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How Britain abandoned Scotland On the Outer Hebrides, even the English want independence

Fishermen in Argylle and Bute (Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fishermen in Argylle and Bute (Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)


June 22, 2024   7 mins

It’s half past midnight on the Isle of Benbecula — far, far away on the outer edges of Europe — and Angus Brendan MacNeil MP is getting into his stride. “If you want Scotland to stay, you should want Ireland back too,” he says with a glint in his eye, beer in hand, sure he’s got me this time. I hesitate, mistakenly, and so he ploughs on.

“Send Ireland back into poverty and depopulation like Wales and Scotland! Tell them they’ve got a Barnett formula and how lucky they are! That Limerick wouldn’t have that roundabout if it wasn’t for the Irish Barnett formula! Up the Union!” I concede, it’s a good point.

MacNeil is a crofter turned politician from an island 60 miles south of Benbecula called Barra — the last in the island chain variously known as the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles, from where nothing but ocean lies to its West until you reach Labrador.

In this election he is standing as an independent — “an independent for independence on independence day”, as he put it — having been kicked out of the SNP last year after clashing with the chief whip, angry at the party’s failure to push hard enough for independence after Brexit. His main rival and the favourite to win the seat is a journalist friend of mine, Torcuil Crichton, one time Daily Record reporter turned Labour politician. Both are Gaelic speakers from the islands; only Crichton is a unionist who believes the British state can use its heft to improve people’s lives out here, particularly when it comes to the green energy revolution. “GB Energy” is, I realise, the first big-state, pro-Union policy to come out of Westminster in decades. Whether it will be enough to save the Union in the long term is less clear.

MacNeil’s point about Ireland is, to me, the central challenge for the British state today: does it even work? Look at any of the small countries that have either seceded or all-but seceded from their one-time masters. Are any of them doing worse than Scotland? How would “rejoin the United Kingdom” fare in an Irish referendum? We don’t talk much about the fact that Ireland left as the poorest part of these islands, only to become the richest today. For those like me who feel an emotional attachment to the Union, who feel British and would like Britain to remain, Ireland stands as a living, breathing challenge.

Barra, where nothing but ocean lies to its West until you reach Labrador (Andrew Milligan – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This is not a new challenge. In 1810, just nine years after the union between Britain and Ireland, the Irish unionist William Cuasck-Smith began worrying about the gaping divide between what he called the “theory and principle” of the union and the “vile system” of its administrative reality. “How have the promises made by Unionists to Ireland been kept,” he wrote to his friend J.W. Croker, the MP for Downpatrick. “Has a single step been taken to mitigate the evils which that arrangement was destined to reduce?… Has a step been taken to console the pride and soothe the exasperation of a country fallen from its high esteem? Can a Unionist avoid blushing when he contrasts the performance with the promise?”

Cuasck-Smith’s challenge remains to this day. Can the British state avoid blushing when it contrasts its performance with its promise? Back in Cusack-Smith’s day, the union was supposed to modernise Ireland, extending to its people all the apparent privileges of the English constitution, and in doing so, creating a new, unified people — a single nation stretching across both kingdoms. At the time of the union, the protestant Belfast News Letter urged people to get behind this new endeavour, aware that many of the Orange lodges across Ulster had only recently passed resolutions against the union. “However inimical some of the people of Ireland may have heretofore been to the adoption of that certainly awful, and most important, measure,” the paper’s editorial began, “it is now become an interest, as well as the duty of the whole… to consider the Empire, not as composed of distinct political bodies, each having views incompatible with the happiness and prosperity of the rest — but containing only one people, united in interest as in dominion.” It’s fair to say it didn’t work out like that.

What was so striking up in Scotland was that even though the threat of independence is fading in the short term — Brexit, ironically, having snookered the SNP — the reality is that the hope of “one people, united in interest”, no longer even seems to stretch across Great Britain, let alone Ireland as well. At a hustings on Benbecula on Monday night, I heard again and again complaints about Scotland’s resources being extracted by the English; Labour’s plan for GB Energy was dismissed as mere crumbs from a loaf that should be Scotland’s.

“At a hustings on Benbecula on Monday night, I heard again and again complaints about Scotland’s resources being extracted by the English.”

“It happened with the oil and it’s happening again with the renewables,” the SNP’s Susan Thomson told the audience. “Scotland is more than producing enough for its own energy needs… but the value from that doesn’t stay in Scotland, it leaves Scotland, it goes south of the border.” One woman in the audience chipped in: “We’re getting nothing back but drips.”

The facts tell a different story. On average, Scots receive around £2,200 more per head per year from the British state than the average Englishman. And that’s not because they pay more in tax either. In 2023, Scotland “extracted” £25.8 billion more from the UK state than it paid in — which works out at £4,735 per head, according to the Office for National Statistics. Scotland is the extractor, not England.

Yet, such arguments are about the worst you could make for the Union. I remember becoming frustrated listening to one esteemed MEP in the months after the Brexit referendum lamenting what she saw as the stupidity of the Welsh for voting to leave the EU when they were receiving so much money from Brussels in structural funds. I tried to make the counterpoint: not simply that the UK, as a whole, was a net contributor to the EU and so her argument was essentially circular, but that it was not unreasonable for people to vote against a system in which they were so poor they required large fiscal transfers just to make the status quo tolerable. People have every right to demand more than poverty alleviation from their political settlement.

