A Point of View: Should the English have a say on Scottish independence?

Saltire and Cross of St George

Should the English also have a right to decide on Scottish independence, asks Roger Scruton.

In all the complex changes leading to the Scottish bid for independence the English have never been consulted. The process has been conducted as though we had no right to an opinion in the matter. It was all about Scotland, and how to respond to Scottish nationalism.

As an Englishman I naturally ask why my interests in the matter have never been taken into account. When the Czechs and the Slovaks achieved their amicable divorce it was by mutual agreement between elected politicians. What is so different about Scotland, that it decides everything for itself?

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Roger Scruton
  • Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT

The Union of England and Scotland was formally declared in the Act of Union of 1707. But it had been an emerging reality throughout the preceding century. In the conditions and conflicts of those days it was impossible for the two nations to regard themselves as fundamentally distinct. They shared an island, a religion, a language, and a monarch. And both had espoused the Protestant cause.

A contrasting view

Another viewpoint on this subject will be published next week.

It's true there was a border between them. And things on one side of the border were not always replicated on the other. Scots law was, and remains, a separate system from the English. Styles of dress, architecture, popular entertainment and speech were for a long time quite distinct, in part because of the striking difference in climate. And, since the Reformation, organised religion has taken a very different form in the two countries, the lowland Scots opting for the Calvinist and Presbyterian version, and remaining largely hostile to the elaborate episcopal offices that appealed to the English. But the differences were less important than the history and geography that held the two nations together.

It is true that the union was resented by the highlanders, many of whom had retained their Catholic faith, their Gaelic language and their loyalty to the deposed Stuart kings. The cruel suppression of the Jacobite rebellions, the forbidding of the tartan, the persecution of Catholics and the expulsion of the crofters from their homes - all these things are well known, and don't cast credit either on the English or on the lowlanders who principally benefited from the union. Nevertheless during the years of empire building, merchants from both countries combined to reap the benefits of British naval power, and to explore the far corners of the earth in search of profit. And in their wake they brought the imperial government that they shared.

Painting of the Battle of Culloden The Battle of Culloden (1746) ended the second Jacobite rising

Moreover, empire building had to be backed up by military force. The Napoleonic wars sealed the union between the Scots and the English, who happily adopted Great Britain as the name of their united country.

Be informed

Scotland's Future graphic

Go to the BBC's Scotland's Future page for analysis, background and the latest news on the Scottish independence referendum.

Neither people could have survived the wars of the 20th Century had they not fought side by side and with total commitment to the union. As a result of those wars, however, the empire was lost and an entirely new political landscape emerged from beneath the smoke. It is no longer possible for us to see the union as it was seen throughout the course of the 19th Century - as something natural and unquestionable. The enterprise that joined us has vanished, so too (we hope) have the military threats. Each nation is, for the time being at least, wrapped in its own internal problems.

It can be said the Scots are still reeling from the effect of Margaret Thatcher's radical economic policies and her introduction of the poll tax.

They are bound to ask themselves whether they have had a fair share of the prosperity that is visible nearly everywhere in the south of England. And the English tend to blame the migrations that threaten to overwhelm them on a succession of Labour governments.

By allowing mass immigration into England, and refusing to confront the European Union's commitment to the free movement of peoples, the governments of Blair and Brown seriously undermined the English sense of identity. At the same time, through the creation of a Scottish parliament, they gave a new identity to the Scots.

The effect of the Scottish Parliament, however, was not only to ensure that the Scots would govern themselves, but also to make it more likely that they would continue to govern the English. The Labour Party did not want to lose those Scottish MPs, since it was thanks to them, and to the Scottish vote, that the Labour Party had achieved such a large majority in Westminster. Scots were disproportionately represented in the cabinets of both Blair and Brown. Tony Blair was born and partly educated in Scotland, and owed his position in the Labour hierarchy in part to the networks that had grown in that country.

