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Wings Over Scotland

The new flag of the United Kingdom

Posted on May 11, 2011 by

A more cynical man than I has already suggested that in the event of the SNP winning independence for Scotland, the remnant UK's likeliest flag would be a thoughtful blend of those of its three surviving nations: from England the red cross of St George, and from Wales and Northern Ireland the white backdrops. LOL ETC. I think this, though, would be the obvious real solution:

But is it an issue we're actually going to have to address? Is this really the end of the Union? And what do you call the United Kingdom when it's not united any more? Let's gaze into a crystal ball, then realise we don't believe in fortune-telling and just take a rational look at the facts.

Let's get the trivia out of the way first. The UK's full name is the United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland, and it refers specifically to the Acts of Union in 1800 uniting Ireland with the Kingdom Of Great Britain (created almost 100 years earlier by treaty between Scotland and England). Since the present name refers to the geographical island of Great Britain, it will no longer be accurate or appropriate should Scotland renounce the Union. The simplest apparent correction would be to rename the grouping as "United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland", which would of course still contract to "United Kingdom", hence this feature's title.

The big question, however, is whether this is something that anyone's going to have to deal with, and the only way to predict that is to look at where the various interested parties are currently headed. For fervent Unionists, the prospects seem pretty bleak.

Since the SNP's landslide victory in Scotland finally made real the dream of an independence referendum the Nationalists have pursued for almost 80 years, all three Unionist parties in Scotland have lost their leaders, each of whom was bitterly opposed to the referendum. Since most WoSblog viewers won't be familiar with the devolved Parliament, it's worth taking some time out to look at each party in turn.

Labour's Iain Gray, who held onto his own Parliamentary seat by a wafer-thin majority of 151 votes, had the toughest job when it came to presenting a coherent policy. His party's position on a referendum see-sawed wildly in the four years of the SNP's first administration, from Wendy Alexander's "bring it on" gambit (which a hapless Gray was infamously forced to defend to his much-derided discomfort on Newsnight Scotland) to a vehement (and more traditional) opposition post-credit-crunch, as Labour insisted that an economic crisis was not the time to be fretting about the constitution.

Oddly, Labour appears to have conducted another sudden U-turn on this view since the SNP's victory, now demanding a referendum immediately in order to spare the nation several years of "distraction" from the vital business of creating jobs and such – seemingly unaware of the fact that they could have made one happen at any time in the last two years, time they actually spent blocking the SNP's attempts to pass the referendum bill until the SNP finally gave up on it.

At the time of writing, absolutely nobody knows what Labour's policy on independence is. Most of Gray's would-be successors lost their seats in the election (including the delightful Andy Kerr, who WoSblog viewers have already met), Gray will serve as a caretaker until well into the autumn, and the party is currently conducting a "root and branch" investigation into its electoral humiliation.

Based on early indications, nothing much will change. The party's position on a referendum has been rendered irrelevant by the SNP's majority, and the most likely scenario is that it will spend the years between now and the probable 2015 poll date putting forward the same negative, fearmongering arguments that worked so well for it in 2007 and 2011. (More on those later.)

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, however, was entirely the author of his own misfortune. In 2007, the SNP's first instinct on winning a plurality of Holyrood seats but not a majority was to attempt to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, who had been in power in partnership with Labour for the two previous administrations and had successfully implemented some of their major policies like the abolishing of student tuition fees.

Nicol Stephen, the party's then leader, was thought to be open to the idea of negotiating with the Nationalists. Other senior figures, however, led by Scott (at the time Stephen's deputy) refused point-blank to countenance any agreement unless the SNP dropped their demand for an independence referendum. Since this was a bit like expecting Jeremy Clarkson to start cycling to work with a packed lunch of lentil-and-tofu sandwiches, the talks collapsed and the SNP operated instead as a minority government, with considerable success.

Most commentators have attributed the Lib Dems' catastrophic 2011 results (losing half their vote and two thirds of their seats, leaving them without a single constituency MP on the Scottish mainland, having lost seats in the Highlands that have been staunchly Liberal since before the First World War) entirely to the unpopular Westminster coalition. However, given the Scottish LDs' federal status and their vigorous attempts to disassociate themselves from the English party (pointing repeatedly to the fact that the Scottish Lib Dems had ended tuition fees when in power, not tripled them) I'm inclined to believe that a significant proportion of their losses have come from supporters enraged at Scott's unco-operative behaviour towards the Nationalists – whom he is widely said to loathe with a passion – since becoming leader. It would certainly explain why the majority of the disgruntled LD vote went to the SNP rather than Labour.