And here is the point. Every region outside London and the South East is a net recipient of public spending today. The whole country — from Dover to Benbecula and across to Northern Ireland — is dependent on the economic wealth produced in one place: the capital. The British economy, in effect, is now a giant fiscal transfer union, dependent on London, which in turn is dependent on one part of London: the Square Mile. We are, in effect, Manhattan surrounded by Portugal, only without the weather or pasteis de nata.

And yet, people are not receiving a cheque on their doormat each year signed “from London, spend wisely”. Instead, all they actually experience in their lives is a dependence which, at best, cushions their seemingly relentless decline. “Our hospital used to work, but now it’s atrocious” one member of the audience in Benbecula told the panel of aspiring MPs on Monday. The chair of the debate that evening then set out the scale of the challenge facing the community. “Currently, you can’t have a baby on the island,” she said. “You can’t have chemotherapy on the island. You can’t have minor surgery, you can’t have a vasectomy. You can’t have any of the small minor surgery interventions that you used to be able to have.”

This is not unique to Benbecula, or even Scotland, but is playing out across the UK where services are noticeably deteriorating. My own grandmother was on the receiving end the other day, woken up at 3am by a telephone call from the hospital who had looked at her blood tests and decided she had to come in immediately, only to then make her wait for 15 hours, alone, before failing to give her the treatment she needed because the doctors changing shifts had not handed over correctly. Everyone now has stories like this.

I used to think that the difference between Right and Left in politics was that, at heart, the Right believed Britain was fundamentally too poor and so needed to prioritise economic growth, while the Left believed it wasn’t a question of wealth but of distribution, and so needed to prioritise public spending. The radicals on either side believed in major structural reforms to fix these problems, while the moderates simply concluded small technocratic changes would be enough. Today, though, there seems to be a consensus emerging that Britain is both too poor and too unequal and that small technocratic tweaks will not be enough.

Today, we pay more tax for less in public services, with record levels of immigration for record low growth, all papered over by ever more dependence on London, which only produces ever more resentment of the capital and those who live in it. Angus MacNeil is right that defending this system because we have a Barnett formula is not enough. Limerick, after all, has plenty of roundabouts that the Irish pay for themselves.

In one sense, the Union is the safest it has been since the Brexit vote in 2016. With that issue fading from memory and the other great destabilising force, the Tories (also known as the Conservative and Unionist Party), also seemingly on their way out, the structural threats are receding. The real point, though, is that countries can thrive with independence, devolved self-rule or within larger well-governed countries. But unless they think of themselves at some level as a place containing “one people, united in interest as in dominion”, as the News Letter once put it, they will always be vulnerable. Barnet is not enough. Scottish nationalism was born in the era that oil was discovered. Suddenly, it was Scotland’s oil not Britain’s. In the end, of course, it would be Shell’s, which rather sums up the problem.

Visit Benbecula today for a similar fable of modern Britain, where even the English I met on the island are now for independence. Here is a place on the edge of Europe where the British state was once present, building things and employing people. The island’s biggest village is called Balivanich, formerly home to a few rows of cheaply built military accommodation to serve the nearby MOD missile testing site. What has now happened to that site? It has been sold off to a company called Qinetiq which now runs the place from Hampshire. Who today does not blush at this reality?

***

Listen to Tom’s podcast report here: Has the SNP blown it?


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Here is a place on the edge of Europe where the British state was once present, building things and employing people.
There, in a nutshell, is the problem. What the state giveth, the state taketh away.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago

Indeed.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

When I last went to the Western Isles 20 odd years ago, every fence and post had an EU sticker on it as the canny locals extracted endless grants for everything under the sun. Most of the houses were renovated as pretend ‘crofts’ with money from the crofting commission.

So in that sense, the inhabitants are like internalised third-worlders who expect constant help but affect to despise the hand that feeds them and constantly bemoan their lowly status.

Civilisations and Empires crash and burn or just fade away; maybe our attempts to intervene and ‘level up’ are on a hiding to nothing. If left to their own devices, most of these places would just be depopulated and left to revert to nature and would that be so terrible?

I notice that after a big revival since the 70’s (funded by Westminster yet again of course) the Welsh language is once again in a nosedive and to be fair, why would anybody bother to learn it, never mind spend millions teaching it to less than a million people ?

My mother was Welsh and obviously it’s part of our Celtic heritage and a beautiful language in some ways, but it really has no effective place in today’s world. Yet another luxury pursuit on someone else’s money.

Stephen Feldman
Stephen Feldman
1 month ago

So many wars, so many lives to keep Scotland under English rule. All seems laughable.London ought to declare Greater London and Kent a Singapore city state. No more dough to Leeds Edin urgh or Belfast.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

All states transfer wealth from the wealthy areas to the pooer areas. The problem with the UK is that it’s been all about London for decades. The focus on banking and lack of concern for industry being at the root of it.