The West Lothian question

  • Term used in British politics to to describe situation where Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs in Westminster can vote on English affairs, but English MPs have no say on affairs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Original meaning of phrase - coined by Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell - actually intended to describe paradox of devolution, where Scottish MP in Westminster would have say over affairs in England, but have no similar say over similar matters in their own constituency
  • UK government still to respond to latest attempt to "solve" question - the McKay commission, which reported in 2013

Elections to the Scottish Parliament show that the Scots have shifted their allegiance from Labour to the SNP. But they still want the English to be governed by the Labour Party. Hence they vote to place Labour politicians, whom they don't particularly want at home, in Westminster.

As a result of this the English, who have voted Conservative more often than Labour in post-war elections, have to accept a block vote of Labour members of parliament sent to Westminster by the Scots. The process that brought this about was one in which the Scots themselves were given the final say, in a referendum from which the English were excluded. In other words the process of devolution can be seen as a piece of gerrymandering, the effect of which has been to secure a Labour bias in the Westminster Parliament, while allowing the Scots to govern themselves in whatever way they choose.

Scottish Parliament A sitting of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood

And the process continues. In response to Alex Salmond's bid for independence the people of Scotland have been granted another referendum. But again the people of England have been deprived of a say. Why is this? Are we part of the union or not? Or are the politicians afraid that we would vote the wrong way? And what is the wrong way? What way should we English vote, given that the present arrangement gives two votes to the Scots for every vote given to the English? Should we not vote for our independence, given that we risk being governed from a country that already regulates its own affairs, and has no clear commitment to ours?

The economic angle

  • Public expenditure per capita in Scotland higher than the UK average - in 2011, Scotland's public spending per head was £12,100, compared to £10,900 for UK
  • If oil revenues are included in GDP figures, Scotland is shown to generate £26,424 per head of population, compared with £22,336 per head for the UK, according to Scottish government estimates
  • If oil and gas revenues are excluded, there is little difference in the figures - GDP per head in Scotland was £20,571 in 2011 and for the UK it was £20,873

The Scottish economy is subsidised by the English. But this does not mean that England would be better off without Scotland. You give subsidies to your dependants because you depend on them. Subsidies are also investments, which have returns in the long run that may more than justify the cost.

On the other hand, it could be that the Scottish economy has suffered from the union overall. Boswell attributes to Dr Johnson the remark that "the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England". Johnson's purpose was to ridicule the romantic adulation of the Scottish landscape, which was all the rage at the time, except perhaps among those who had to live there. But he touched, without intending it, on the principal cause of Scotland's economic problems, which is the loss of human capital.

Educated Scots have constantly taken Dr Johnson's high road to England, carrying with them their knowledge and their energy, and investing it outside the borders of their homeland. In just the way that the EU today is siphoning away the young middle class from Poland and the Czech Republic, so has our union served to deprive the Scots of some of the people their economy most needs.

Royal Highland Fusiliers march through Ayr, November 2013 Royal Highland Fusiliers march through Ayr, November 2013

The security that we have enjoyed in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought with it a certain complacency in the matter of defence. During the Cold War the Scottish landmass was absolutely fundamental to our strategy. Our nuclear deterrent is housed in Scottish waters, and the Scottish airbases were constantly called upon to deter Soviet violations of our airspace. Scottish regiments are at the forefront of our campaigns today, and without them we would be much less capable of defending ourselves in a serious crisis.

In my opinion defence is the sole reason for thinking that the breakup of the union might be bad for both our countries. The union would have to be replaced by a strong and committed alliance. But I think this would happen, just as the colonial administration of America transformed itself, in time, into the Western alliance, which brings the British and the Americans together and fighting side by side in every major crisis.

Suppose then we English were finally allowed a say in the matter, which way would I vote? I have no doubt about it. I would vote for English independence, as a step towards strengthening the friendship between our countries. It was thanks to independence that the Americans were able at last to confess to their attachment to the old country, and to come to our aid in two world wars. Independence is what real friendship requires. And the same is true for those, like the Scots and the English, who live side by side.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Can those posting remember a few things...

    1. A vote for independence isn't a vote for Alex salmond , it's a vote to get governments and politicians that Scotland voted for.

