The late momentum for the Yes campaign in Scotland should not have surprised anyone. The warning signs had been obvious for months. Faced with largely negative reasons for sticking with the status quo, many Scots have concluded that a Union held together with fear isn’t worth saving. The case for the United Kingdom should have been about much more than this. It should have been framed as a positive affirmation of Scotland’s values and its contribution to the world rather than a statement of brute economic realism.
The outcome now hangs in the balance because the proponents of separatism have successfully tapped into the deep strain of idealism that remains one of the most potent and attractive features of Scottish politics, arguing that social justice and democratic renewal require a break from the fossilised British state. The Yes case certainly has the priceless advantage of novelty, but in every other respect the reasoning behind it is false. Far from being resonant with the demands of the modern age, the idea that you can improve the world by changing its borders is a deeply flawed and regressive one. It reached its zenith with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and should have been consigned to history with the horrors that followed.
Much of the debate has understandably focussed on whether Scotland could succeed as an independent country. A good rule of thumb in situations like this is that change is never as beneficial as its proponents hope or as disastrous as its opponents claim. An independent Scotland wouldn’t be the social democratic paradise breathlessly described by its supporters, but it would cope and probably cope well enough. The real case against statehood is its sheer ordinariness. We hear regularly from Yes supporters that Scotland should aim to be like other small nations. But is that really the summit of our ambitions as a people; to be like everyone else?
There is no shortage of small countries already in existence – 109 of the UN’s 193 member states have populations of less than ten million. Whatever Scottish voters imagine as they bask in the attentions of the global media, the addition of another one will contribute nothing to the fight against climate change, the promotion of international security, efforts to build a stronger and fairer global economy or the ability of the planet to meet any of the other major challenges it faces. Indeed, separatism is more likely hamper those goals by fragmenting the international community and making consensus more difficult to achieve.
The world doesn’t need another small nation state adding to the babble of the global village while subtracting from its ability to act collectively. What it desperately needs more than ever is functioning examples of multinational democracy that allow nations to come together to share sovereignty, pool resources and solve common problems. The United Kingdom, for all its faults, represents something unique and irreplaceable – a union of nations that has survived and adapted as others have fallen apart in acrimony and conflict. A Scotland that genuinely aspired to make its mark on the world would devote its energies to the democratic renovation and strengthening of that union as an example to be followed. With talk of Devo Max and wider constitutional change across the UK, the referendum has created an opportunity that is there to be seized.
There is no point in pretending that a full commitment to the European Union would compensate for Scotland’s rejection of the Union, because it wouldn’t. As we have seen in the crisis over Ukraine, an EU of twenty-eight member states already finds it difficult enough to operate at a level much above the lowest common denominator. The weakening of a large member state and the addition of another small one (assuming it was granted) could only make matters worse. The answer, of course, is to deepen integration within Europe. But the starting point for that process cannot be to break apart the most stable and successful example of sovereignty sharing between nations that has ever existed. The world needs more unionism at all levels, not less.
David Cameron cannot make this argument because he shares with Alex Salmond the illusion that we can make our own destiny in the world by reclaiming legal sovereignty from some alien authority. In Cameron’s case it is Brussels rather than London, but the substance of his support for renegotiation is identical. It is hardly surprising that nationalists on both sides of the border espouse the same politics of division and resentment even as they find different scapegoats. But why hasn’t the Labour Party and the left generally been more vocal in making the rational, internationalist case for the Union?
The great pity for me is that Robin Cook didn’t live to play a role in the referendum debate. He better than anyone would have been able to puncture the sovereigntist illusions of the Yes campaign without resorting to the slur that Scotland is incapable of governing itself properly. He would have started by explaining that the main problems we face aren’t caused by the loss of sovereignty to Westminster or the EU and can’t therefore be solved by clawing it back. The most intractable challenges are often caused by private networks of wealth, crime and terror that exploit the gaps between competing national sovereignties to evade the rules and manipulate people for their own benefit. So the answer cannot be to Balkanise the world into smaller, weaker units. It must be to strengthen and deepen the bonds of political and economic union that already exist while seeking to extend them to others.
The Scotland I have always felt part of is an outward-looking nation with strong internationalist instincts and a clear sense of its moral purpose in the world. It would be selling itself short if it opted for the banality of independence over the more difficult yet necessary goal of making interdependence work better. I hope for everyone’s sake that it dares to be different.
David Clark is Scottish, and the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds. He served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001. He is chair of the Russia Foundation.