His refusal to cut a deal saw the Lib Dems reduced at a stroke from a party of government to an irrelevance, with fewer Holyrood seats than the Tories. (A status now further and radically diminished.) Despite being theoretically closer to the SNP in policy terms than any of the other main parties, the Lib Dems' manifesto was completely marginalised by Scott's refusal to work with them, and LD voters (who overwhelmingly backed an independence referendum, though not necessarily independence itself) deserted to the Nationalists in droves in the hope of seeing them implemented.

The Scottish party now only has four MSPs from which to choose a new leader, none of them a well-known figure even in Scotland, and their future direction is unknown.

Of the SNP's opponents at Holyrood, the Tories – while they notionally lost 25% of their seats – fared the least disastrously. This is doubtless partly attributable to the relative popularity of their cartoonish formidable-spinster leader Annabel Goldie, but perhaps more to the fact that if nothing else the party conducted itself with intellectual honesty, both during the campaign and in the four years preceding it.

While the Scottish Conservative And Unionist Party (the clue's in the name) consistently and doggedly defended and advocated the Union, it also voted pragmatically and constructively with the SNP on several issues, most notably the Parliament's four annual budget bills. (Labour, in stark contrast, opposed all Nationalist legislation on principle, up to and including regularly voting against the budgets even when they contained Labour amendments.)

It's probably safe to say the Tories' position on independence is likely to remain unchanged regardless of who is elected to replace Goldie. However, the party might wish to think twice before choosing her deputy and the favourite to succeed her, Murdo Fraser, who appeared on TV in the aftermath of the election to not only demand the SNP hold the referendum immediately, but to urge the UK government to force Salmond's hand if he didn't comply, by imposing one from Westminster. Fraser is unlikely to find that going over the head of the democratically-chosen Scottish Government to a Tory-led, English-elected coalition in London will be a big vote-winner in Scotland.

Well, that went on a bit longer than I planned. But the point is really to indicate the massive disarray in the entire Unionist bloc in Scotland. Labour and the Tories aren't even going to have leaders for the next six months or so, and the Lib Dems are to all intents and purposes stone dead. (I think they may even have lost the automatic right to a leader's question at FMQs, so many seats have they shed.) The SNP are going to have a clear run for most of this year at least – possibly much longer – and that's a lot of time to make headway in setting the agenda and framing the debate.

After the election, lots of (largely English) commentators were trotted out on all the politics shows to say, with varying levels of condescension, "Of course, it doesn't really matter anyway because most Scottish people are against independence and didn't vote for the SNP because they wanted independence, they just liked Alex Salmond".

Such complacency will be manna from heaven to the nationalists. For some reason, pundits have recently taken, with startling uniformity, to parroting the line that "only a quarter of Scots support independence". (It's not absolutely uniform – sometimes they say "only a third".) This figure is based on a single recent YouGov poll, and contradicts another poll from around the same time which put the Yes/No figures at 40% vs 44%.

These polls are at the opposite extreme of the consistent reality (as well as, in the former instance, assuming all undecided responses as No votes). For at least a decade now and probably considerably longer, Scottish opinion on the subject of independence has fluctuated within a narrow range, which amounts to this:

35% Yes (plus or minus 5)
45% No (plus or minus 5)
20% Don't Know (plus or minus 10)

Given that the SNP were 15% behind in the opinion polls at the start of the year but ended up 15% ahead in the actual results, it doesn't take a statistical genius to realise that this is a vote with absolutely everything to play for, and the SNP are currently holding all the cards. They have all the power of government to get their message across, the opposition is a shambles (leaderless, directionless and seemingly unable to present any coherent positive arguments for the Union, just a stream of horror stories), and there's a vicious Tory government in Westminster which the Scots would like to put as much distance between themselves as possible.

I'm sure there must be coherent positive arguments for the Union, though personally I can't think of any off the top of my head. (Write in!) What's certain, though, is that all the negative ones – which have been getting lots of airings recently from some really quite stupendously ignorant English journalists, and a few Scottish ones too – are absolute rubbish. And if last week's election showed anything, it's that Scots are less and less inclined to be swayed by negative campaigning founded on blood-curdling predictions of doom should Scotland dare to believe it could manage its affairs as well as any other nation on Earth, including the hundreds which are far less fulsomely blessed with natural wealth.

