Try as Sturgeon might, Scotland can’t overcome the problem of geography
There is a saying in Mexico, “So far from God and so close to the United States”, to explain how its proximity to a richer and larger neighbour has stunted its development and bedevilled its politics. They would likely have short shrift then for the plight of Scotland, which once dreamed of conquering Panama, and is now led by a party fighting to cut itself off from the source of its wealth, and one of the world’s largest economies.
The lurid claims, put forward by separatists, of Scotland being a colony are untrue, but there is a secret that hides in plain sight: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not a means to perpetuate England’s domination over the other three nations, but to mitigate it. England’s perceived outsized influence over the United Kingdom is simply a fact of its 85 per cent population capture. It makes Imperial Germany (60 per cent Prussian) or the Soviet Union (50 per cent Russian) seem well-balanced.
More than that, unlike the Junkers of Germany or the Politburo of the USSR, we English are closer to continental Europe and the open seas than the smaller nations we neighbour. For a moment, make the superficial comparison with Scotland and Catalonia. The angst-ridden Spanish region has millions more people, a land border with France and quick access to the wider Mediterranean. It does not rely on going through the very country it is agitating to secede from to maintain its economic and cultural ties with the wider world. Scotland would still have to go through the UK to enter its nearest European neighbours, either through Northern Ireland or England.
This weakness in the separatist cause has long been known. Alex Salmond, before he finally succumbed to that most honoured of Scottish National Party traditions by going peculiar upon ceasing to be leader, liked to talk about Scotland being part of a “Northern European arc of prosperity”. In other words, the Nordic countries were a route to trade and wealth that didn’t run through England.
But Oslo is far further away from Edinburgh than Paris is. Yes, there’s no England in between Scotland and the Nordic countries, but there’s an awful lot of choppy seawater. If Scotland was truly well-positioned to be a hub for a significant volume of Anglo-Nordic trade, then it would have already achieved such status, given that until 2021 we were all part of the European Single Market.
That it didn’t underlines how the main route from continental Europe into the British Isles runs through England wherever you are. And just as at the independence referendum, a clear majority of Scottish people know that the SNP can offer nothing to change that brutal fact of geography. That a majority of the English, Welsh, and Ulster Unionists have since voted for Brexit is a red herring; whether the rest of the UK is in or out of the Single Market doesn’t change the fact that Scotland is the most distant part of these islands from Europe.
It is for that reason the Union transformed Scotland from a backwater into an intellectual powerhouse. Scotland has never been better governed than since 1707 when it came under the control of the Westminster Parliament. Scottish people have used their nation’s merger with its larger neighbour to achieve things that they would never have done otherwise, due to greater investment at home and more opportunities to work and study in England.
This is why Gordon Brown is wrong to offer giving more power to Holyrood as a panacea to separatism. In his incessant advocacy of greater devolution, he best resembles a mediaeval doctor who sees any symptom as a call for more leeches. Such medicine was wrong in 1998 and wrong in 2014, and it’s wrong again this week.
Rather than making false promises about England getting out of Scotland’s way, as if English interference was avoidable let alone always bad, how about looking at new ways England’s greater economic muscle can be better utilised to build greater capacity in its northern neighbour. Whether it be football, culture, agriculture, transport, tourism, or higher education there’s so many sectors where the problem is not that London is doing too much to hold Scotland back but that it is doing too little to lift it up.
George Galloway once dismissed the SNP’s promises of a painless separation by saying he had been divorced three times, and each time it had caused acrimony. To follow the same analogy, you don’t save your marriage by whittling down what you do together until there’s nothing left to the partnership.
Scotland and England will always have to live together, but Keir Starmer can make that partnership more harmonious and stable by ignoring Gordon Brown’s latest doomed attempt to stop the English influencing Scotland, and instead focus on enhancing the support, comfort and opportunities England gives to the Scottish.