The Mindless Obstinacy of the UK Imperial Mindset


  By Mark McNaught

Several weeks ago, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore confessed before the House of Lords that the government was making no contingency plans in the case of Scottish independence.

The Ministry of Defence recently stated that it was making no plans to relocate the Trident submarine from Faslane, seeing no need because they believe Scotland would never vote to leave the UK.

David Cameron confused the ‘Yes’ campaign with the ‘Better Together’ campaign, and finally settled on the ‘Alistair Darling’ campaign. Or whatever.

This highlights several possible unappealing characteristics of the Scottish independence debate:

The Westminster government is engaging in severe malfeasance in not preparing for the dissolution of the UK, which could have disastrous consequences.

Westminster is so convinced that life is so wonderful throughout the UK that no country could possible vote to leave. 

Westminster and Whitehall are secretly making contingency plans for Scottish independence, but will not reveal them because they might show its feasibility and ultimate benefit for Scotland.

Cameron wants to keep Scotland in the UK, but is too lazy to learn the basics of the debate so he even sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. 

Finally, a disconcerting combination of all the above.

Although Anas Sarwar has promised to make a positive case for Scotland remaining in the UK, and is presumably sincere in his desire, within the ‘better together’ campaign he is up against the grizzled inveterate warlock of Westminster imperial arrogance.

It was less than 100 years ago that the UK controlled some 25% of the Earth’s territory, and 20% of the world population.  The doctrine of British Parliamentary supremacy held that there were no higher temporal powers on earth, and that Parliament could bestow and revoke power while maintaining undivided sovereignty.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising, though nonetheless disappointing, that the Westminster government may not have within its DNA to have an honest, non-condescending, fully informed debate.

To do so would finally bury the myths of the British Empire.  The colonies are better off and ‘stronger’ under a UK imperial embrace. Love of the Crown and loyalty to Parliament are so strong that no UK member could possibly vote to leave.  A benevolent paternalistic Westminster will invariably care better for their colonies than they possibly could on their own.

These beliefs are on life support, but they not dead yet.

That is why it may not be realistic to expect anything other than uninformed and/or mendacious bellicose rhetoric emanating from Westminster regarding the independence debate.  Would we have not heard some positive arguments already if they exist?

From the unionist side, debate thus far has had a ‘Wizard of Oz’ quality to it.  Lots of fire and brimstone, but once the curtain is pulled back, we see that their threats have no foundation. 

The ‘facts’ that are used to argue against independence are often fantasy.  Does some think tank actually expect Scots to believe that they will be financially worse off if they have control over all their oil revenue? 

The UK imperial mindset being in its last throes, I don’t expect there to be much of a positive debate coming from the UK government or the once-respectable mainstream Scottish papers.

Scots should gird for 19 months of ruthless negativity coming from the unionist side. Maybe they will begin a positive campaign, and it would be most welcome, but would be folly to expect, especially as Scots become increasingly convinced of the benefits and opportunities of independence.

Despite the frequently dire tone, this long debate will give Scots the time and space to separate the wheat from the chaff, to let the scare stories fly then get shot down by concerned citizens and the vigilant press, making for an informed debate.

The truth will float and the lies will sink.  Maybe, just maybe, Scottish independence will in turn oblige the newly constituted UK to adopt a governing attitude commensurate with its actual status, rather than running off the imperial fumes of the past.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission, and Associate Professor of US civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France, and teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.