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An Awfully Big Adventure (February 2012)

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This article was first published on Bella Caledonia

In 1707-15, as far as the mass of Scots were concerned, there was no decision. The deal was done, for good or ill, by elites – or parcels of rogues – north and south, for dynastic and diplomatic reasons. In 1837 the same Union was partly dissolved, when Victoria could not, by Salic Law, become Queen of Hanover. She was replaced by the reactionary Ernest August, Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale, whose repression helped provoke the German liberals who rose and fell in 1848. In 1866 Hanover’s king backed the Austrians against Bismarck. The blind George V’s state was swallowed by Prussia, and with it the chance of a type of liberal confederalism. Did anyone notice?

What operated in the UK after 1707 was more a tacit confederation than a union. The ruling groups of both Scotland and England invested in distinct ways, and the separate Scots ‘estates’ of kirk, law, learning and local government had about as much autonomy as small states enjoyed within the European empires. The alternative wouldn’t have been the ‘freedom’ that the likes of Paul Henderson Scott optimistically infer from Fletcher of Saltoun’s pamphlets, but either a version of England’s ‘Poynings’ Law’ that paralysed nominally self-governing Ireland, 1494-1782, or a drastic French-Jacobin-style ‘co-ordination’ of administration and civil society.

Instead the Scots possessed an informal autonomy of industry and finance which balanced emigration and imperial commitments, and patronage which helped them set up international trading and social networks that were often far stronger than British, or Scottish, patriotic ties.

These could cost other countries their stability: Jardine Matheson, the Scots-Indian entrepreneurs, drugged China; in Japan, as Neil Oliver himself argued in a TV programme, the Aberdonian Thomas Blake Glover hurried the country to modernisation, but of a very militaristic type. The century’s greatest total war, in America, 1861-5, was between English-speakers, because the Lancashire cotton trade, partly in Scots hands, throve on the slave economy. Such threats, but also opportunities, tended to be recognised at consular, rather than aristocratic-diplomatic level. As the Manchester Guardian economist J A Hobson argued, inequality led to imperial confrontation, while diplomats fretted about the balance of power.

Arguably in 1914 Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse, overfamiliar with upper-class London – the Moltkes of the General Staff as much as the Hohenzollerns were something of an English implant – underestimated the military potential of the industries of ‘West Britain’ and the Clyde. As I argued in Floating Commonwealth (Oxford, 2008: in paperback from May), Scotland’s intensely-specialised war-economy input led directly both to victory and to post-war economic collapse, to which the leftish national movement and literary renaissance responded.


The situation is different now, with the marketization of politics producing a dislocated UK declining, as ‘the Scot of Scots’ John Ruskin expected, ‘from prouder eminence to less pitied destruction’. A generous federalism might have worked in the 1970s and 1980s; but instead oil was made to power the ‘United Kingdom of London’ that dragged Thatcher at its heels, her Mephisto Rupert Murdoch, a Scots-Australian Free Kirker-turned-bushwhacker who helped make the place safe for footloose plutocrats and feral bankers, a tax-haven on a huge scale. Compare Thatcher to dull, uncharismatic Helmut Kohl. No contest: objectively, Kohl united his country, restored its industry, greened and feminised its politics. We have to live with these facts, and use them and our international connections to enable us to face down peak oil and potential environmental catastrophe.

As an MSP on the Scottish Parliament’s Economics Committee, 2007-11, one could appraise the challenge and the ways out. Finance was a car-crash; Scotland’s remarkable endowment of low-carbon energy and potential capacity to reprocess CO2 could only work through free co-operation between sovereign states. Its economic interests are different, as mercantile Norway’s differed from Sweden in 1905. Both benefited from a more flexible confederal polity.

The same holds good for these islands now, as global politics shift into new alignments, pivoted on recognising the decline of the United States, the rise of the BRICs and, looming up, the threat of ecological catastrophe coupled with Peak Oil. We don’t think much about it, but we need to accept that only an integrated ‘core Europe’ with an industrial base concentrating on strong low-carbon policies, has the strength to navigate this. English will be its linguafranca, but the trappings of the UKL are anything but appealing, its bankers more and more looking like conspirators in a kickback state.