It would be ‘interesting’ to see London separate, but only if the two parts used a separate currency. Initially the London £ would rise, the rUK £ would fall, making London richer in the short term and the north more competitive again.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

I think such ideas amount to technocratic, clever fixes. The problem is deeper; big cities outside London, somehow, (I don’t know how) need to become more enterprising and fiscally independent.
The same can be said for Scotland and Wales where I come from. I think the first step is to stop blame the English and the Tories and work out what barriers are preventing your citizens from being more enterprising.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

It’s not really technocratic. If a country splits into two parts why wouldn’t there be a currency for each?

You can see the same effect in the Eurozone – the southern countries have a currency that is too strong, the north a currency too weak. So the north grows and transfers some of that wealth south. But psychologically that feels like the north is supporting the south and causes resentment, and the south gets lazy.

I agree the blame game is too simplistic, but it is also quite difficult to understand so it’s perhaps not surprising.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
29 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

The Euro itself was a technocratic fix. he old currencies had evolved organically.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

London’s banking sector would need to shrink if the London currency area was to shrink to just London. It is the implicit guarantee of the UK state and the huge Sterling currency area it controls that allows a large banking sector to exist in the Sterling area. A smaller London state with its own currency would not be able to offer as large a financial guarantee and so its banking sector would need to shrink. To see this effect, just look at Dublin in 2009. The Irish banks had over extended themselves like those of London, but it was only the UK government, with the biggest balance sheet of taxpayers, that had the borrowing capability to bail out both London banks and Irish banks. Ireland received more than £3bn from the UK, and the UK was able to borrow this because of the size of the Sterling currency area.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Agree entirely – that why I said it would be ‘interesting’ and that London would be richer ‘initially’. It’s a point not made often enough, likely because it’s little understood and not immediately obvious, that big global cities like London rely on the ‘provinces’ around them (with dismissive comments such as the reference to Potugal in the article being common).

The ex-London UK, including the other nations like Scotland, but also the north and midlands of England, are to an extent suppressed so London can earn the money. It’s a putting all your eggs in one basket kind of strategy, as Putin has alluded to on a couple of occasions, and proved disastrous in 2008, which we are still suffering from and will be for years to come.

Stephen Barnard
Stephen Barnard
1 month ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Suppressed? How, and by whom? There seems to be a lot of “London’s the problem” stuff here, but I’m not at all sure that’s the case: try imagining the UK without London…

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago

We are imagining the UK without London, and London without the UK. It wouldn’t just stay the same without the transfer of money. Read Nell’s post, then imagine London with a massively reduced banking sector.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

What on earth are you on about ?
Scotland begged to join the union with England in 1707. No one forced them.
Where are all these wars and lost lives then ?

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

To be historically accurate, the Union was pushed through the Scottish Parliament by use of bribery and patronage. It was unpopular with most of the population who were not, of course, represented in the Scottish Parliament.

It was only the 1715, 1719 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions that created any enthusiasm for the Hanoverians since the Lowlanders disliked and feared the Jacobite Highlanders even more than the English. The Campbells and their allies then created the Scottish Whig establishment as a branch of the broader Whig Party which ruled Britain for most of the eighteenth century. Eventually – fifty years after the Union – the Scots began to experience economic benefits and became reconciled to being part of “Great Britain”.

kate Dunlop
kate Dunlop
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Peter B
Scotland did not beg to join with England in 1707- as has been the case throughout history the common people were sold by the elite for their own purposes.
By the way, the best argument for Scotland remaining in the Union is the performance of Holyrood which makes the circus that is Westminster look almost competent.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  kate Dunlop

Thanks – happy to be corrected. But still a mess of Scotland’s own making.
Still waiting to hear about all these wars and lost lives he claimed though. Do you think we might be on the hook for reparations ? Except we’re already paying them – or have I misunderstood the Barnett formula ?

Paul Ten
Paul Ten
1 month ago

Ah, the example of Ireland: a country that, since independence, has existed in a state of suppressed civil war apart from brief periods such as the 1920s and 1970s when it was in a state of actual civil war; where priests abused schoolboys and girls who had sex were used as slave labour in laundries, that for three generations was so dirt poor of that perhaps a quarter of the working population emigrated to stay alive. They did the worst jobs, were treated with contempt and were the butt of many hilarious jokes, but it was still better than what was on offer at home. Today its largest political party is an offshoot of a terrorist organisation and its economic success is mainly founded on being a tax evasion scheme for multinationals, a sort of cross between Panama and Iran. Ireland’s economy is owned by Apple and Google far more than North Sea Oil is owned by Shell and those roundabouts in Limerick were probably paid for by scrounging EU development funds.

And by the way, the people of Benbecula do get an annual cheque from London saying ‘spend wisely”. Aren’t those dysfunctional hospitals in the Hebrides entirely the responsibility of the Scottish government?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

I’m not sure that an anti-irish diatribe is exactly what is required to maintain and strengthen the Union – nor indeed an anti Scottish one! Of course it’s a well known SNP strategy to try and piss off as many English people as possible so that the Union can be dissolved that way.

It’s kind of grudging and ridiculous not knowledge the Island has made enormous economic advances and changes. EU structural funds? Ok, well yes – supporters of the EU would say that’s a benefit of being in the EU. Ireland is now a net contributor – well then Ireland is then a wealthy country, possibly partly because of those earlier structural funds transfers. You can’t have it both ways!

