David Cameron is panicking. Devoting more attention to the Scottish referendum in the last, frantic week than he has in the last year, the Prime Minister, along with Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband, finally seems to have grasped the stakes. As the understated Brits of yore might put it, to sit on your hands while your country breaks up looks almost like carelessness; that the British establishment ignored the danger until a shock poll this weekend showed a majority of Scots voters supporting secession is a stunner. Not since Neville Chamberlain handed half of Europe to Hitler on a silver platter has the British political class seemed so blind or out of touch.
Unfortunately, the Brits aren’t alone. In Brussels, across Europe, in London, in New York and in Washington DC, Western political elites are failing to grapple with what Henry Kissinger is right to call a fundamental crisis of the existing world order.
From the start, the Westminster establishment’s approach to the Scottish referendum indicated a basic lack of seriousness about the potential for a “Yes” vote. Neither Parliament nor Prime Minister Cameron contested the Scottish Nationalist demand to let only current residents of Scotland vote on the question. A significant percentage of people born in Scotland, who would qualify for Scottish passports if the country became independent, who love Scotland and identify themselves as proud Scots live and work in other parts of the UK. Yet they understand one of the core benefits of the Union; Scots have the full freedom to live and work all over the UK as fellow citizens. Their experience is part of what it means to be Scottish today, and it is wrong to deprive them of a fair say in the future of both the homeland and the Union that they love.
But of course that decision isn’t just brutally unfair; it is, from the Union point of view, totally cretinous. It hugely skews the electorate toward independence-minded Scots, turning a no-hope utopian dream into a political position that, on a good day with the wind at its back, just might carry the pro-independence vote over the finish line. Depriving born Scots of the right to vote based solely on their having taken advantage of the opportunities that union provides is so unfair and runs so counter to common sense, that the British Parliament (which had the final right over the structure of the referendum) could have stood its ground on this point: No national registry, no vote. Even on small matters, Parliament gave the independence campaigners their head. Shouldn’t the referendum more properly have been a vote on maintaining the United Kingdom, so that the pro-union vote would have been to vote ‘Yes’, and the secessionist vote a ‘No’?
But there is more. Parliament could have insisted that the other parts of the United Kingdom be consulted as well. It took agreement by both England and Scotland to create one of the world’s longest lived and most successful multinational unions; why should only one party have the right to break it up? England doesn’t have the unilateral right to expel Scotland from the Union; why did Parliament act as if Scotland had the right to unilateral divorce?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that neither the cabinet nor the political class as a whole really thought this matter through. Such carelessness about something so important gives credibility to charges from growing anti-establishment parties—UKIP and the SNP alike—that the Westminster political class has turned into a modern day version of the Charles Dickens character Mrs. Jellyby. Her own kids were poorly dressed, emotionally neglected and poorly fed, but she was too busy circulating petitions about shocking conditions in far-away Borio-boola Gha to take any notice. Mrs. Jellyby’s children wanted to get out from under her roof at the first opportunity; one can understand if some Scots don’t want to be ruled by universal philanthropists who overthrow third world dictators without thinking it through (Qaddafi) and fly to far off conferences to fight global warming but can’t be bothered with an existential threat to their own country.
Americans are conditioned by our own history to take these matters more seriously. The threat to the “United” part of the United Kingdom having emerged, Americans would expect a PM to fight it with all his might—if not by burning the Scottish equivalent of Atlanta (Glasgow?) to the ground, then at least by making the campaign against secession his highest priority. Instead, Cameron delegated the campaign to Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer—a second-level leader of the opposition party—and left well enough alone. Darling, whose main qualifications appear to be that he’s Scottish and Not A Tory, formulated a campaign, “Better Together”, that was by all accounts hopelessly lame.
The “No” Campaign never really found its stride. While Alex Salmond made soaring pledges about the bright future of Scotland, the pro-union case never really gained the high ground. There was no poetry in the “No” campaign, no stirring evocation of the great things that England and Scotland have done together, or of the role a strong United Kingdom can still play in a dangerous world. There was no voice to make the case that Scottish independence would weaken Britain as a partner in NATO and that this would be bad for Scotland, Britain, and the world. Instead, Salmond was allowed to score facile political points about Scotland not having to pay for the unpopular Trident nuclear missile subs and using the money instead for social programs. The superficiality of so much of the debate up until now—would the Scottish need new passports? Is Alistair Darling authentically Scottish enough to have a valid opinion? Is the “No” campaign running negative?—has been more appropriate to the point-scoring, parliamentary campaigning than for a referendum to permanently and irrevocably end over three hundred years of political union.
There was something very retro about the atmosphere of the campaign. Europe is filled with small nations (in Africa, they would be called tribes) who are part of larger states: Flemings, Catalans, Scots and Basques, for example. There are also countries like Italy where deep regional divisions create a desire among more prosperous regions to secede. Up until very recently, the post-cold war era of relative world peace and the apparent success of the European Union created a strong and rational case in favor of small peoples nationalism in Europe. If there are no big external dangers, and if the EU is replacing national governments with great success, then there is much less need for small units to remain part of larger ones.
