John Kay - ‘Give me liberty or £500’ is no rallying cry

‘Give me liberty or £500’ is no rallying cry

The canonical document of the Scottish independence movement is the Arbroath Declaration of 1320. “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Nearly 700 years later, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey asked what respondents would think about independence for Scotland if it would make them £500 a year better off. They favoured separation by 65 per cent to 24 per cent. If independence would make them £500 a year worse off, however, it would be rejected by 66 per cent to 21 per cent. Yet £500 is less than 2 per cent of average Scottish household income.

There were no similar polls in Ireland in 1920, or India in 1945, or America in 1773, but it is hard to imagine a similar result. “Give me liberty or give me death,” proclaimed Patrick Henry, arousing American colonists to rebellion with a cry reminiscent of the Declaration of Arbroath. “Give me liberty or give me £500” lacks the same resonance.

The question cleverly illustrates that most Scots do not see the constitutional status of Scotland as integral to their identity or self-worth. That is what differentiates the Scottish debate on independence from that which convulsed Ireland or India, or divided America, and trivialises it.

But the emotional appeal of the other side of the argument is hardly more compelling. David Cameron proclaimed his support for the union of England and Scotland with “head, heart and soul”. But his attempt to stir the heart and soul could do little more than reminisce on forgotten martial glory. This skirts the uncongenial truth that the adjective British is most commonly used with reference to the defunct British empire.

Nor have the prime minister and his colleagues done much to engage the head. Their appeals to self-interest focus on minor concerns. It is true that a future English government would not be likely to create jobs in Scotland by building aircraft carriers the armed forces do not want. Scotland, it is correctly observed, could not have bailed out the Scottish banks as the UK government did. But it is hard to imagine the conversation on independence day that begins: “What worries me about self-government, Alastair, is that we might not have enough money to give the bankers.”

Readers from outside the UK must wonder whether this debate is actually serious. Yet the petty, pragmatic character of Scottish concerns is appropriate, and in a sense reassuring. We should feel relieved that the passions expressed at Bannockburn, or Waterloo, or that prompted Paul Revere’s ride, no longer feature in the politics of western Europe. No rational Scot could feel the sense of victimhood which was justifiably – if unproductively – felt in Ireland or India. The modern state is an economic agent, not a coercive power, and is principally concerned with the best means of providing health and education, resolving international trade disputes and reining in global finance, clearing the rubbish and tending the parks.

The constitutional argument in Scotland is not about anything very much, but it is not about nothing at all. There are serious though not life-changing questions about how and where policy questions are decided. Britain is an over-centralised state, and a member of an EU that claims too much authority in some areas and does not enjoy enough in others. Continued negotiation over the powers exercised from Scotland’s capital is inevitable, and desirable.

But the economic independence a small country with a dominant trading partner and extensive labour mobility can enjoy in a globalised world is modest. There would plainly have to be agreements between the constitutional parts of the British island over matters such as immigration, monetary and fiscal policy, and reciprocal health and welfare provision. It is debatable whether the division of responsibilities is best determined within a framework of more devolution with the UK or an assertion of independence for a Scottish nation. The difference in outcome is probably ultimately rather small.

Perhaps those Scots for whom the issue turns on £500 have a realistic perspective.

 

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