The battle over a second indyref – whether one actually goes ahead or not – will have repercussions far beyond Scotland. With Scots more confident in their constitutional opinions than in 2014, the debate promises to be divisive – but the division will not stop at Hadrian’s Wall.
The simmering English nationalism that begun to spring up in the wake of devolution has been brought to a full boil by the EU referendum. There is extreme resentment in England toward another period of intense focus on Scotland while England is ignored, and stiff opposition to what many English view as “appeasement” of Scots in the form of further powers. Even if Scottish nationalism fails to end the Union, it is very possible that just as Russian nationalism brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union, English nationalism, fired up to new extremes of heat by the indyref2 debate, could cause the United Kingdom to implode.
Further, the indyref2 debate is likely to pour petrol onto the Northern Irish bonfire. Republicans, aggrieved at what they perceive as years of being sidelined and ignored, will feel that if the people of Scotland are entitled to determine their fate via plebiscite, then so are the people of Ulster. Unlike Scotland, a bitter and divisive referendum in Northern Ireland could well lead to more than just a few screaming matches. And if Theresa May is perceived as trying to block, or significantly bias, a referendum on Scottish independence, the fallout will be ten times worse.
For a start, Republicans in Northern Ireland will call into question the notion of self-determination that the peace process is precariously built upon. The consensus, they will argue, that Ulster is part of the UK because a clear majority of her people want to be British, even though a significant minority want to be Irish, is a convenient fig leaf for British colonialism. The UK government’s refusal to allow a referendum in Scotland when the population is split 50/50 – using arguments about timing, lack of popular support for a second vote or the first one being decisive – suggests that even if there were a Republican majority in Ulster, the UK would abandon its support for self-determination and find another excuse to justify its “occupation” of Northern Ireland.
Such an argument would be no less powerful in Buenos Aires than in Belfast. The Argentinians could accuse the Brits of being democrats of convenience, supporting self-determination when it suits their interests and suppressing it where it does not. For all its pretence of being a Union of consent, the UK is in reality still a colonial power fiercely clinging on to territory.
Indeed, Argentine thinking is somewhat stuck in 1816, when the country gained independence from Spain: they still view themselves as anti-imperialists fighting for their sovereignty against European colonial powers. In fact, the rôles are arguably the reverse. Today, it is Argentina that is the expansionist, colonial power that wants to capture new territory and subjugate its people. It is Britain that defends their sovereignty and freedom. If Britain is seen to waver on the principle of self-determination, the legitimacy of the Union Flag in the Falklands is diminished.
The situation is similar in Spain. Despite the loss of its empire, Spain has not overcome its colonial instincts – its suppression of the will of the Catalan people shows that Spain is far more concerned with territorial integrity than principled democracy. For the Spanish, Gibraltar is just an adjacent piece of territory they’d like to annex, as opposed to a legitimate and willing part of the Spanish nation. Whilst we continue to uphold the principle of self-determination, we retain the moral high ground as defenders of freedom. If we abandon it, and are seen to place our territorial integrity ahead of popular consent, we become just two rival colonial powers arguing over a rock.
And if there actually is a referendum? Unquestionably the uncertainty will be harmful to the whole UK’s, not just Scotland’s, economy. If the debate runs concurrent to Brexit negotiations – even if the vote itself is afterwards – not only will Britain’s hand be weakened in the discussions, but Theresa May will be in the absurd position of arguing one minute for sovereignty and taking back control, the next for coming together and pooling and sharing resources. And that’s not even to mention the chaos that a Yes vote could bring.
A second referendum on Scottish independence is unwanted, unneeded, and unhelpful. But if the Realm is to endure, respect for self-determination is not a choice, but a necessity.
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(For the same reason, we should resist the temptation to impose direct rule on our overseas tax havens.)