The Irish Catholic church used to have far too much baleful influence and the fact that the state ignored what was going on in so many religious institutions was disgraceful. However that situation has radically changed. The influence of the Catholic church is far weaker that used to be. But even here, many British right wingers don’t seem to.know whether to celebrate or abhor this fact – but then again so many of them have completely incoherent views in their post liberal rage!

Liam F
Liam F
28 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I agree. However the article does raise an interesting conundrum about the need for an emotional attachment in order to feel part of a nation state. This is an important point.
Maybe “feeling good about being British ” occurs only in good economic times throughout the nations? I was born in 1950’s Ireland and throughout the dreary 60s/70s/80s we all looked with envy to the UK -and many of us emigrated here. So the Celtic Tiger is a quite recent thing, which could obviously reverse in the future for a host of reasons.
I’m not sure anyone’s figured out how to make the disparate UK nation states more cohesive. But finding strong economic growth might be a start.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

Well, Ireland suffered from decades of net emigration until they became pro-Big Business.
And then it turned out that they didn’t like immigration so much.

R S Foster
R S Foster
1 month ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

…not so much “pro-Big Business” as ready to become a tax haven and accommodation address for multi-national companies sheltering their EU profits from taxation…with a terrific effect on GDP, but very little on the real economy anywhere but Dublin…
…and of course, spending practically nothing on their own defence…confident in the knowledge that the reviled and hated English will take care of that for them…

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
29 days ago
Reply to  R S Foster

You have to look at the opportunity that is present.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
29 days ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

Bingo.

Micheal MacGabhann
Micheal MacGabhann
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

Paul, what I love about UH is that it’s so easy to bait folk like you with nothing of value to say. A bit like the author here.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

The majority of the concerns expressed by residents of the islands in this article concern the provisioning of health care.
To state the obvious… health care was totally devolved from Westminster to the Scottish parliament and the SNP have had full control over it for over a decade.
And still the Scottish voters blame the English for everything.

Robb Maclean
Robb Maclean
29 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Labour will win this seat.

Robb Maclean
Robb Maclean
29 days ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

Angus MacNeil will not criticise the SNP “Government” in the “pretendy” parliament in Holyrood.

This group of intellectual titans have wrought more damage to the Western Isles than any English Government in history.

MacNeil will NOT be returned to Westminster where he has done little or nothing but collect his salary and his inflated expenses.

The final straw was the attempt to impose Highly Protected Marine areas as a sop to the Greens.
This would have destroyed the livelihood of a great proportion of the people of the Outer Hebrides, but it was planned that recreational activities would be permitted within them.
Highlands and Islands Clearances 2•0.

Nicola Sturgeon pretended to care for the people on the fringe, but it was evident than she didn’t give a fig for them.
Imposing wind farms planned by big multi nationals despite permission being denied at every level up to her ‘corrupt’ Government.
Community plans were often denied by various means, the returns to the bunch in the Central Belt would be much less.

I could go on…

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
29 days ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

The problem of money from politicians is that they can take it away. You don’t own it. It’s a bribe. And other politicians in Scotland spend it how they like. Individuals owning something means they can develope it. The main problem for Scotland is that the Scottish politicians are intent for keeping the money in their pockets.

Emre S
Emre S
29 days ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

If your opinion here is anywhere as representative as the number of votes it got, I’d observe that the “union” of Ireland with UK was a sick joke, they’d be better off outside no matter what.

John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago

I found the stuff about Ireland a bit pointless and distracting, but this line:
“We are, in effect, Manhattan surrounded by Portugal, only without the weather or pasteis de nata.”
Ouch!
Article states some pretty brutal home truths.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

Except it is so blatantly untrue. Along with the repeated rubbish about Britain being so “poor”.
He also ignore the fact that Ireland subsists on international tax arbitrage more than anything of genuine economic value they create.

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago

This is the most profound admission a Lefty has ever made.

“It was not unreasonable for people to vote against a system in which they were so poor they required large fiscal transfers just to make the status quo tolerable. “

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  T Bone

Eh? Firstly, why do you think is a Lefty? He is a rather good political reporter in my estimation. I do realise that so many commentators on this forum seem to misunderstand the difference between reporting on something and advocating it!

Secondly was Margaret Thatcher a Lefty? Her governments had the singlish biggest influence on the current industrial and economic landscape of the UK. We have deep rooted structural problems, in part because of the pattern of the Industrial Revolution – and they are not easy to solve, as the efforts of many British governments over decades have shown

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

He’s a fine writer and reporter but yes he tilts Left. This article is not simply “reporting.” It also contains opinions. This isn’t the first McTague article I’ve read.

One proof of his tilt is that he also writes for Politico and the Atlantic. Unlike Unherd, those organizations only permit a very narrow Overton Window of approved viewpoints. They simply wouldn’t allow him to continue writing if his views were outside that window.

