Even Margaret Thatcher accepted Scotland's right to self-determination but 'muscular unionists' are now treating us like a colony – Kenny MacAskill
I’ve never been someone who believed Scotland was a colony. It’s complex and the UK was originally a union, not a takeover, albeit a political “shotgun wedding”. However, advocates of muscular unionism are now making me reconsider.
Whilst history cannot be rewritten, the democratic nature of the relationship’s threatened. Some seem to be suggesting that, although it was a voluntary union, what they have they hold and there’s no way to leave. That simply cannot be.
Scotland’s financial challenges following the Darien Disaster in the late 1690s and England's desire to close off any possibility of a state on its northern border aligned with other powers, ensured that a union would come about. Scotland got access to the Atlantic markets and had a deal not been struck then invasion, whether directly or more likely in support of a section of Scottish society encouraged to rebel, might have occurred. But England knew such actions would be opposed vigorously, probably making the future Jacobite Risings small beer in comparison.
So those twin pressures saw a deal struck by the Scottish Establishment. Had there been a referendum it would have been rejected comprehensively. But there wasn’t and many of the lords in charge enriched themselves through bribes, while Scotland’s distinctive law, church and education were protected, ensuring Scotland remained a distinct society despite being part of the Union.
Scotland also participated in the British Empire as a junior partner. The idea we were innocent of the crimes perpetrated, whether slavery or exploitation, is fanciful. Of course, the wealth wasn’t shared equally. Lords and ladies built estates with grand houses whilst the poor suffered in the pits, factories and on the land or in being removed from it. But the collective wealth and the industrialisation of society was largely fueled by it, even if it was misery for the many.
But the ability to withdraw from that Union was always seen as inviolate, with even Margaret Thatcher saying Scotland could be independent if that’s what Scots wanted and supported. Regret it, she would, and campaign against it, she did, but happen it could was her belief.
And in 2014, when David Bowie sang “Scotland, please stay” the leaders of the No campaign talked of a voluntary union and the freedom to leave it, albeit arguing for the wealth and benefits they believed were to be gained from remaining.
Now though that history’s being rewritten and the mantra’s changed, the broad shoulders of the UK replaced by imposed austerity, with even the Daily Telegraph and Brexit Tories talking of Britain now being a poor country. Exactly, as Scotland came into the Union for economic reasons, it’s economic reasons that now dictate why we should leave. That an energy-rich Scotland sees almost half of Scots in fuel poverty encapsulates it.
But the charm and wooing that was there in 2014 is now supplanted by derision and oblique threats. The distinct society that operated under the Union is now threatened by diktat and even direct intervention. The Scottish Parliament, the embodiment of the powers once held by church, law and education, undermined in attempts to mitigate austerity and protect the environment and institutions.
Muscular unionism’s not only ugly, but undemocratic. It’ll also be unsustainable, as even Thatcher acknowledged.
First published in the Scotsman Newspaper on Thursday 3rd August