England’s Scotland Panic – What is to be Done?

With reference to the impact of Brexit, Kirsty Hughes, Director of the Scottish Centre of European Relations, investigates why a mature debate on Union and Scottish independence is not on the horizon for the UK.


There is more than a whiff of hysteria in the air about the possibility of the UK fragmenting via Scottish independence and Irish reunification. Two former UK chancellors (one also an ex-prime minister) find the idea that England and Wales might have to go it alone as a state of almost 60 million people shocking and catastrophic. Gordon Brown says this would amount to the UK being a failed state while George Osborne claims “successful nations can perform unexpected acts of national suicide” and that the UK without Scotland would not even be a second rank power.

Both Tories and Labour, competing for a distant second or third place behind the SNP in the upcoming Holyrood elections, appear to be converging on the idea that a Constitutional Commission of some sort might deal with the pressures building in support of an independent Scotland (Osborne in particular being utterly dismissive of the relevance of Northern Ireland, and Wales, to the UK remaining the UK).

In the midst of this panic, what is notably absent, is any serious political discussion in England (and barely either in Scotland) of how these two countries, on a shared island, should relate in future if they were two separate states. Re-ordering relations within the UK’s nations and regions is meant to point the way to ensuring the UK’s survival while discussion of re-ordered relations after independence is anathema and cannot be remotely entertained, not least while union politicians are in such a state of political panic. Yet a discussion of both scenarios together could in fact be illuminating. And at least for Labour, around 40% of whose voters in Scotland favour independence, it could perhaps suggest a route forward.

What lies behind this growing sense of panic? There is a sense that Scotland is already ‘lost’ to the UK/England. Certainly, the string of polls since June last year showing majorities for independence between 51-58% are a striking shift. Underpinning those polls – and visible for much longer – is the demographics of support for independence. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of those under 45 years old support independence, according to different polls, and some polls suggest a majority for the UK is only to be found in the 65 years plus group.

So far, despite the Salmond-Sturgeon affair, the SNP is on track for a clear majority in the May elections (if they go ahead on time) and combined with the pro-independence Green party, there is likely to be a clear and strong mandate for another independence referendum.

European Views, Brexit and ‘Global Britain’ Myths

It would not be a small thing for the UK to fragment. European observers find the possibility in many ways quite extraordinary (humiliating say some, what would it be called ask many others). At the same time, across the EU there is plenty of experience of new states coming into existence or regaining their sovereignty and re-establishing their own democracies (and the challenges facing the central and eastern European states after 1989/1991, for example, were much larger than those an independent Scotland would face). From a European perspective, Scottish independence (one more small northern European state) is not extraordinary; it is the state of the UK and of England that is striking.

But what is striking about the state of UK politics, most of all, is the political and economic damage wrought by Brexit. If the UK is, to some extent, a failed or failing state, it is not because Scotland is leaning towards independence. It is that Brexit was built on ideology, propaganda, lies, and a willingness to impose major political and economic damage on the UK and, to a significant but lesser (and principally economic) degree, on its European partners.

And it is this ideology that also explains the panic at Scottish independence. ‘Global Britain’ is a backward-looking ideological myth, based in part on nostalgia for empire. This myth, and the sense of English identity it encompasses – English as British – is weak indeed, at risk of being shattered by losing the label British/UK. As historian David Edgerton has argued, it could even (perhaps) ultimately be positive for England to have to face up to the reality of its place and identity in today’s world. But today’s Tories are a long way from being in a state to face up to this; indeed it would undermine their Brexit big lie and so is not imaginable and must be contested.

Yet the panic, as we see in Gordon Brown’s threat of the UK as a failed state if Scotland goes, is not confined to those who carefully – or carelessly – built their false Brexit and ‘global Britain’ narratives. This is a more curious panic than that of the Brexit Tories. England and Wales, as a separate state, would match Italy in population size, be somewhat smaller than France. There is no reason it would be a failed state but it would surely have to abandon its old name – United Kingdom.

What brings the Tory and Labour panics together is the inability to tell a convincing tale of today’s UK or of being British. Keir Starmer and Gordon Brown talk of a reformed UK, of constitutional commissions. But it’s not at all clear that there is appetite in Scotland for a UK senate of nations and regions as something more attractive than independence.

Re-joining the EU – one more elephant in the room

And in the face of Brexit, constitutional tinkering or even radical reform does not allow for the option of re-joining the European Union. While Starmer rules this out as a question and accepts the desperately damaging EU-UK trade deal (and even the LibDems abandon being a re-join party), the result is two entirely separate debates. A curious English one where the big lie and damage of Brexit are only partially challenged. And a Scottish one, where there is discussion of the criteria and speed of potential accession to the EU as an independent state (and a wider debate about whether joining Norway in the European Economic Area could be preferable).

Covid Hypocrisy

Both Tory and Labour politicians are also now repeatedly banging the drum of the Covid pandemic: independence must not be mentioned while such a crisis is in full swing. But no one is suggesting a referendum in the midst of the crisis, so are the Tories and Labour suggesting there should be no political debate of an issue that has majority support in Scotland? And why did Boris Johnson refuse to extend the Brexit transition in the midst of this pandemic – and why did Keir Starmer not demand that he did. Instead, with just days of notice, a hard Brexit deal was imposed on Britain (but not Northern Ireland) and the shattering consequences are rippling across the UK. Such levels of hypocrisy are not likely – or presumably intended – to appeal to the majority of Scottish voters.

There are, of course, serious and substantial issues to discuss on independence. And the fact of Brexit means that the Scottish-English border is one of those big questions. But a UK government that introduced a border within the UK – to Northern Ireland – and then lied (and continues to lie) saying it had not, and introduced borders to all our previous EU 27 partners (and indeed even for lorries crossing into Kent) is not well positioned to talk about the economic pros and cons of independence. Indeed, that the UK government has deliberately caused such economic damage to the UK economy through Brexit sets up a rather strong political argument that short run economic costs of independence may be preferable in order to return to rational, self-determined policy-making not based on a big lie – and indeed to return to Europe.

In the end, there are arguments to be made on both sides about Scottish independence versus the union – and too for Irish re-unification. But while the pro-UK argument is based on panic about future English identity, on desperate holding onto imperial nostalgia and conflating English with British identity, in the midst of the extraordinary and damaging change wrought by English nationalism in the form of Brexit, then it is built on shifting sands indeed.

A more mature politics would accept that Scotland has a democratic right of self-determination. A mature pro-union politics would look at the different models that could be developed of how Scotland and the rest of the UK or just England and Wales could and should relate, both in a union, and as separate states. And the European Union would be a part of this discussion – facing up to the fact that an independent Scotland would be more welcome to re-join the EU in the short term than the UK would.

But that UK politicians are instead in a state of panic at the very thought of Scotland going its own way – a panic principally driven by complete uncertainty at how to redefine Englishness and an unwillingness to give up the big lie of Brexit – tells us that such a mature politics is nowhere on the UK horizon for the foreseeable future. And so the UK politics of the debate about Scottish independence will continue to be muddled, often aggressive, and sometimes hysterical.


Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash.


This article was originally published on the Scottish Centre on European Relations and was reposted with permission.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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