Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence

John Lloyd

Polity Press, £20.00

Reviewed by TM Devine

John Lloyd, a Scot born in Anstruther and educated at Edinburgh University, has had a long and distinguished career as a journalist with the Financial Times in London. He is a convinced Unionist and his book has been enthusiastically endorsed by academics and politicians of the same persuasion. The subtitle leaves the reader in little doubt about the overall thrust of the volume.

The Nationalist perspective has long been articulated in websites, podcasts and books but reasoned contributions from Unionists remain few and far between. This is one reason why, behind the banner headlines and the rampant prejudices surfacing in social media, there has been very little compelling intellectual debate of the cut and thrust variety on the pros and cons of independence.

This is a pity given that the polls tell us there is now apparently a majority in favour of secession from the Union. It is therefore all the more urgent that all aspects of a future decision are widely and seriously discussed and the clash of different ideas and opinions heard across the land. If Lloyd’s polemic triggers thoughtful and considered reactions from both Nationalists and Unionists it will, for that reason alone, have been a welcome publication.

There is certainly much meat for others to chew on in the author’s unambiguous contentions. His thesis is that leaving the Anglo-Scottish union for an uncertain future in the EU has the makings of an utter disaster for the country. The removal of the large ‘subsidy’ from the UK Treasury will have a devastating impact on the resourcing of public services. There will be ‘huge dislocations’ during the years spent unravelling a union which has endured for four centuries. These will make the pains of the Brexit process seem very superficial by comparison.

‘Independence in Europe’ will mean the country has turned its back on England, by far its biggest market, for the continent with which trade is relatively small by comparison and where it will have no choice but to become part of the Eurozone. Scotland, as 'a small, economically and financially precarious new state’ will then be like 'flotsam tossed on the waves of global forces’. The large deficit on the public finances from Independence Day could also mean that the nation will fail in the short term to meet the fiscal tests for entry to the EU. There could then be a period of uncertain duration when Scotland would be both outside the Union with England and the anticipated new union with the EU. At least for an indeterminate number of years, the country, in Lloyd’s baleful scenario, will face unprecedented fiscal challenges and the austerity which will inevitably follow for its citizens. Leaving Tory-dominated England and a post-Brexit UK might have a strong emotional allure but it is too grave a risk by far.

Many if not most Nationalist voters reading this synopsis will dismiss Lloyd’s views as nothing other than predictable Unionist pessimism, based on myth and half truths, a stale reheating of the essences of Project Fear which worked in 2014 and could do so again in a future referendum. They, and especially the Scottish Government, would be unwise to take that cavalier attitude. Lloyd, speaks for many Unionist voters who currently account for around half of the electorate. Whatever the intellectual credibility of his views, they appeal to very substantial numbers of the citizenry of a nation fractured down the middle on the most important constitutional question it has faced since 1707.

Moreover, the arguments which underpin Lloyd’s book will again frame the Unionist case in favour of the status quo.

Those who favour independence will have to develop a cogent riposte to them. Unlike those of 2014 the answers will have to be honest, calibrated and taking full and careful account of hard evidence if they are to convince or at least be given a respectful hearing by others. The issues which bear on a post-independence Scotland are huge: the currency, economic planning, management of the deficit, economic relations with England, discussions with the EU, nuclear arms on the Clyde, to name just the some of the most obvious. So far the public know little of the Scottish Government’s current thinking on any of them.

There is also the even more urgent matter of current domestic policies and administration. For some time the SNP has attracted a positive press for its perceived competence in office. That reputation, especially in school education and the health services, is now widely acknowledged to be fraying more than somewhat. The credentials for running an independent country will be seen by the public as based on the record of managing an devolved authority. Improvement in that respect needs to be introduced before another referendum is called.

In the first part of his book, therefore, John Lloyd raises some interesting issues. But the remaining chapters are more problematic. He advances, for example, the eccentric idea that the Scots-born living in England should be allowed a vote on independence. This notion would be in direct conflict with the SNP opposition to ‘blood and soil nationalism’ and invalidate that of the preferred ‘civic nationalism’ which Lloyd himself praises elsewhere in the book. Even more bizarre is the proposal that the citizens of England and Wales as well as Scots ought to be able to have a say in a referendum. I cannot imagine that being met with acclaim in the corridors of Holyrood, though given some recent polling data from south of the border, it might indeed, if adopted, help to seal the end of the Union.

Analytically, the most disappointing part of the volume is the explanations given for the growth of Scottish nationalism in the last 50 years or so. As the popularity of the Tories went into terminal decline, the main party political bulwark of the Union was Labour. It, too, however, eventually succumbed to both internal and external weakness and soon collapsed into electoral irrelevance. The breakthrough of the SNP could not have happened without the demise of Scottish Labour. It is an issue to understanding the travails of the Union but it attracts only cursory coverage in this book.

Instead, much is made about how nationalism is grounded on long term hatred of all things English with the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, portrayed as the founding father and cheerleader of this ethnic animosity. Certainly, in the past the charge is proven but it has much less purchase in the ranks of the modern SNP. Anglophobia, if it exists on any scale, has not impeded the continuing increase in English migration to Scotland in recent decades. Today the English-born are by far the country’s biggest minority, with more than half a million recorded in the last national census. Academic research confirms they rarely encounter antagonism because of their background. When it was revealed that a clear majority of English-born had voted No in the 2014 referendum, there was no evidence of a crisis of Anglophobia. The SNP maintained a studied silence on the issue and even scurrilous comments in social media were few and far between.

Lloyd would have been better advised to focus on the history of governance within the British state in the search for a convincing explanation of the popularity of nationalism today.

Indeed, scholars describe the 19th and early 20th centuries as an era of ‘semi-independence’ ,when the UK government had sovereign authority but most of the business of running Scotland actually took place north of the border through the law, burgh councils and a range of public agencies. The Union came close to being a partnership union of mutual respect and that equilibrium, together with domestic and imperial economic advantage, ensured the association of two historic nations remained virtually unchallenged until the 1960s.

That condition of mutual respect disintegrated due to the Westminster folly of centralisation, interference and reckless insensitivity in Scottish affairs. Ironically, therefore, it was not rabid Nationalists who began to destabilise the Union but the guardians of the British state in London.