    2. You will get versions of the future from both sides but the future cannot be predicted you just need to make a decision whether you want to be part of a fairer more inclusive society or right wing led south east England.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Fragmentation of the UK will result in more and more administration costs, additional civil servants etc. This whole matter is a distraction from the real job at hand which must be to get the UK economy back into some kind of order. Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic comes to mind...

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    #107 and what about the other people in the uk that have contributed for 40 years in terms of taxes for scotlands current infa structure and general well being and also fought in wars for scotlands security.instead they allow a latvian on the dole to vote...

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Andrew, so what you're saying is we need Scottish, Welsh & N. Irish voters to dilute the democratic choices of the English. Nice. I'll just take an independent England thanks. Your claim that the Tories would be invincible without Scottish votes is flawed and naive. In the same way many thought the Scottish parliament would be controlled by Labour for the foreseeable future; how did that turn out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I keep hearing about this Pound belonging to just the English. We scots had the 'Pound Scots' long before the Union and long into the 18th century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Scots would change their vote for a tenner a week, five hundred quid a year. Thats how fickle you people are. If we take money out of it, Scotland should vote yes to get self rule and for no other reason and England should be ecstatic to get rid of 5m malcontents, a veritable psychological monkey off our backs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @94 Can't really disagree with your assessment of Gordon Brown, nor do I agree with some of the voting arrangements for the referendum. Personally, I felt from the start it should be those who live, work, study in Scotland, or who were born in Scotland. Outside of that, nada. I still think it's a decision for Scots alone. Would feel the same about England going down the same track.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    @97 Read correctly it IS 7 Scottish prime ministers. 3 more had Scottish parents/decendents who also served as PM but where born outside of Scotland, possibly in the locations you mentioned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    927, you still don't understand though, as its a "democracy" (i use the term lightly) politics is a numbers game. By keeping the other countries in the vote you make the vote more equal, as mentioned in the article without Scotland etc labour become a minor party meaning that only tory really has a say in the decisions, which leaves the north of england with very little say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    If you divorce it should be a clean break, letting the scots keep the pound would be like letting your ex wife or Husband have access to your bank accounts.
    Yes the rest of the UK should vote on them keeping the pound, We have all seen the damage the Greeks, Spanish, Irish, Portugese and Italians have done to the Euro and France is yet to own up to its problems as yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    If I were able to have a vote for Scottish Independence, I would like to know categorically and exactly what Alex Salmond is promising, the implications it will have and the likely outcome of success verses failure.

    At present all I hear is visions of POSSIBILITIES that could go down well on a Burns Night for philosophical literature.
    Politics is a lot of hot air, often only statistics and lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @92 spending a few months in Scotland or simply having a Scottish constituency doesn't make you Scottish that's 5 Scots. Still way behind London which has a similar population but has 15 Prime ministers, but better than Canada who only had one British PM.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    A few factual errors but you came to the right conclusion.
    An Independent Scotland leading to an independent England is good for all. Get out there and evangelise, there's not much time left.

  • Comment number 100.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.


  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Absolutely, it is my country too. If any one wishes to divide this country than my opinion must count too. Why should I lose part of my country without given a chance to express my preference. If Scottish residents are allowed to vote than what about the rights of other british residents ??

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    @Fishermans_Enemy :

    and three of those were born in London and Canada. I would hardly class those Scottish born and bred.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    @92 Fair enough, arithmetic and politics are not my strong points. Doesn't alter what I said about selective history, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I also only got so far with this article before i felt my eye balls bleed in despair at the poor quality of the contents, the english, welsh and those in NI have ZERO right to a vote in our referendum. It is astonishing how scared the establishment gets when anyone gets a real chance at democracy. Westminster, your days are numbered. RUK citizens we wish you well in the future. Come visit sometime

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    eastern europeans who have been in scotland for 5 mins are allowed to vote ..english taxpayers of 40 years are not..#91 yes there are more...but one gordon brown just about bankrupted the place.


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