At the time of the devolution referendum of 1997, doom-mongers feared that the Scots were about to join 'a motorway without exits'. Separation from England seemed inevitable in the long run. En route, Scottish politics would be hampered by a systemic instability. After all, the anti-devolutionists whined, the Nationalists needed to win only once in Scottish parliamentary elections to bring about independence; to preserve the Union, the parties of the Union needed to win every time. The least worst outcome for Scotland might be a 'velvet divorce', but the likeliest prospect seemed to be an estrangement of the crockery-smashing kind. For, Cassandras warned, the existence of a Scottish parliament would serve to illuminate unjustifiable anomalies in British politics, such as higher spending per head north of the border and the right of Scottish MPs at Westminster to vote on specifically English legislation. These unfairnesses would not go down well with Middle England, and would almost certainly bring about an English nationalist backlash. Scottish nationalists, of course, welcomed a future pregnant with these possibilities. The delusions of empire had been shattered decades before, and now, it seemed, the Scots were set fair to discard British statehood as a post-imperial anachronism irrelevant to the needs - psychic and material - of the Scottish people. It wouldn't happen overnight, of course; but continuing friction between the Scottish and UK Parliaments would expose devolution as an unworkable compromise, and further fray the weakened bonds of Union.
LRB 23 March 2006 | PDF Download