Hence the priority of independence. ‘Devo Max’ won’t work as it still accepts a UK sovereign state (which can only be a throttling shackle on free cooperation) with Scotland counting for less as its MPs will decline from 72 out of 659 in 1997 to 52 out of 610 MPs in 2015: from 11% to 8.5% . If anyone isn’t convinced, read Philip Stephens’ Financial Times assault on 30 February on Cameron’s pathological, wholly delusive, cockiness about the UK’s superiority to Europe and Germany. Cameron is also apprehensive about the Falklands: the allure of their oil, the impossibility of their defence, the humiliation of the outcome.

But has Alex Salmond – so far – set up the necessary informal structures of ‘proto-independence’? Is there an Office of the First Minister to research where we trade internationally? It could double as an embryo external affairs ministry, something beyond weekly preparations for FMQs and adhoc foreign visits. We lacked a powerful industry minister last time round, and though Alex Neil shows great promise, we need to clone a technocrat who can reform the non-events that are Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International (do the latter’s shared offices with British Trade International really help?). We must adapt our low-carbon energy credentials – which are good – into hard-and-fast international economic alliances, notably with the Gulf States, and other likely pivots of a new BRIC-driven economic order, and driven to adapt to fuel scarcity and necessary rationing.

Geotechnics over the next fifty years will mean a North-East Passage with break-bulk ports in the Orkneys and Shetlands; and an African revival with solar power: overall, new types of flood and quake-proof city, the decline of the car, pressure on sea and air transport, the return of electric railways as land-bridges. Look at the trade press and see Chinese plans for east-west railways through Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic at its narrowest: 1740 miles – three days sailing – to Brazil. If we relearn our technology we can contribute and be trusted.


Salmond’s existential problem is what the Germans call ‘der Spagat’ – ‘the splits’. He has to make us feel good – ‘The future is always bright/The band will always play’ – and do the re-industrialisation business. The latter exposes our economic weaknesses: a kidnapped financial sector, lack of purchase on key future technologies, too many quangos and entrepreneurial ‘authorities’ which don’t cut it. Think out the possibilities of the renewable power/electric rail synergy (above): then cast a horrified eye on the freeloading catastrophe of the Edinburgh tram … This can be dealt with – but think where we could put the cash presently being blown on road schemes like ‘the bridge too far’ which, in perhaps ten years’ time, Peak Oil will thump down on like the blade of the guillotine.

Hence the notion – paradoxical enough – of building up the SNP’s weak ‘London-Brussels end’. We have tragically lost Sir Neil MacCormick, but sympathetic professionals like Prof James Mitchell, Stephen Maxwell and George Kerevan, Prof Drew Scott and David Walker (late of the Guardian and co-author with his wife Polly Toynbee of scathing commentaries on New Labour), ought to be in the Lords: not to attend its ritual debates but to use its offices and research to tap into international resources for the OFM and provide a shadow diplomatic corps. I tried to sketch the campaign ground – carbon capture, subsea turbines, pump storage, anti-inundation engineering – in my ‘Extreme Energy’ piece in last summer’s Scottish Affairs. It brings its own politics.

As in the oil business, Norway provides precedents. Sigurd Ibsen, the great dramatist’s son, was in 1903-5 ‘Norwegian Prime Minister in Stockholm’. He handled with great skill and flexibility the negotiations which ended the union with Sweden. At the turn of 1900 Norway’s management of the world’s third largest merchant fleet made its people regard Swedish agrarian and industrial policies as irrelevant. An amicable divorce became unavoidable but conserved elements of confederal agreement which lasted in the Nordic Union. The concession was, ironically enough, that basically radical Norway had (after a referendum) to have its own king, the young German prince Carl schlepped in from Denmark. But as first citizen Haakon VII would lead his country against the Nazis. Dignified constitutionalism has its points, and the Windsors and the House of Lords (remade as an advisory ‘Council of the Islands’) know the ropes of making intangible but benign fora like Commonwealths work.

We are in danger of being caught up in metropolitan melodrama, when what’s really on offer is securing a difficult but ultimately important technology. We can’t do it on our own, and there aren’t many allies in the south. Recently I came across an acronym in the hellish legion that’s Rupert Murdoch’s organ, the Sun – TOWIE. Initially baffled, I found it stood for a chronicle of estuary excess (booze, blondes, bling, etc.) called ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.

No it’s not.

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