I don’t know how you can possibly say Margaret Thatcher’s views won out when you have a Universal Health system. I suspect Thatcher would have eliminated the system if the Leviathan didn’t stand in her way. Universal Health Care is the furthest possible thing from Laissez-Faire economics. The amount of power given to the State by such a system is overwhelming.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
1 month ago

And in terms of military capability, as Portugal would have been to Imperial Germany.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

Limerick is in Munster on the West Coast of Ireland. Limerick has plenty of roundabouts because the global transfer pricing tax avoidance scheme that is Dublin pays for them. Limerick is still one of the most disadvantaged parts of Ireland, comparable with many small towns in the UK. If Munster and the rest of the West Coast of Ireland decided on independence from Dublin, Limerick would not have plenty of roundabouts.

Dublin was the wealthiest part of Ireland before the Union of Ireland and Great Britain and has remained so after Ireland seceded. The West Coast of Ireland was the poorest part of Ireland before the Union of Ireland and Great Britain and has remained so after Ireland seceded.

Independence doesn’t change geography. Economic activity always drifts to the trading centre of a geographic area, with staging posts towards the centre that themselves become regional economic centres. The periphery is always poorer except for specific and locally unique industries. But everywhere can’t have specific and unique industries. The trading centre of Western Europe is the sea between France, England, and Benelux, and the rivers that flow into that sea; there stands the huge financial hubs of London, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc. Edinburgh and Dublin are successful trading posts connecting their periphery to this centre. Short term changes in tax and incentives might allow some places to buck the trend, but for most places and the long term, geography rules economic development.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

You are right in modern times, but not so in times where government did not tax and regulate on the truly stupendous level of the C21st.

East Anglia was the richest part of England in medieval times, then Yorkshire and Lancashire, and with the industrial revolution, the Midlands and central belt of Scotland. Only in the C19th did London start to take over as the richest economic area.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Anglia was wealthy thanks to it being part of the centre of North Western Europe, sharing the same sea as the Netherlands and Benelux. In different circumstances Norwich might have prospered and grown to become a metropolis, but London – only about 100 miles away – happened to be even more central thanks to the Channel and the Thames and became the ever expanding geographic centre drawing people away from places like Anglia.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Anglia was wealthy because of the wool trade and the huge export markets to northern Europe. London was socially and politically the centre, but not economically.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

I would make a few points here in Benbecula in the Western isles appear to very different from Orkney or Shetland, neither of whom remotely enthusiastic about becoming part of an independent Scotland. They have a very different, Norse identity. Edinburgh while somewhat less remote than London is likely to interfere more. The councils of those Island groups have agreements on the retention of some of the wealth derived from oil and gas extraction. This is extremely unusual in the UK apart from the big devolved administrations, and probably leads to a much less grievance based culture. I understand that much as in Norway they’ have invested much of this money quite wisely. This doesn’t seem a model with the concentrated source of wealth that is really applicable elsewhere in the UK.

Secondly are not fiscal transfers almost a major part of what a state is all about – and almost inevitable unless there’s perfect economic convergence? But there are undoubtedly huge wealth differences between parts of the UK. Lisa deep rooted and difficult to solve as governments over decades have found and it’s a glib to put it mildly to suggest that Scotland becoming independent would manage to solve them. The Scottish government has wide ranging devolution powers today – and it is not a notably well performing country on economic social or health metrics.

These huge regional divides are a legacy of the Industrial Revolution which was very regionally based, to be followed by a long drawn out followed rapid de-industrialisation. Then the UK did not modernise and make more productive it’s industrial base to the extent that other rising industrial powers notably Germany and the United States – did. Nationalisation – and specifically the way nationalisation was carried out along with terrible industrial relations refurb the element lean to the police relative economic decline of the UK. Behind all this was the deeply entrenched British class system, and the deep rooted (again) slight disdain for working and excelling industry of upper class cultural attitudes. In Scotland you can add to this the depopulation of much of the countryside by the Scottish landowners (it should be remembered) and the creation of huge estates – devoted first of all to sheep rearing and then to deer stalking.

The Irish case was very different. Firstly, although there was a Union between Britain and Ireland from 1800 it did not solve the religions question. The two populations of Great Britain – mostly Protestant and Ireland mostly Catholic – very different, perhaps irreconcilably so. Catholic emancipation was delayed for decades. Also Irish industrial development was not encouraged, except in one part of the country and there were great linguistic and cultural differences. Then the British did look down on the Irish for much of this time, they were playing for backwardness that you could argue British policy encouraged. Despite this it seems that Home Rule short of full independence might eventually have been made a success were it not for two factors:

1) the threatened armed rebellion of northern unionists in league with the army and indeed much of the Conservative Party in 1912 to 14 (apologies to the right wingers amongst us here – but this is undoubtedly historically the case).

2) the British reaction to the Easter rising -although justified in its own terms during the First World War – radically turned Irish public opinion against Britain. This probably indicates that the relative content of the Irish population in the late 19th and early 20th century was quite superficial – and could easily be turned by some trigger in an anti-British and anti-Union direction.

John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

You remind me of my flatmate from college years ago, Norna, who was from Orkney and had long white blonde hair. She did indeed have an Orkney Norse identity (quite a distinct accent as I recall too).

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Part of me would love to see Scotland secede from the UK and go it alone. The reason is simply that if the Scots think they can make an Ireland-style success of an independent Scotland with the existing political class in charge, they have a very nasty shock coming.