(Particularly if that campaigning is additionally seasoned with four years of accumulated hysterical hatred from the English media about "subsidy junkies" and whatnot – if you think the stuff linked in the previous paragraph is bad, you probably shouldn't even look at what the Mail and Express are saying.)

It's fairly well established by impartial analysts now that an independent Scotland would run a substantial budget surplus compared to the rest of the UK, and that's based on a direct like-for-like division of current resources and expenditure. In reality Scotland would be even better off than these figures suggest, because (for example) our actual spending on defence would very likely amount to MUCH less than the current 10% share of what the UK spends. Scotland needs no aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons or standing armies. We have no desire to wave our dicks around at the UN, and who's going to invade us?

Invest a large part of that surplus wisely in infrastructure for renewable energy (as is the SNP's policy) in order to take advantage of Scotland's ridiculously abundant wave and wind potential and you're looking at a future bonanza that'll frankly leave North Sea oil looking like finding 20p down the back of the sofa.

Despite the UK and Scottish media's endless highly-selective sneers at Salmond's ill-advised "arc of prosperity" line, Scotland is far more like Norway (which turned roughly the same amount of oil into a £300bn reserve fund for its Scotland-sized population) than Iceland or the hopelessly bankrupt Ireland, which based its boom not on a solid foundation of prudently-managed natural resources and industry but on a crazy property bubble, and then made about as big a mess of the inevitable crash as could possibly be imagined.

Don't panic, though, English chums – you'll be fine. Scotland's surplus will be a few billion quid a year, which goes a long way in a country of 5m people but wouldn't build you a single PFI hospital. New UK will be capable of standing on its own two economic feet too – or at least, no less so than it currently is.

(This is one of the oddest facets of the "But Scotland couldn't afford to go it alone!" argument. Everyone shrieks in terror that an independent Scottish Treasury might not be able to balance the books, at a time when most EU countries are already running deficits you could choke a million blue whales with. Opponents of independence see no apparent irony in rubbishing Scotland's ability to make ends meet by itself, while simultaneously positing the question of what share of the incomprehensibly vast UK national debt Scotland would take on as part of the separation negotiations.)

This session of the Scottish Government is due to run until May 2016, and in WoSblog's view, the most likely date for a referendum on Scottish independence is therefore 30 November 2015 (St Andrew's Day, and the day the SNP originally pencilled in for their planned referendum last year before the Unionist parties ganged up in Holyrood to block it). That date fits in with what Alex Salmond said in the run-up to the election, namely that the vote would be held "well into the second half of the Parliamentary term", and it would also mean that the referendum was being held six months after the scheduled date of the next UK General Election.

And therein lies Salmond's gamble. If the Tories have won a majority and the SNP have done even a half-decent job in Holyrood, the odds of victory will be stacked in their favour. The latter part should definitely be true – the almost inevitable imminent addition of borrowing powers to the Scotland Bill will plug any holes that might appear in the nation's finances, and with unhampered power at Holyrood the Nationalists should be able to make good on most of their manifesto promises – but the first is slightly riskier.

If the Tory cuts screw up the economic recovery and Labour come storming back at Westminster, that will certainly damage the prospects of a Yes vote. But countless qualifications apply to that view. For example, if Labour have won it'll be because the Tories have destroyed everything, and cutting off the dead weight below the border to ensure that said Tories never get another chance to drag Scotland down could still be an attractive thought to the Scottish electorate. And by that time, as we've previously discussed, the SNP could already have used its mandate to move Scotland so far down the road of fiscal autonomy without a referendum that independence will seem like a relatively trivial final step.

The prevailing media wisdom is that the referendum, whenever it comes, is already a done deal for the No camp. But Alex Salmond and the SNP have had their eye on this ball for decades, and I don't think they're about to panic now they're finally through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. If you've seen the state of English goalkeeping in recent years, you probably won't be betting your sub-prime mortgage on the Union.

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13 to “The new flag of the United Kingdom”

  1. Plissken

    You do realise Americans will still call it "England", though?
    Not sure I agree with the energy/money from oil being replaced by wind and wave – I like wind and wave as an idea, but the practicalities are tricky.  But you have a nuclear station or two up there – Dounreay?
    Of course, independence would probably seal a Tory majority south of the border for ever, so be prepared for everyone north of Birmingham to apply for asylum or to join a new, enlarged Scotland.

  2. RevStu

    There's still oil for 40+ years, and that's a lot of time to harness wave and wind and solve the logistical issues – the potential for them is many times what Scotland needs, but they wouldn't be the ONLY source of energy. You still need baseload generation, hopefully from things like carbon-captured coal – Scotland's nuclear capacity will die out soon and will not be replaced with new nuclear.

