiri separatism. Happily, the fundamentalism on both sides of Hindu-Muslim divide on which his hopes foundered is not a factor of British political life. There is talk now of carrying devolution a stage further so that apart from essential subjects like defence, foreign affairs and currency, the Scots enjoy full self-government. The rationale is the wise logic that a flexible partnership is more capable to absorbing shocks and adjusting to changing realities than a rigid union that is more likely to snap than to bend.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.