Ireland, after the financial crisis, was forced to take on €60billion of new debt to cover its own banks insolvency, had to introduce austerity at a level of harshness that looked almost sadistic, but pulled out of the deflationary slump this would have inevitably caused for one reason only: it was in the Euro and had a 12.5% corporation tax rate that attracted multinationals to declare their entire European earnings in Ireland for tax purposes. Ireland consequently now has a higher GDP/capita than the USA, almost the same as Norway (which achieves the same through enormous oil exports relative to its small population).

So, how would an independent Scotland achieve something similar? Let’s assume it gets independence only to cede it again immediately to Brussels and that this doesn’t cause ructions between the two halves of the Scottish independence movement, and that it somehow gets itself into the Euro without too much trouble (again, near-impossible). What’s the trick it has up its sleeve to artificially boost the GDP per capita, like Ireland or Norway? Especially given that nearly 600,000 Scots work in the public sector, that many of these work in departments that are whole-UK, not just Scotland, and that therefore a large proportion of them will be out of their jobs as the public sector functions are repatriated to rUK?

Oil revenues? Yeah right. Even without the idiocy around the politicisation of North Sea drilling licences and the frankly silly assumptions the Scots have been using about how much territory they’d get in the event of secession, they’d need to sell $300bn worth of oil per year to match Ireland’s GDP/capita.

Are they going to steal Ireland’s multinationals by offering an even lower corporation tax rate? Well they can’t because there’s that 15% minimum corp tax convention everyone’s signed to now, and Brussels in any case possesses an ambition to control EU member states’ corporation taxrates anyway to put a stop to precisely this sort of nonsense (which is a reckoning Ireland has coming too, quite frankly).

So does this mean Scotland couldn’t make independence work? Not in my opinion, no, it’s just that it would have to go through a very painful and disruptive period of economic, social and institutional retrenchment to return to the sort of society it was a century ago, when it was one of the richest countries in the world. Good news for Scotland in general, very bad news indeed for its political class, which cannot possibly survive such a process.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

All good points . And that “very bad period” could last generations, going by Ireland’s experience.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Everything above is why I DON’T want independence.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
1 month ago

Most secessions have been economically disadvantageous for the first few decades. Ireland is one example. The American Revolution is another. If, however, they do not make sense on a rational economic basis, this does not alter the fact the economic distress feeds discontent which creates electorates willing to embrace radical solutions e.g. Irish nationalism in the early twentieth century revived with the agricultural depression caused by the first wave of globalisation after about 1870. If life continues to degrade for most of the population in most of the U.K. then radical solutions will grow in popularity. If in England this may end up with support for the far right or left, in Scotland it is likely to lead to a revival in nationalism. It may not be rational but it is foreseeable. Meanwhile there is little decent debate in either London or Edinburgh on how to restore economic growth and, even more importantly, rising real incomes.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

There is little decent debate in the Legacy Media either. But why would there be: they live in a fantasy world of make-believe. Though online, there are at least discussions.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
21 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Just get the diaspora to pay for everything. It’s possible.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 month ago

The central theme running through this article – that the U.K. has been de-industrialised with attendant serious resultant economic and social decline – is surely correct. It also correctly notes that this has been accompanied by handouts from a London based Government effectively financed by the City. This is a truly awful and unstable state of affairs which continues apace ( see current destruction of the U.K. oil and gas industry and the massive financial transfers between the Banks and Government with ever greater Government spend and debt ).

Regional independence movements are a strong symptom of the effects of this decline from industrial prosperity to financial servitude. More state, more tax and more subsidy will never turn things round. We all have to start working and creating wealth again. We must stop borrowing from others and stand on our own feet and provide for our own needs. It will be very tough but living on borrowed money and handouts is both demeaning and ultimately unsustainable. However, none of the main political parties will enable this to happen – they all insist Government will fix everything by spending more on services – which is a terrible delusion.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

All these people want is free English money

Fred D. Fulton
Fred D. Fulton
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

According to much of the commentary here, it would more accurately be “free London money”. Delivered by tax redistribution schemes but also heavily subsidized by deficit financing. Hey we are ALL the same. We want more and more benefits at less personal expense. We suck. We should all be denied the right to vote, because we (we the 95%) will just again vote for more free stuff at lesser cost.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

I live in Orkney, after having lived in Wester Ross in the Highlands for 20 years. The dynamism of Orkney and Shetland is very reminiscent of that of modern day Ireland. The constant focus of politicians on economic development, the substantive efforts made by communities to retain their populations, especially the young, the freedom of local media to criticise public services and spark debate on contraversial issues, the way competing businesses collaborate for the greater good and, in general, the absolute refusal of people here to accept managed decline as the best future they can hope for could offer valuable stories and lessons for other communities in the UK.
The problem is no one from the media ever reports from here. If they come to Scotland at all it’s to the Central Belt or the west coast (where they’re presumably actually also on holiday).
It’s telling that Orkney and Shetland receive more attention in the Gaelic media than from London or Edinburgh.

P. S. Is that really a photo of Benbecula? Looks more like Skye to me. Why not show some respect for the people of the Western Isles by using an actual photo of the place?

Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The second photo is not of Barra either. It is Vatersay

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
1 month ago

The problem I have with all Scottish independence parties at the moment is that they don’t actually want independence.
They just want dependence on a different benefactor, with more of their pals in charge of the local distribution.

