Scottish Separatists

What makes a separatist? Here's a thoughtful article from historian Jill Stephenson.

The Scottish nationalists like to talk about ‘independence’ and become irate when they are told that they are separatists. This is hard to fathom. Do they want to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK? Yes. Do they want to continue to enjoy the benefits of the UK that they like? Er, yes they do. That is where the difficulty for them arises. They want to be separate, but not to experience the consequences of being separate. They want to retain the UK’s currency, and on the same terms as they enjoy now. This is why Salmond had to lie about currency union during the referendum campaign. They want to enjoy various UK subsidies or access to UK resources, and claimed during the referendum that it would be ‘common sense’ for the UK to allow these arrangements to continue. For example, separatists imagine that the huge share of UK renewables’ subsidies that come to Scotland (about 30% of the total) and access to the research funds of the Research Councils UK - where Scottish universities currently win an advantageous share, about 13%, with a population share of 8.3%, would continue, regardless of separation. They also want to have the preferential treatment for certain Scottish industrial concerns that currently obtains – for example, that Royal Navy warships are built on the Clyde. But this would not happen if Scotland were a foreign country, as far as the UK was concerned. The UK does not build warships outside the UK, and EU rules would not allow the UK to give preferential treatment to yards in a foreign country, as Scotland would be.

I have seen SNPers become upset when one mentions this, not least because, they say, Scotland and rUK would not be foreign countries. One even accused me of being racist for suggesting that we would be foreigners to the English. That probably speaks more to a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word ‘foreign’ than anything else. But what do they expect? To have ‘independence’ – which, it turns out, would not be that independent, with dependence on rUK assets – and not to be separate from the country from which they have just chosen to separate? If this is the level of SNP members’ and supporters’ understanding, Scotland has more problems than any of us thought.

There are varieties of separatist. There are the ‘mist and heather’ nationalists who have strong feelings about a national identity and would make almost any sacrifices for a separate Scotland. For them, a bit of hardship (which all of us would have to share) would be a price worth paying to be ‘free’. Free, that is, of Westminster, London, Tories, England. Some talk of ‘freedom’ from some kind of ‘oppression’ or even ‘slavery’. One made an issue of this in the same week as 200 Nigerian girls were taken captive by Boko Haram. Now, that’s genuine oppression and captivity, even slavery. This nationalist persecution complex focuses on Scotland as victim. Scotland has, apparently, been raped and pillaged by London, Westminster, the English, for centuries. This depends on a particular – and very flaky – view of Scottish history. For one thing, it assumes that all Scots were always on the same side, which was often – as at Culloden in 1746 – not the case.

The nationalist cause has also attracted socialists of various kinds, who are a throwback to the 1970s and whom I used to see among the student body. There was a pathetic wee guy called Gerard, whose Director of Studies I was. He didn’t attend classes, and his History tutors complained to me about his absences. I heard nothing from his Politics tutor. When I contacted him, he told me that he hadn’t seen Gerard all term, but that the lad had told him that ‘he would be very busy with his political work’. This seemed to consist of selling a publication called ‘Red Mole’, or some such, on campus. This old-fashioned, out-of-date, irrelevant tendency of SWP, WRP, IS, or whatever, seems to be alive and well in some benighted corners of Scotland. It has attached itself to the separatist movement in the hope of furthering its own Marxist-Leninist, or Trotskyist (or Maoist, or Che Guevarist) cause. These people support the SNP in the hope that it will take them forward to the 1970s.

There are other kinds of separatist. Some actually believe that Scotland would be materially better off without the UK. They are the victims of misleading SNP propaganda. They have dutifully followed the line spun by Wings over Scotland and have all the answers about Westminster living off Scottish resources. Except that they are factually wrong, as the Scottish government’s own figures attest. These biddable pro-SNP clones have no idea about the extent to which we are all, in the UK, subsidised by London. They refuse to read the SNP government’s own figures, the GERS – presumably because they might actually have to think about them. Some talk a lot about ‘having control of our own country’, as if we didn’t have any input into Westminster – how many Scottish MPs have been in government in recent decades? – and as if we didn’t have Holyrood. There was much talk before the recent election about ‘a stronger voice for Scotland’ if we elected SNP MPs. Yet before 7 May we had had 59 Scottish MPs and after 7 May we still have 59 Scottish MPs. 

The difference now is that 56 of the 59 are obsessed by the ‘demands’ of a partisan party with one single-minded objective. That objective is not the representation of constituents at Westminster, but the promotion of the SNP’s one distinctive policy: separation from the UK. They do not represent ‘Scotland’. They have tried to promote the myth that they speak for all of Scotland, but they do not, as one hopes the media will come to realise. I accept the sincerity of many of those who simply want to be in a separate country. I’d have more respect for them if they were honest about the economic prospects of that separate country. Perhaps it will come: the SNP has now had to admit that its forecasts for oil and gas revenue were wildly optimistic. They now accept that the highest figure for the period 2016-20 is likely to be £10.8bn, as opposed to the £38bn that they previously forecast. The lowest figure is around £2.4bn. 

It is distressing enough that there are thousands of people who want to break up our country and reduce Scotland to penury. What is sinister is the presence in their ranks of substantial numbers of Irish Republicans. Those of us who remember the 1970s and 1980s know very well what Irish Republicans are. The people of Warrington and other British cities – especially those in Northern Ireland - remember very clearly. I recall going to meetings in London then and choosing to take a bus from central London to Heathrow rather than the (more convenient) tube because the IRA had threatened to bomb the tube system. That’s the kind of indiscriminate violence that was the hallmark of the IRA. I also remember being relieved that we had returned home from Ireland on the day before Lord Mountbatten was murdered.

Anyone who thinks that these people love Scotland is naïve: their all-consuming emotion is hatred of Britain, the UK, and all its works. That is why Scottish nationalism works for them: it has been promoted by the SNP as an anti-UK movement with particular hatred – certainly not too strong a word – for Westminster and London. That suits Irish Republicans very well. There is a bonus for them in that, in a separate Scotland, their presence would, proportionately, be more acutely felt. The last thing we need is the Ulsterisation of Scottish politics. Yet it is probably too late to say that because it has happened already. I know of two SNP candidates for public office – one is now an MP, Brendan O’Hara - who have publicly used the word ‘Hun’ to describe those on the other side of the sectarian divide from themselves. For an innocent like myself, who thought, firstly, of ‘Hun’ as meaning Attila and co., and, secondly of its being used pejoratively of Germans in the First World War era, it has been news that ‘Hun’ is a term of sectarian abuse. It is clear, however, that Mr O’Hara and others who use it today know perfectly well what it means in sectarian terms.

The separatists, then, have various agendas. There are signs that some in the leadership realise that separation would be economically problematical, but whether they can now admit that to the faithful – after all the leadership has said about there being no economic or financial obstacles - remains to be seen. For now, it is essential that the message goes out loud and clear to separatists: breaking up the UK would mean creating two separate polities that would have the status of foreign countries vis-à-vis each other. There would be no obligation on the part of one to continue to trade with the other. Scots should realise that c.70% of Scottish trade is with the rUK (about five times as much as Scottish trade with the EU). Whether that volume would be maintained by rUK when Scotland became a foreign country is an interesting question, and not one to which there is currently a reliable answer. But then separatists have already signed up to buy various pigs in pokes, so why shouldn’t they buy another?

Jill Stephenson is a historian of modern Germany. Her many publications relate to German social history in the era of the two world wars. She has also written ‘Britain and Europe in the later Twentieth century: Identity, Sovereignty, Peculiarity’, in Mary Fulbrook (ed.) National Histories and European History (London, 1993).

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