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A Beautiful Re-union (December 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Scotland's union with the rest of Britain has worked well enough for 300 years. But union with Europe could now serve it even better.

I The fragility of the Union

Recently, reviewing a British Academy symposium about the regnal union of 1603, I realised how fragile the whole thing was, and had always been. The English hadn't believed in the 1603 deal, resented Cromwell's losses in running (on the whole, pretty fairly) Scotland from 1652 to 1659, and only seem to have come round to regarding the Union as a good principle when the Scots backed them against the Americans during the 1776-1783 war of independence. So good a principle that, in 1800, they foisted it on the Irish, who didn't want it at all, thus setting in process an enduring fracture in these islands' history.

There was an almost predictable cycle in Anglo-Scottish relations: English reform led to Scottish emulation and moves towards integration. English overreach provoked Scottish reaction and national restatement. This continued before and after the 1707 Union. The point is now that, in principle, union goes beyond Britain: Europe may match with a self-governing Scotland better than the UK does.

II Forgotten federalisms

UK union could have meant federalism, and I once drafted an outline for a federal Britain - Fabian Tract No 464 Against Metropolis in 1983: eight English provinces plus Scotland and Wales; Ulster as a Euro-region controlled by a state treaty between Edinburgh and Dublin. A federal council, a British Bundesrat, replaced the Lords. It sank without trace.

Scots have persisted in such schemes, ever since the Romans christened us the Foederati or "treaty people". Show us an army that doesn't fancy invading the bleakness before it and we would draft a deal. Even our notions of religion or of monarchy are essentially contractual. Not a lot separates the political theory of Burns's "Scots Wha Hae" from James Thomson's "Rule Britannia": law comes before royal power - or the sovereignty of any single force.

But you have to have conventions to grow into a federal structure. These were always thin and have since the 1990s become thinner.

III Falling off the back of a lorry

You could put it like this. The Scots have always been interested in political deals, chiefly aimed at getting a slice of English action, particularly after the Darien disaster of 1697-98. The English, and in particular the Londoners, want quick cash - and have always wanted it as basic to the life of a gigantic trading city. Hence the liveliness of "business entertainment", from Chaucer's merchant flogging shares, through Ben Jonson's city comedies, to Defoe's parables and Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Geld counts and damn the consequences.

The federal antidote in the social-democratic UK was Old Labour's belief in regional planning: something that had its Scots origins, in the 18th-century model villages and the geographical and sociological efforts of Patrick Geddes. It showed itself in Hugh Dalton's Direction of Industry Act (1947) and Harold Wilson's Regional Employment Premium in the 1960s.

But how do we cope with non-federal devolution on one side, and the United Kingdom of London on the other?

David Clark equates the SNP with Braveheart and sentiment, but fails, as Burns put it "to see himself as others see him". Why (put impolitely) should the heaven-born juveniles of Metromedia moan thus in precious print while Iain McWhirter, one of Scotland's best journalists, and myself (a leading historian of the place) fight it out with the hoodies in the blog steerage?

IV The Broon bequest

Might it not be better to break Britain up and reculer pur mieux sauter? London would still have its 50 millions, but would be joined in Brussels by Scotland and Wales, two useful makeweights when dealing with non-core Europe's small and hungry states. Holyrood and Dublin could busy themselves restraining Messrs Adams and Paisley.

England would truly have to be a part of Europe, instead of a dodgy tax haven specialising in Luxury and Corruption. The things it doesn't do well - railways for a start - could be handed over to a European railway company based on the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn. The things England manages - and there's always a role for "convention", aka rat-like cunning - would be very useful at the European federal core, if it can be frogmarched there.

V But westward look, the land is dim

The problem isn't hostility between the nations of these islands but the fact that they're still united (and riven) by Atlanticism. I recently completed Floating Commonwealth, a study of technics and civilisation along the west coast from the 1860s to the 1930s, out from Oxford in 2007. In this period you couldn't subtract America - from Whitman to Welles - from the equation and make sense of what was going on. But now the America we like - the Vidals, Putnams and Rifkins - thinks European. The America that scares us stiff, from Southern Baptists via Grand Theft Auto and Gangsta Rappers to the White House, seems a by-blow of the geld-propelled anomie that roosts in the City of London's towers.

The Atlantic tide is common to all the countries of the seaboard: not just the unbudgeable Broon. Scratch Fianna Fáil or the SNP and you find a lazy language identity - which soon breaks down when confronted with comprehending and working within European culture. The SNP itself is perplexed about its direction. The cash has been sloshing along the City-freeway-supermall route, and stopping it is difficult.

But stop it we must. New Labour blew its chances in Europe and followed American delusions, fiddling the statistics, ratcheting up phoney growth from housing inflation and industrialised retail, lecturing the EU about "labour inflexibility" while schmoozing the Chinese whose work practices make Ol' Dixie look thoughtful. The EU is unimpressed, but while the Broonite miracle is breaking up, as Iain MacWhirter writes, Holyrood is getting into its synergic stride.

This is why the sentient element of the Scottish left wants out, to negotiate a partnership of neighbours, not a party racket. Carry on Clark. Pieces like yours encourage us.

 
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