Predictions of the break-up of the UK may be reaching a crescendo, but they are scarcely new. In 1707, Jonathan Swift wrote a poem deriding the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which had just been passed, for seeking to combine two incompatible peoples in one state: “As if a man in making posies/ Should bundle thistles up with roses”. He goes on to say that political differences would inevitably sink the whole enterprise, as “tossing faction will o’erwhelm/ Our crazy double-bottomed realm”.
Swift was confident that the ramshackle project would founder, but it has taken 313 years for his prediction to look as if it might come true – and even then the split may not be quite as imminent as some imagine.
It is true that the last 20 opinion polls show that most Scots now favour independence, but the shift against the union is only a few years old, as is the dominance of the Scottish National Party at the polls.
Compare this short span with the Irish struggle for home rule, which was at its height from 1885 to 1918, when those seeking self-rule through constitutional means were replaced by Sinn Fein and unilateral secession. Many of the arguments used against Irish separatism – the most notable being that it made no economic sense – are now used against the Scots and are likely to be equally ineffectual.
The downplaying of Scottish self-determination on the grounds that it is less important than bread-and-butter issues by Boris Johnson during his one-day visit to Scotland on Thursday sounds absurdly hypocritical, coming as it does from a prime minister who only has the job because he promoted British sovereignty above all else in leaving the EU. Doubtless he and his advisers recognise this contradiction all too well since the purpose of his trip to Scotland in the middle of the pandemic was evidently to rebrand Johnson in Scottish eyes as “Mr Vaccine” rather than “Mr Brexit”.
It is a measure of just how rattled the British government must be by Scottish separatism that it should hope that the appearance of Johnson in a white coat claiming, contrary to the evidence, that Scots voters consider independence to be “irrelevant”, would help turn the political tide. He claimed self-destructively that giving priority to self-rule over economic benefits is “like saying you don’t mind what you eat as long as it is with a spoon”.