The British union, one of the most successful political unions in recorded history, is not secure. That much is beyond reasonable doubt. In September 2014 then SNP leader Alex Salmond claimed the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence would be a ‘once in a generation opportunity’. Like many of Salmond’s predictions, this is looking increasingly like baloney.
Like it or not, Brexit has been a game changer. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is claiming Scotland will be taken out of the EU against its will, and will call a second referendum as soon as she thinks she can win it. Unionists were complacent prior to the 2014 vote, and it showed. We can’t afford to make the same mistake again. So we need to start making strong and positive arguments for the union in all policy sectors. Fortunately we can do so with gusto and confidence because, by my weighing of the evidence, the case for the British union is almost indecently strong.
Before getting into the arguments for our union it’s worth clearing up an important point. If the Scottish Parliament votes to hold a second referendum, which it could as it has a pro-independence majority of SNP and Green MSPs, Westminster would be mistaken to block it. I personally believe that the Scottish Government does, alas, have a mandate for a second referendum. The SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto gave the party the right to hold another referendum in the event of a ‘significant and material change’ in Scotland’s circumstances, and specifically highlighted Brexit as an example. If the Scottish Parliament votes for a second referendum, and the British Government blocks it, the dispute could move away from the ballot box.
Perhaps the strongest argument for the union is one which, until quite recently, it’s felt almost silly to say aloud. National security. Quite simply the union makes Scotland and the other British nations substantially safer than would otherwise be the case. We only need to glance at history to illustrate this point. Since the 1707 Act of Union no part of the mainland has been successfully invaded and occupied. There hasn’t been any significant land conflict on our soil since Culloden in 1746. This is a quite fantastic achievement – and it’s directly linked to the union. Not only does the union pool resources for the defence of the British Isles, it has also meant that we don’t have a land border with a potentially hostile power. This has allowed us to focus outwards, exporting our values, institutions and people to substantial portions of the globe.
Recent events mean it would be inexcusable not to take defence extremely seriously. A combination of growing Russian assertiveness, the election of Donald Trump and the threat from parties of the radical right across Europe means the continent is at its most unstable since at least the disintegration of the USSR. Trump has been openly ambivalent about the NATO alliance, the cornerstone of European security since 1949. He recently described the alliance as ‘obsolete’, and has previously refused to commit to defend NATO states which haven’t ‘fulfilled their obligations’.
Trump’s rise means that it’s plausible, for the first time since the Second World War, that major European powers might have to fight an external aggressor without American assistance. Combined with this the European order looks fragile at best, if not actively crumbling. It is likely that a party of the radical right will win an election in Western Europe over the next few years, whilst the Euro crisis continually threatens to re-erupt. Considering the instability of the international situation, it would be an act of folly to divide the defence of the British Isles.
The breakup of Britain would also weaken the security and stability of the whole of Europe. Britain, along with France, has one of the two most potent militaries in democratic Europe. We’re one of only four European NATO members (excluding France) to spend the mandated minimum 2% of GDP on defence, and are the only power in democratic Europe to possess nuclear weapons other than France. This means Britain plays a particularly important role in upholding the European order and defending democratic Europe. If Le Pen becomes French President in May 2017, as is certainly plausible, our role will be upgraded to crucial. Thus anything which substantially weakens the UK, as a Scottish exit clearly would, will also undermine the stability and security of democratic Europe. It would represent a dereliction of what has become our duty.
Moreover, regardless of what happens with Brexit, the economic case for the union is even stronger than it was in 2014. In November 2013 the nationalist Scottish Government published a White Paper on independence, which predicted that Scotland’s oil reserves would bring in revenue of between £6.8 billion and £7.9 billion in 2016. In actual fact, due to the collapse in oil prices, revenue for 2015-16 was closer to £60 million. Partly as a result of this figures show that in 2016 Scotland had a fiscal deficit of around £15bn, which as a percentage of GDP is more than twice the rate for the UK as a whole.
Following Brexit, and Theresa May’s announcement that the UK will leave the European single market, some have sought to portray the choice for Scotland as between two economic unions, the larger EU union or its smaller UK counterpart. They should really stop. Scotland exports around four times as much to the rest of the UK than to the EU. If Scotland has to choose between the British and European single markets, there is only one rational choice. And that’s before we remember that the UK looks far more stable and stronger than the EU.
Unionists would do well to work on the assumption that a second independence referendum will take place, and should make our arguments accordingly. Before the referendum campaign support for independence in Scotland rarely rose above 30%. In the event they achieved 45%. If a similar shift in public opinion is achieved again, Britain will be dead as a political unit. The case for the union, whether for economic, security or cultural factors, is overwhelmingly strong. We need to be confident in our arguments, and make them with vigour. And the British Government needs to act as though defending the union is its most important policy priority. If the union collapses, regardless of what happens with Brexit, the present Government will be remembered for little else. This is an eventuality we should all seek to avoid.