Although rarely read today Thomas Babbington Macauley, has had a towering influence on English and British political culture. (He was of course also, in a sense, the grandfather of the modern Indian nation-state, for without his reforms to create a pan-Indian English speaking civil service and education system, an Indian penal code and Indian civil service code, there would have been no common community of experience across the diverse colonies of the sub-continent upon which to found the Indian national consciousness that later grow into a political movement that successfully challenged British rule.)
Politically, Macauley was a dogmatic Whig of his own day; but his account of English history, published in the masterful multi-volume History of England from the Accession of James II embraces a broader view, but one that nevertheless contains a highly ideological approach to sovereignty and constitutionality. During the 19th century it is no exaggeration to say that Macauley’s partisan Whig view of English history became embedded as the common sense of the nation, and that the legacy lives to this day.
Macauley’s England is exemplary and virtuous, where respect for constitutionality and the rule of law combines with the concepts of enlightenment and the obligation of government to promote economic and cultural progress. (Macauley was also influential among American Whigs, and their successor party the Republicans, who held a similar outlook.)
The Whig view of history is that sovereignty lies with the English parliament, who fought a war to reject the tyranny of absolute monarchy, and that the constitutional settlement of 1688 restored the power of the crown only within the limits of the law. The English parliament has as its successor the British parliament and only through the process of sending Scottish and Irish MPs to the English parliament did that institution become the British parliament.
Consistent with that Whig view, the departure of Scottish MPs would not divide or disturb its constitutional continuity with the parliament that invited William III to become King.
Most English people, for good or ill, conflate Englishness and Britishness as the same thing, notwithstanding a relatively distinct experience of British consciousness for English people, somewhat separate from that felt by Scots, Welsh or Irish citizens of the UK. Explicit expressions of Englishness that are specifically counterposed to Britishness are broadly confined to the 90 minute patriots. English people tend to assume that the interests of the UK and the interests of England are the same thing, that is why devolution to the other nations of the UK has been so valuable.
The indivisible and foundational sovereignty of the parliament is a common assumption shared from such diverse figures as Tony Benn to the late Enoch Powell, and is one of the complex cultural and political strands that finds expression, to take one example, in euro-skepticism in the Conservative and UKIP parties. In so far as sovereignty is mediated or surrendered to the EU, then whatever the legal and practical complications, the political assumption is that this is revocable and contingent on its continued support from the British parliament.
Adam Tomkins makes the point that should Scotland become independent (iScotland), then legally it would become a new state, and that the UK without iScotland (the rest of the UK – rUK) would legally be the successor state.
This is not only certainly right in law, contrary to the claim by some Scottish nationalists, but also matches the political and cultural assumptions of the English, that are thoroughly Macauleyite. Or as Gloria Gaynor would put it, the assumption of most English people towards an independent Scotland would be “I got along without you, before I met you, I’ll get along without you now”. Indeed one of the stand out aspects of the current debate over Scottish independence is the deafening indifference by ordinary people south of the border.
The danger is that the Scottish Government’s pitch for independence, described in their white paper, Scotland’s Future , which was published November 2013 makes a number of assumptions about the future co-operation of a rUK government with iSoctland that would be politically unthinkable for the English to accept, in the event of disunion.
In my view, there is no prospect whatsoever that rUK politicians negotiating the terms of secession, should Scotland vote to leave the UK, would make any concessions that impeded the future sovereignty or independence of the British parliament, and any concessions made at all would only be those overwhelmingly both in England’s actual and perceived interests. I appreciate that England is not the only component of the UK, but in this issue it would be the dominant component, and public opinion in England is deeply wedded to the current constitution, with or without Scotland’s participation in it.
The legal position is that assets and liabilities would be proportionately divided in the event of independence, but institutions of the UK state would continue to belong to rUK. The Scottish nationalists are playing a dangerous game in expecting anything else, because this legal position is completely aligned with the popular perception in England, and probably in Wales and among unionists in Northern Ireland. We have already seen over the issue of the currency claims that Scotland is being “bullied” by Westminster politicians, with a hardly hidden subtext of antagonism towards the English.
Scottish victimhood is hard to take seriously, as not only were the hands of Scotland’s colonialist sons dipped in the blood of Empire as deeply as the English, but it was Scottish slave traders who enriched Glasgow, it was the Scottish parliament that voted for union, it was Scottish aristocrats that cleared the highlands, and it was Scottish unionists who flocked to the colours to defend the union from Jacobite rebellion. Indeed it was Sir Walter Scott more than any other cultural figure, who popularised the dominant conceits of English national history!
The Scottish Government’s pitch for independence, described in their white paper, Scotland’s Future , which was published November 2013 makes a number of assumptions about the future co-operation of a rUK government with iSoctland that would I believe be politically unthinkable for the English to accept in the event of disunion.
There is a case for Scottish independence that can be made, the position of the Scotland’s Future white paper is not that reasoned case; it is instead seasoned with unrealistic expectations, and contingent upon concessions from rUK that would not be consistent with the future self-interest of the British state, nor consistent with the political aspirations of the English.
As G.K Chesterton wrote, there is a sleeping giant to consider:
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
The Edinburgh Agreement stipulates that in the event of disunion, the government of rUK and the government of iScotland will negotiate; however it would be a terrible miscalculation to believe that the British government, beholden to English perceptions and self interest, would do anything other than drive a hard bargain.
While Scottish nationalists understandably advocate what they see as the best interests of Scotland, they cannot complain if English (and Welsh and Irish) politicians advocate the best interests of the UK. The outcome may not be what Alex Salmond expects.
The danger of Scottish nationalists seeking to present themselves as aggrieved victims of English bullying is that they might awake the giant, and precipitate a change in English attitudes from indifference to hostility.