But that’s no longer the world that we live in. The EU is failing on a growing scale, and it looks less and less capable of setting up the kind of supra-national union many of its architects hoped for. Small nations trusting to EU institutions to protect their interests are likely to be disappointed, and EU policymaking is not working particularly well for them these days. Worse, the world is becoming a much less secure place, and it is likely that strong nation states will again be needed to provide the security on which peace and safety depend.
The failure of the No side to raise the level of debate and to put these thoughts before the voters is probably a reflection of the time it is taking the political leaders in Westminster (as elsewhere) to fully understand the implications of the developing crisis of the current world order. But that failure undermined the No campaign’s ability to make the kind of serious and compelling case that the pro-Union side can and should be evoking.
Until very late, for example, there was little discussion of the peril that Scotland, a major banking center, would find itself in if independence triggered a new financial crisis. Scotland’s financial reserves and tax base are too small to support its banks; countries like Iceland and Ireland have learned to their cost what the consequences of such a mismatch can be. Because markets have learned to recognize these risks, and are justly afraid of them, a vote for independence would likely set off some very disturbing months on the financial scene. If the EU were working instead of spinning its wheels as it sinks in the mire, Europe would be well on the way to an EU-wide banking system that might make this issue moot. But it isn’t, and leaving the UK will leave Scotland exposed to some large risks and some long term instability.
The No campaign didn’t ignore financial and economic issues, but it reduced them to a game of “gotcha” over the independence camp’s naive and cloudy plans for the future of Scotland’s currency. The No campaign made the small point, and made it fairly effectively, but never really hammered home the ugly truths that a combination of English opposition and EU bloody mindedness will force an independent Scotland into the euro, and as we have all seen recently, that isn’t a happy place to end up.
So: the No campaign allowed the independence camp to rig both the electorate and the question in its favor, left the campaign in the hands of the B team until the last minute, and failed to ram home the big arguments against secession.
Then, over the weekend, a poll showing that the “Yes” vote could actually win shattered this complacency, and total panic ensued. If the previous tone and structure of the “No” campaign was patronizing, it’s now Fall-of-Paris chaotic. David Cameron is facing questions as to whether or not he would resign in the event of a “Yes” vote (He says he won’t.) MPs are calling for Queen Elizabeth, who is incredibly popular on both sides of the border to speak out. (She won’t) Without consulting the broader British electorate, or having much clue about the consequences of what they were saying, all three leaders have promised greater autonomy for Scotland if they vote “No.” Finally, Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband decided they would campaign to keep the Union together—but that they definitely would not appear on the same stage. It’s likely they will be improvising their messages as well as their schedules; one suspects that none of these gentlemen, despite the stakes, has really done the soul searching and hard thinking that would get them to the place where they can speak authentically and with deep conviction to voters about this vital question.
One sign of how weak the case for independence really is and of how smart the Scots really are: even with all this working in its favor, the odds are still that the referendum will tip towards the “No” side. Polls since the weekend have showed a recovery of the Union vote and while the result remains too close to call, the momentum appears to be swinging back towards a No vote. But even if the independence campaign loses, the near-death experience could weaken the Union for years. Having come so close, the independence movement will not go away anytime soon; just as the Quebec independence movement tried again and again to get the secession vote past fifty percent, so Britain will likely now have to wrestle with this problem well into the reign of Charles III.
Even if Scotland stays in, the British political establishment has been tried and found wanting in this referendum; unfortunately it is not alone. The leaders of the European Union have conspicuously and repeatedly failed to master the vital and urgent issues that confront them. The euro has ruined and embittered a third of the European Union; populist movements of protest and resistance are bringing fascism back from the grave in more than one country. Outside, the enemies of every European ideal are gathering strength; inside, voters across Europe increasingly find the post-War social-democratic order bland, remote, and overbearing. Meanwhile, the European political class has been less concerned to fill key posts with the right people than with people of the right gender; as an obscure ancient sage once put it, they tithe mint and dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law.
The fecklessness, alas, does not stop at the Atlantic. As the Washington political class gazes listlessly at the near-collapse of our foremost ally, and at the accelerating decline and decoherence of the region upon which we most rely (if most take for granted) in preserving world order, what has been our response? The State Department clings to legalistic pronouncements that Scottish independence in an internal United Kingdom matter. President Obama visited the UK for the NATO summit, but spent more time visiting Stonehenge than making the case to Scots and others that our work is not done in this world and that these are dangerous times in which the west needs to stick together.
If the President of the United States doesn’t make the case for the pillars of the international order—NATO, the EU, and, yes, even the integrity of the UK—it’s not clear who else can or will. What is clear is that if the case isn’t made and made well, even the most basic institutions on which we all rely will gradually and inexorably decline and, in due course, fall apart.