Sovereignty Matters

Tom Nairn questions Canon Kenyon Wright’s claim that there is a route to establish Scottish sovereignty short of independence.

I agree with most of Kenyon’s views on the referendum and sovereignty, but have worries about one critical area: deciding to ‘retain links with the Union’ as part of the deal. Scots, alas, can’t decide that on their own. It would be futile to have a formula which no referendum vote could effectively answer. Scottish sovereign rights don’t hold for the 85 per cent majority of the UK, and can’t be, as it were, wished upon them. The new vulnerability of the Westminster regime should not be construed in this way.

Cameron, it must be kept in mind, will come to office with quite an impressive programme of constitutional change aboard: fewer and more equal MPs, changes to the Lords, and so on. He will argue that such ‘radical’ changes deserve implementation and testing, before any other shifts are contemplated. Hence the Treaty if Union must stay in place, and no breakaway plebiscite can be allowed. Such pleas will go down well in England, and for good reason: though wounded and limping, the Anglo-British entity will (as I think you realise) defend what’s left even more strongly. English nationalism-equivalent works like that: via the wider Brittanic forms, rather than (as yet) against them. They have become its version of ‘secure autonomy’!

It would be different if popular demands for an English-only polity were advancing, along likes that the Scots and Welsh have enjoyed. But I don’t see many signs of this. Kenyon says there are equivalent versions of autonomy in Europe; but these all happened before ‘globalisation’. The latter has brought a new finality and a kind of permanence to such debates. Only one world, and we’re conscious of its limits (all the more so with global warming); hence ‘for the time being’ is coming to feel like ‘for all time coming’. Make you bid now, in other words, or it may be too late. Scottish popular sovereignty can only bid for its own rights, not for qualified or restrained rights dependent upon the sovereignty of others – least of all that of an English nationality still uneasy and unreconciled to loss and retreat.

The trouble is, in these circumstances no alternative to independence looks possible. A majority is still anxious about it, for sound (though increasingly historical) reasons. They have to be persuaded that Kenyon’s ‘secure’ autonomy – de facto statehood – is the only ay Scots can help build the sort of Kingdom that must replace tat of the 1707 Treaty of Union. Scotland’s resignation of statehood was an odd deviation from what became the norm of nationality-politics. Its resumption may be just as odd. Could things go wrong along such a track?

But they already have gone wrong at the level of the majority state, its collapsing traditions and notoriously unwritten Constitution. Standing by that status quo would merely collude with downfall … as David Cameron’s reform agenda in effect acknowledges. ‘Independence in Europe’, by contrast, offers at least some chance of a new wider deal – and would, incidentally, be very popular in many influential circles of European opinion (not only in France). I suspect it would also appeal to many diaspora Scots, a considerable and potentially influential body that might welcome a new political role. If London tries to rule out a referendum, then such opinion could be made to count: on grounds of sovereignty, the people of Scotland must be allowed to have their say.

The coincidence of a Scottish shift with developments in Wales is also worth stressing. There, a referendum is to be held on enhancing devolved government, something like Calman’s proposals: not independent statehood but much greater autonomy from the foundering Anglo-British state. Just what Northern Ireland will make of such shits I’ve no idea; but the overall perspective of an altering society and state will surely impose itself – and open doors that were for so long bolted up by ‘Great Britain’’ and its interminable decline. Gordon Brown believed the body might yet be reanimated, but we now see that his period in power has merely aggravated its mortality, and brought demise much closer.

Alex Salmond’s government wants to act on all this, and perceives the referendum as the necessary condition for such action. Of course, independence is a good in itself; but it’s surely clear enough here that it will also be for doing other things, including a viable Social Democracy and a new British Isles association – or even a confederation – at home in the European Union but nor confined to it, or to North Atlantic assumptions.

The Scots left the political world at the start of the ‘Age of Nationalism’, and are rejoining the political world as that Age draws to a close, demanding new styles of nationality-politics and different ‘-isms’. This is a great opportunity, surely, and not something to be thrown away by futile clinging to the wreckage of the past.

To put the point in terms of one of the most useful theories of the past century, the Scots need ‘Exit’ from the decrepit UK System, in order to build any new ‘Loyalty’ to something better – a British Isles system worthy of the European and globalizing times ( see Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, 1970). The population of England need it, too, but hasn’t wakened up sufficiently to the possibility.

There’s northing ‘anti-English about Salmond’s proposal, what its against is the hidebound arrogance and self-satisfaction of the Anglo-British inheritance – something like what the Australians mean by the term ‘Pom’ or ‘Pommy’, a pseudo-ethnic configuration of superiority descended from earlier times and colonialism. Battered and bowed perhaps, but unfortunately not yet dead – in either of the main parties of UK statehood.

Tom Nairn has been Professor of Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, since 2002. He is also Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde. The IWA published is Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness in 2006.

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