RM Parker
RM Parker
29 days ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

Yes, it’s a bit too much like having the Stoneybridge town council in charge at Holyrood.

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
1 month ago

Barnet is not enough. Scottish nationalism was born in the era that oil was discovered. Suddenly, it was Scotland’s oil not Britain’s…” And that perfectly sums up Scotland’s attitude to the union: what’s yours is mine, what’s mine’s my own.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Louise Henson

Barnet, as we all know, is an outer suburb of Greater London. Everybody except McTague.

If he cannot get that major detail correctly spelt then, for me, he’s just another pointless rabble-rouser.

PS: Barnett not Barnet.

LindaMB
LindaMB
1 month ago

I don’t think Britain has abandoned Scotland as much as the London Elite have abandoned the whole of Britain.

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
1 month ago

Firstly, the laments about the decline of the health service in the Highlands and islands are due to devolution and the maybe unconscious bias of the SNP and Labour towards pleasing their voters in the more densely populated Central Belt. (Plus the pernicious effect of the experts who do not care or know about what local people need and want and to whom politicians seem to be in thrall.) Secondly both Scotland and Wales began to decline after devolution. The bright sparks still headed for London, the chancers straight to the financial trough of Holyrood and the local councils who actually did know something about the communities they served, were left with the remains of the talent and steadfastly stripped of their powers. That’s why the islanders are in difficulties. Thirdly, the constant sniping and nipping and nastiness towards Westminster by the SNP have created nothing but offence and hostility in the UK. The English are not that stupid: they know Westminster equals them. SNP racism has been destructive but tolerated. It has gradually undermined the entire country.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

Not much to disagree with. Despite the hospital and NHS generally in Stornoway being very good (despite an aging population) and having oncology and maternity units, this is of little use if you live on another island, with a full day of driving and ferry travel required to get there.

Iain Anderson
Iain Anderson
1 month ago

lost count of the cliches here. Scotland’s heath service performs very well and better on most indicators than other national NHS services across UK, particularly Labour run Wales. I think sniping and nipping can also mean having different policy positions and i feel that is the key issue here, as pro independence politicians actually want to address some of the central issues of our time, such as growing inequality and under investment in our economy.
there is restlessness for sure, and why not, labour are promising nothing that will deliver change, while the tories, pretend they have a record to be proud of, while under their watch English rivers and seas are contaminated by sewage on a massive scale

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
1 month ago
Reply to  Iain Anderson

For ‘restlessness’ read ‘despair’. At a hustings this week, whenever the audience raised a devolved issue, (that was all the time, pretty much,) the SNP candidate would loftily declare that he was standing as an MP not an MSP. All the candidates rabbited on about new policies, growth, investment etc etc but not one mentioned how they were to be paid for. Taxation was never raised. It was very discouraging. Apparently the Lib Dems are going to have a Council of Britain at which all the devolved bodies will aim to produce the same legislation. It used to be called Parliament! Thank goodness for Scotch whisky. I needed a dram on getting home!

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

Perhaps it’s a throwaway sub-title, but the English settlers who yearn for independence have not been turned away from Unionism by the post 2010 UK Government or its actions. They comprise, at best, rather worthy Tom and Barbara Good types, who attempt to live out a latter day fantasy comprising subsistence farming and crafting. At worst, they are unemployable cranks who are hiding from the big bad world and often take up what social housing provision exists. The natives mostly dislike them.
There are various good points in the article, especially around the problems that many parts of the UK face, but one thing is missing from the story. The Little Minch, between North Uist and the southern Harris represents the boundary of Calvinism in the Gaelic speaking world. The southern parts of the archipelago, including N&S Uist, Benbecula and Barra, are all Catholic and positively Fenian in their outlook. Travel north and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Free Church have shaped the place and the culture (even if fewer people are devout worshipers these days). The irony is that MacNeil’s constituency contains not just a sectarian divide, but the most over-represented people in the UK, with an electorate of 21,000 (most of whom live in Lewis and Harris) returning an MP to parliament and MSP to Holyrood.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
1 month ago

The logic in this article is incoherent but I suspect this is because the writer’s sympathies are at odds with what he is trying to say. The core point is correct: most parts of the UK, including Scotland, are dependent on large net transfers from the rich South-East. That cascades down with more remote parts of Scotland relying on transfers from the SE of Scotland.
The second point, not stated, is that we have a dysfunctional bureaucracy which can only manage those transfers on the basis of shared poverty and has consistently acted to suppress independent action by recipients of those transfers. [The difference for Orkney & Shetland is that, by good fortune and wisdom, they received a portion of oil proceeds.]
Would independence for Scotland force the country to change, become more entrepreneurial and follow Ireland (without the huge tax haven)? This would involve a massive shock including the loss of large parts of the public services that are already so poor. Ireland was much poorer than the UK for most of the 20th century. Would it change the behaviour of the bureaucracy in Edinburgh which has run things in Scotland for more than 70 years?
There is no evidence that most supporters of independence either understand or accept that. Green energy is just the latest fantasy for replacing oil. There is no recognition that it is entirely dependent on transfers to pay for the capital and ongoing operating costs including transmission over 500+ miles. An independent Scotland can’t afford it!
The Highlands & Islands have benefitted or suffered (according to your viewpoint) from intrusive and incompetent bureaucratic management for decades. Why would either the attitudes or competence change just because Scotland is run a bit more from Edinburgh but has a lot less money? Before any of that happens what is needed is a lot more decentralisation within Scotland as well as within the UK.

