02 Dec

The Break-Up of Britain – Again

Posted By Politybooks

In his 1977 book, The Break-up of Britain, Tom Nairn argued that the British state could no longer serve its constituent nations and the situation would inevitably have to change. In particular, the desire for a Scottish nation must, sooner or later,bring about full independence. Last week Scottish National Party leader and the Scottish Parliament’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, launched Scotland’s Future (2013), a government White Paper running to 670 pages, presenting detailed economic argument and policy proposals in an independent Scotland. It may be somewhat delayed but next year will be the first opportunity for that to become reality with a referendum on independence being held in Scotland on 18 September. 2014 is the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory over English armed forces at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Yet opinion polls consistently show a majority of Scottish residents to be in favour of remaining part of the UK. So is this likely to be another disappointment for the nationalists or do they have good reason to be optimistic?  

In fact, a referendum on a devolved Scottish Assembly was held back in 1979 and though a majority (51.6 per cent) voted in favour, the low turnout (almost 64 per cent) meant that the condition of 40 per cent saying ‘yes’ was not met. With growing calls for more power to be devolved to Scotland, a referendum on limited devolution in 1997 produced a lower turnout (60.4 per cent) but a large majority in favour (74 per cent) and a new Scottish Parliament (along with a Welsh Assembly) was created in 1999. Many supporters of devolution had argued that devolution would protect the union by granting a form of self-government short of independence and thus ‘kill independence stone dead’. This forecast has not been borne out by events. Instead, the Scottish National Party won most seats in the 2007 parliament and secured the first ever majority government after the 2011 election. Devolution has actually helped bring Scottish nationalism into the political mainstream. The trend since the 1970s has been for greater Scottish autonomy, but what would full independence mean for the rest of the UK?

Scotland has been part of the UK since the Act of Union in 1707 so a ‘yes’ vote next year would be of major significance in political, economic and cultural life. It would clearly have ramifications for the UK Parliament in Westminster which would lose all of its Scottish members. Given the Labour Party’s dominance in Scotland, Labour would also lose 41 MPs, which would change the balance of British party politics, making it harder for Labour to win a general election outright.

[Can Labour win without Scotland? http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2012/01/scotland-labour-majority-win]

A successful independent Scotland would possibly encourage Welsh nationalism, though this is currently quite a weak force at just 10 percent in opinion polls. Economically, things would be complex and working out the pros and cons is difficult. Scotland would take its share of the national debt, around £120 billion based on a per capita calculation, but would also want control of North Sea oil revenues. The SNP suggests Scotland would keep the British pound as its currency, but that would mean the Bank of England remaining in charge of a ‘sterling zone’. Scotland has a population of just over 5 million people and the SNP says this would allow it to become a dynamic independent country rather like the Republic of Ireland and Norway. Yet Ireland may not bethe best example as the country suffered particularly badly during the 2008 credit crunch and needed an EU bailout package with its attendant austerity policies. Nonetheless, Scotland would not join the EU currency union or use the Euro. Voters may find picking the bones out of such unclear evidence and argument almost impossible, making cultural issues of identity and shared history more important.

Culturally, Scotland already has distinctly different legal and education systems and religious institutions that have helped maintain its identity as a distinct nation, despite political union with the rest of the UK. In Anthony Smith’s (1986) terms, the Scottish nation forms a specific ‘ethnie’ – a group sharing ideas of a common ancestry, cultural identity and homeland. Indeed, leaving aside all the detailed policy arguments regarding independence, it is this cultural togetherness, the feeling of collective identity which makes the Scottish ‘imagined community’ strong (Anderson 2006). The SNP case is built on the basic premise that the Scots are a ‘nation without a state’ and building a Scottish state would allow the talents of the population to be tapped. Such an argument underpins many nationalist movements such as those in Quebec (Canada), Flanders (Belgium), Catalonia and the Basque Country (Spain), while Kosovo (2008) and South Sudan (2011) recently became independent countries, showing that nationalism remains a potent force in the (post)modern world. 

One practical issue for the SNP is that not all those eligible to vote in the referendum were born in Scotland. Around 800,000 Scottish-born people live in the rest of the UK and are not eligible to vote. Conversely, around 400,000 people from other parts of the UK currently live in Scotland and will be able to vote if eligible.

[BBC Guide: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-13326310]

The referendum is therefore not simply for the Scottish ethnie but will take in a not-insignificant number of other residents too. More importantly, polling evidence showing a majority of the Scottish population favour maintaining the union strongly suggests either that many people have made a pragmatic calculation that the UK offers better prospects for their families and/or that they are comfortable with their present dual identity – Scottish and British. We need only think of African Americans or British Pakistanis to see that such dual identities are not uncommon or particularly difficult to reconcile within the individual self. A recent poll found that 31 per cent of Scots considered themselves equally ‘British and Scottish’ and 8 per cent ‘British not Scottish’, with 23 per cent answering ‘Scottish not British’.

[ScotCen: http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/moreno-national-identity-six-answer-options#line]

Hence, promoting an exclusively Scottish identity may not directly translate into more referendum ‘yes’ votes. Perhaps this helps to explain why the White Paper concentrates on the economy and specific policy choices rather than matters of national identity.


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition (London: Verso Books).

Nairn, T. (1977) The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism (London: NLB).

Smith, A. D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell).

Chapter 23 is clearly the best place to start reading, especially pp.1018-28 on nationalism and independence movements, though the following section on conflict and wars is also useful. The desire for national independence is part of a broader trend towards democratization and the latter can be found on pp.981-8. Then the relationship between global processes and local/national cultures is briefly covered on pp.141-5.  

Readings 49, 51 and 53 of Sociology: Introductory Readings provide something of the wider context for debates on the future of the nation state and nationalist movements.

Philip W. Sutton