    Tony Blair's election wins would all have delivered majorities without Scottish votes, though clearly an independent Scotland would broadly be good news for English Tories. Which does rather raise the question of why they're so against it, if we're really being subsidised by the English as we're constantly told.

  3. Tim

    Tidal power is the big one apparently.
    I remember seeing a quote somewhere to the tune that there's enough energy in the Pentland Firth to power the whole of Scotland twice over.

  4. MojoJojo

    Re: the Tories wanting to keep the Union. Had a bit of discussion about this on another forum. The closest I can come to understanding it is just that the tories are fundamentally conservative, so are against it as it's too big a change.
    Or to put it less charitably – their membership is mostly made up of 80 year Brigadier Generals still peeved that we gave away the Empire. And lost the colonies.

  5. TigerTiger

    But what will happen to the Duke of Edinburgh, and his award? He'll be the Duke of nowhere 🙁

  6. Anonymous X

    I'm in favour of keeping the Union for progressive reasons: mostly in order to preserve the British welfare state (or what will be left of it), but also in the name of solidarity (in the left-wing sense) between British people of all 'types'. Forget accents, football allegiances and so on, we're more alike than we sometimes care to admit, particularly from the perspective of non-British people.
    Although, I am definitely in favour of the Union becoming a federal state, or Scotland becoming an autonomous province, if that is what Scottish people chose via democratic means. Federalism would, in my opinion, be an ideal solution at the moment in time, with its potential tto satisfy both unionists and separatists.

  7. romanista

    shouldn't be the white of st. adrews' cross be removed from there as well?

  8. RevStu

    No, because it’s there to make the red of the St Patrick’s cross stand out, in the same way as the red of the St George’s cross has a white border around it.

  9. So if Scotland becomes independent, does that mean I get my family castle back?  I promise not to be greedy, but open the place up for everyone, maybe turn it into a bread-n-breakfast?  Also, I promise to install the ultimate, kick-ass video arcade where all the cool gamers can hang out – take that, Aladdin's Castle!
    C'mon, guys, make it happen.  I'll need somewhere to escape by the time the US completely collapses under the weight of stupid.

  10. Tom Camfield

    "Who's going to invade us?"
    The conservatives want to keep the Union for the obvious, but slightly lost in time, notion that peace doesn't last.
    I think our longest run has been 19 years, and that was wedged in the middle of the hundred year war, where England supported Plantagenet and Scotland supported Valios.
    Conservatives have long memories, and many of them still suffer from a fear of German rearmament, or the notion of the European Union as a way for Germany to conquer Europe without bloodshed (although this commenter would welcome increased funding into public transport, more national holidays and a focus on creating a preserving a skilled labour force).
    A United Kingdom gives the conservatives the peace of mind that they won't be attacked from the north, and that the Scots will join them in any war they wage, of which there are many.
    Besides this, there is a ton of oil in the Falklands that the Argentinians want, and the Spanish keep demanding Gibraltar. Without a large Navy our ability to resist these claims is weakened. Plus, it might mean the breakup of the Union and therefore further problems overseas with places like Montserrat which is ethnically Irish, and a reduction of power at the UN and in the EU.
    The conservatives want power, not necessarily as an end in itself, but for its ability to create wealth (in the Falklands) and as a defense against foreign interests becoming British interests.
    As I said before, I'm not sure why being ruled by a modern Germany would be such a bad thing, and its not as if we're free from American interests as it is, but… just as Scotland want to be self-determined, the conservatives ask for the same thing, but they feel their views will only matter if they have a large body of people, land and wealth backing them up.

  11. RevStu

    That's a very interesting perspective, but I'm not really sure why the loss of Scotland would reduce the UK's ability to have a large navy. I know they park much of it in Scotland, but surely it's not beyond the bounds of possibility to build a new naval base somewhere in England, or extend an existing one?

    And as for Falklands oil, wouldn't it be better for the remnant UK if they could have it all, rather than needing to share it with Scotland?

  12. hoster

    We'd probably just lease Faslane, like the Russians do with Svastapol.
    I read a while back that in the event of a Russo-Nato war (unlikely I know) the Royal Navy's job is to form a sort of chokepoint in the bit of sea between Scotland, Iceland and Greenland, stopping Russian ships from entering the Atlantic, which is why we park all of our boats in Scotland.

  13. romanista

    also, what would happen to the flags of australia, new zealand etc… (they're already for a change anyway, aren't they?)

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