Apocalypse Now: Destroying the Union to save it


  By Hamish Scott

There is a famous quote – though usually misquoted – given by a United States army officer to a journalist covering Vietnam’s American War, in justifying the destruction wrought on a South Vietnamese town, that: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’.

It seems unionists are taking a similar approach to saving the Union in the independence referendum campaign.

  By Hamish Scott

There is a famous quote – though usually misquoted – given by a United States army officer to a journalist covering Vietnam’s American War, in justifying the destruction wrought on a South Vietnamese town, that: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’.

It seems unionists are taking a similar approach to saving the Union in the independence referendum campaign. In particular, they are destroying Anglo-Scottish relations, Scotland’s status within the Union, and the status of the institutions of the Union.

Their most conspicuous impact to date on Anglo-Scottish relations is the enthusiastic promotion of the idea that Scotland is subsided by English taxpayers, an idea with a long pedigree but given unprecedented prominence in the referendum debate. The animosity generated in England by this idea, so ably articulated by the London-based commentariat and its followers alike, has probably done more to erode Anglo-Scottish relations, and thus the well-being of the Union, than anything else.

Yet unionist politicians and journalists know this idea of subsidised Scots is false. They use the statistics of Scotland having 8.4% of the UK’s population but receiving 9.3% of its public spending as enthusiastically as they ignore the statistic from the same source that Scotland also contributes 9.9% of the funding of that spending.

Further damage to Anglo-Scottish relations comes from the promotion of the idea that the desire for Scottish independence is driven by anti-English prejudice. This is an idea stated as fact by unionist commentators and politicians alike, both north and south of the border, despite it simply not being true.

In fact, it is the London-based media’s coverage of the referendum that is driven by prejudice – an anti-Scottish one. An unrelenting flow of vitriol pours forth, particularly from opinion columns and the below-the-line comments appended to such columns, but also on radio and television, and with little effort to moderate the abuse by those in position to.

The suggestion by the Ministry of Defence that Faslane and Coulport naval bases could be annexed as UK sovereign territory, has caused additional damage. Whilst the idea was swiftly extinguished, in public at least, the harm was done nonetheless in what it says of the mindset in Whitehall and Westminster.

In Scotland, it has been a long-standing view of the Union that it is ‘a partnership of equals’ which would be dissolved on Scottish independence, and that Scotland and England/rUK would thus both be continuator states. However, this idea of Scotland’s status in the Union has not been shared by the British government in the referendum campaign.

Its position, instead, is that Scottish independence would not dissolve the Union and that England/rUK would, but Scotland would not, be a continuator state.  The British government’s published legal opinion on the Union stated: ‘Whether or not England was also extinguished by the Union, Scotland certainly was extinguished as a matter of international law, by merger either into an enlarged and renamed England or into an entirely new state’.

One of the consequences of the British government’s position is for it to see the assets of the UK accrue solely to England/rUK in the event of Scottish independence. For example, one of its Scotland Analysis reports on independence says, in regard to diplomatic assets, that: ‘An independent Scottish state would not be entitled by right to any UK diplomatic premises, equipment or staff’.

Scottish unionism has endorsed the British government’s position despite it degrading Scotland’s status in the Union and diminishing the sense of ‘ownership’ Scots have both of the Union itself and its individual institutions.

Two of those institutions, the BBC and the Armed Forces, perhaps the two most highly regarded by the public generally, are being further undermined in the referendum campaign.

As a public broadcaster, the BBC has obligations of fair and balanced reporting and that role is all the more important in the referendum campaign when the print media is almost universally hostile to independence. Although the BBC’s partial approach to the campaign might be passing unionists by, it is far from unnoticed by those in favour of independence, and has been confirmed by an extensive academic study.

The effect so far is to diminish the standing of that institution in the eyes of many Scots, and if a close No vote follows continued BBC bias, especially during the official campaign period, there will be a perception that the BBC has influenced the result in a manner hostile to Scottish democracy. The BBC will lose its effectiveness as – in the words of a former director-general – ‘the glue that holds the Union together’.

The Armed Forces are being undermined by proxy through the decisions and statements of unionist politicians. One has been the choice of Stirling to host the Armed Forces Day national event in 2014. Although this will be only the sixth of such national events, it will be the second in Scotland: an usual frequency for such UK-wide occasions.

One reason for this choice, if not the reason, was indicated by the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, in his comments on these national events that: ‘They remind us in a very graphic way that we are stronger together’. Moreover, the Armed Forces Day national event in 2014 is being staged at the same time and in the same city as the already scheduled and planned programme for the 700th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Bannockburn, and at a time when the official referendum campaign will be underway and passions already roused. Scots may wonder what this says of the sensibility of the British establishment, and the ‘respect’ agenda of the British government, towards Scotland.

The British government has decided that the official centennial commemoration of the beginning of the first world war will also be centred in Scotland, in this case Glasgow. This is another somewhat unusual choice of venue for a major UK-wide event of the kind that normally takes place in London.

The official reason given is that Commonwealth leaders will be gathered in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games but some Scots will see that as an excuse rather than a reason. More importantly, there is another issue here of the British government’s sensibility towards Scotland in that Scotland’s combat casualty rate in the first world war was more than double that of England’s, despite Scottish and English units being in the same army.

If the British government attempts to in some way co-opt the death and suffering of many Scots in that war into its anti-independence campaign, it would further damage the Union in the eyes of many Scots, including unionists. This course has already been taken by Lord Lang in his comment that independence would: ‘dishonour…those who died for the UK’.

This self-destructive approach to the Union by unionists is not something new, prompted by the independence referendum, but a concentrated manifestation of what has been a long-standing feature of unionism. The referendum campaign, however, sees this approach reaching a point at which it is delivering mortal blows to itself. In particular, the Scottish view of the Union, summed up in the old mantra of ‘a partnership of equals’, is being killed off, the end of unionism’s most powerful defence in Scotland. If there is a No vote, the Union will still have come closer to its destruction.

Hamish Scott is a makkar whose poetry has been published in various outlets. His first collection – ‘Kennins’ – was published in May 2013 and is available as a printed pamphlet from here and as an e-pamphlet from online retailers.