Bravehearts may balk at leaving union
Scottish hunger for independence depends on the economic fortunes of its neighbour, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30
Just before the implosion of our economy in 2009, the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond turned up at Trinity College Dublin to discuss his plans for the future.
Gesturing favourably towards Charles Stewart Parnell's insistence that "no man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation", Salmond explained that: "Scotland has a different history and a different constitution.
"But our aspirations for our nation are no different from those that inspired generations of Irish people to independence and prosperity that you enjoy today."
There is much to magnetise the Irish observer in the current debate about Scottish independence.
Salmond has been playing many old Irish tunes back to us over the course of his referendum campaign.
For all his rhetoric about independent Scottish membership in the EU and at the UN, his sights remain stuck somewhere around 1948 in Irish terms.
The Scottish nationalists have made it clear that they want to keep the crown even if they vote for independence.
This is rather like the arrangement we had before we left the Commonwealth and declared ourselves a republic in 1949.
Even after the declaration of the republic though, we retained the peculiar wording of Article 29 of Bunreacht na hEireann, which allowed the Irish government to "avail of or adopt any organ, instrument or method of procedure" that suited their purposes when conducting their external affairs. ("Organ" here meant the British crown).
Salmond has also made it clear that he wants an independent Scotland to retain the pound sterling.
This has provoked a kind of pincer movement against him amongst the main unionist parties at Westminster.
In response to Salmond's thoughts on a sterling zone, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said tartly last week: "People need to know it's not going to happen."
Citing Treasury advice on the feasibility of this kind of arrangement, Osborne concluded: "It is clear to me: I could not as chancellor recommend that we could share the pound with an independent Scotland."
The Scottish nationalists thus find themselves in the type of bind that once vexed De Valera.
Pressed on why he did not take his nationalism to its logical conclusion and cut all ties with Britain, De Valera was left to mutter something about the dictates of "geographical propinquity" and the limited wisdom available from the ghost of Tom Clarke.
In certain respects, the currents that are driving the Scottish referendum are difficult to comprehend.
The 1707 union of England and Scotland has worked fairly well for the Scots over the years, and in these perilous times the case for massive constitutional innovation remains underwhelming.
Under the Anglo-Irish union that lasted from 1801 until the Treaty in 1921, we could claim only a paltry three British prime ministers of Irish extraction, these being Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston, and George Canning, whose father came from Derry.
The Scots by contrast ran the table as regards access to power at the elite level.
As Alvin Jackson explains in his absorbing and unique joint history of the Irish and Scottish unions, The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007, "in terms of elite politics, the apogee of Scottish domination came at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, between 1868 and 1935, when for example six of the 11 British prime ministers were Scottish by birth or origin (Gladstone, Rosebury, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, MacDonald): a seventh, Baldwin was descended from highland stock through his mother and identified strongly with a romanticised Scottish Toryism."
The Scots were also blessed by unusually capable secretaries of state in the modern period who proved themselves to be tough operators at the cabinet table and in Whitehall.
Labour's Thomas Johnston is widely considered the best secretary of state, regardless of his formal commitment to Scottish Home Rule.
And Willie Ross was no slouch either, having extracted a Highland and Islands Development Board from Harold Wilson in 1965 as well as a separate Scottish Economic Council.
Jackson's analysis closed on an ironic note that is worth pondering at the moment.
He pointed out that Scotland declined the chance to break out of the 1707 straitjacket in 1979, displaying an unexpected commitment to the union at a time of massive industrial unrest, significant inflation and budgetary catastrophe.
By contrast then in 1997, they chose devolution "in the context of a gradually improving British economy, growing employment, and the prospect of a settlement in Northern Ireland".
Something like this dynamic may be at play at the moment, as the fragility of the British economic recovery encourages the Scottish middle classes to play it safe at least for the foreseeable future.