We Can’t Ignore the Tear in the Union Jack

Posted on May 10, 2011


Loch Etive, Scotland

The Scottish National Party (SNP) have won a clear majority in elections to the devolved Edinburgh legislature, and will become the first party ever to form a majority government through it – a remarkable result given that the Scottish Parliament uses a system designed in part to prevent the election of majority governments.

Considering that Scottish independence from the United Kingdom has always been the central plank of SNP policy, it is no surprise that First Minister Alex Salmond has confirmed that a referendum on breaking up the Union will be held within the life of the current parliament, with the media speculating that Scots may go to the polls on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 2014.

It was the election of a SNP candidate to the Westminster Parliament in a 1967 by-election that prompted the Wilson administration to establish the Royal Commission on the Constitution in order to examine demands for Scottish and Welsh independence.  Recent governments have been much slower to react to signs indicating that the ties binding the Union together are wearing increasingly thin.  David Cameron has said that he will ‘campaign to keep our United Kingdom together’, but the fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is now largely powerless to stop a referendum on whether a part of the country he governs should become an independent state – a situation unthinkable only a few years ago – shows how far we have already come.

The then Prime Minister John Major was justly ridiculed in 1997 when he suggested that the creation of a Scottish Parliament would spell the end of ‘one thousand years of British history’ (England and Scotland having been united just over 300 years ago), but he may yet have the last laugh.  The most ominous sign of the decline of the Union is perhaps not the creation of the Scots Parliament or Welsh Assembly, or the sharp decline reported in the Unionist vote in Northern Ireland recently, but a resurgent English nationalism which has grown at a phenomenal rate in recent years.  Not so long ago, the flag of St. George was flown only from church towers and was practically unknown to most English folk, who were happy with their Union Jacks.  Now it is seen at every turn, and is sported proudly by various English nationalist groups such as the English Democrats and the Campaign for an English Parliament (another idea which would have been considered absurd only a generation ago).  By 2006, opinion polls were showing a clear majority of those questioned favouring English independence from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

As well as providing Unionists with an opportunity to make a genuine intellectual case for the United Kingdom, rather than simply assuming its continued existence, the current episode also provides an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by ‘self-determination’.

Flags of the United Kingdom

Betty Miller Unterberger, an American historian, notes that the principle of self-determination ‘refers to the right of a people to determine its own political destiny’.  It is an important principle which ‘can be traced back to the beginning of [organised] government’ but beyond this loose definition ‘no legal criteria determine which groups may legitimately claim this right in particular cases’.  This lack of legal definition is all the more troublesome given that self-determination is one of the most important principles in modern international law.  The UN Charter states its purpose as being to ‘develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that ‘[all] peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’.

The basic moral principle at the root of the idea of self-determination is conceded by all without much argument.  That is to say that the dignity of man as a rational creature demands that he be free to dictate his own manner of living within due limits.  Self-determination is simply the extension of the principle of individual liberty to the social and communal sphere.  We run into real problems, however, when we try to identify the nature of the ‘community’ that has the right to exercise the power of self-determination.  What characteristics (e.g., language, degree of genetic similarity) should be considered when defining ‘communities’ which have the right to self-determination?  What about minority groups existing within the broader community?  It is owing to the difficulty posed by these questions that the concept has never admitted of substantial legal definition.

The sad history of the relationship between Britain, Ireland, and, for the last ninety years, Northern Ireland which is itself subdivided into warring Irish nationalist and Ulster loyalist communities, provides a graphic illustration of the difficulty that some of these questions pose.  One might also cite the partition of India in 1947 which displaced over twelve million people and triggered violence causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.  Despite the presence of a staunchly Unionist community in parts of Scotland with links to Unionism in Northern Ireland, such violence as the world saw in India and Northern Ireland is highly unlikely if Scotland were to separate from the UK, but it does lead us to question whether the sweet consolations of political independence are always worth its bitter fruits.

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(photo of Loch Etive: © Jamie Campbell)