Richard Rolfe
Richard Rolfe
1 month ago

I’m quite prepared to believe that Scotland would make a success of independence, in large part by calling up investment from the worldwide Scottish diaspora. They just won’t make a success of independence under a grievance-ridden, high tax, incompetent SNP government.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 month ago

Ireland has prospered because its government offers low taxes and light regulation, a formula that works everywhere but has been resisted by the fake Conservative Party. If an independent Scotland were to follow Ireland’s path, it too would prosper. Unfortunately, the Scottish National Party wants to take an opposite path and when the Scottish people don’t vote SNP they’re usually backing Labour.
The rise of the Reform Party offers the best hope for Britain’s future, including Scotland.

Tom K
Tom K
1 month ago

What a ridiculously naive article. The more intelligent (or perhaps less mendacious) take on the vox pop material presented is the degree to which so many people Scotland have been taken in by the discourse around ‘stripping our resources’ when the reality of fiscal transfer is dramatically the other way.
The media have been complicit in this but there’s a subtantial sub-culture of conspiracy theory that the secessionist parties don’t engage with but don’t address is as the nonsense it clearly is, as it benefits them not to engage with the truth of the matter.

Douglas McCallum
Douglas McCallum
1 month ago

Ironically – and not properly acknowledged in this article – the self-styled Independence party (SNP) is directly responsible for so many of the “failures” of governance in the remoter regions of Scotland. I live in one of the Highland counties and those of us with long memories can sometimes contrast the startling incompetence of the SNP with how things used to be before devolution. Nowadays, our life-line ferries are an unbelievably chaotic disaster, with appalling bad and totally unresponsive service from an SNP government run company which must be the most grotesquely subsidised and inefficient in the UK. Our roads are ignored – still no progress on the A83 over the Rest and Be Thankful. NHS functions, under the devolved government, are probably worse in remote areas even than in big cities. School standards are still plummeting (which is why the SNP has withdrawn from many international comparisons). The SNP’s obsession with centralisation leads the Highland fringe to be emptied out of proper public services. In contrast look at how much public investment has gone into the Edinburgh area.
The past few years have been an eye-opener for many people: if things are this bad now, would you really want to live in an independent Scotland run by this same independence mob but without the financial back-up we now get from London?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Instead, all they actually experience in their lives is a dependence which, at best, cushions their seemingly relentless decline.
It is a false cushion that leads to nothing good. The cycle begins with help because no one enjoys seeing others suffer. The initial help creates a sense of expectation. You gave once without conditions, creating the expectation that you will do so again. Repeated giving does create dependence, but that’s not the worst of it.
Over time, dependence becomes entitlement. Recipients come to believe they are owed what is given because that is the mentality that unconditional support creates. The final step is resentment on the part of the recipient, who has effectively been robbed of agency, knows it, and perversely, blames the giver for his plight.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Best comment today … Thanks Alex.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yes indeed…this is entirely right!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

And this comment encapsulates the problem with NHS – free at the point of delivery. In a nutshell here, we have the reason for the complete overhaul of an outmoded system.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
1 month ago

As an Englishman, I am in favour of England leaving this so-called “Union”. One very good reason being that it immediately shortcuts the otherwise inevitable calls of “Freedom!” and implications that England is an oppressive imperial power.

The second-class citizens in the UK are the English. Denied their own devolved Parliament, they are misruled by the many MPs in Westminster from outside England, many of whom are actively hostile to English interests.

The “Union” required us to see ourselves as one people, heading into the future together. We no longer have that. Unbalanced Devolution has exacerbated the divisions, encouraging the devolved Parliaments to set themselves against Westminster and in effect England and the English. If we had an English Parliament and a federal state that would not have been possible. Unbalanced Devolution has killed the UK. It is time to put it out of our misery.

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
1 month ago

Independence for England! Then we’ll see how the Celtic fringe gets on.

Stewart Cazier
Stewart Cazier
1 month ago

Perhaps give the English a referendum about whether they wish to stay in the Union. The only case ever made to the English seems to be appeals to history and sentimentality. Keeping the Union for sentimental value and a submarine base seems to be disproportionately expensive and the recipients of this largesse aren’t grateful anyway.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
1 month ago

Many English in England would like independence. Get in the queue.

rob drummond
rob drummond
29 days ago

You make some interesting points thank you

But you – like most – have fallen for the myth that “The Irish” are as rich as they claim they are

Simply put “it’s legalised money laundering” – Apple shove €100bn through Ireland which means every Irish person must therefore spend about €20,000 each year in Apple products.

I find that hard to believe myself

Pete Marsh
Pete Marsh
29 days ago

It would be ironic that if Scotland were to secede from the UK, and Shetland decided they didn’t fancy rule from Edinburgh. And declared independence and nabbed most of the oil and gas reserves.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
29 days ago
Reply to  Pete Marsh

They have threatened that in the past.