If on Thursday the Scots vote ‘yes’ to independence, a story 307 years in the making will come to an end. Many experts foresee economic catastrophe if they do, which would be an apt ending to the story of Great Britain. After all, it’s a tale that began with the same.
It’s a little known beginning… Scotland has always been a wee country with big ambitions. No less so three centuries ago, when looking jealously on England’s American colonies, the Scots decided they needed their own – a New Caledonia to rival New England – in what is now modern-day Panama. The Darien Scheme, as it became known, was funded by huge public subscription that whipped up a patriotic fervour not unlike the ‘Yes’ campaign of today. A fifth of the country’s wealth was sunk into the scheme, which in turn sunk into the swamps of Central America, ending in dysentery and disaster.
A bankrupt Scotland had no option but to ask its neighbour to bail it out. The terms? A union of parliaments, as well as Crowns, forming a new United Kingdom. And so the story of Great Britain began.
It was a marriage of convenience; a ceremony with reluctant vows through gritted teeth. But what a story it became. Despite initial mutual distrust, a common identity was forged in the decades that followed. In narrative terms (as Linda Colley, the US chronicler of British identity describes), the Union championed freedom, the rule of law, science, and free trade. And stood as a bulwark against the twin terrors of popery and tyranny (even though the Union doled out a fair share of this itself).
In the Union, Scotland found a vehicle for its ambitions – a bigger stage for the ideas of David Hume, Adam Smith and Kier Hardy; a huge market for the inventiveness of James Watt, Alexander Graham-Bell and John Logie-Baird.
It was an island story that gave all us Britons the strength to stand up to fascism and grind down communism. And maybe 1989, the year the Iron Curtain came down, was indeed the natural beginning of the end of the Union story, with freedom now supposedly triumphant, and the existential threat of nuclear Armageddon thankfully receded.
Maybe there really is no joint endeavour or common foe to keep us together anymore. Perhaps it is indeed time to part ways and resume the ancient rivalry. It’s this narrative that’s been spun by Alex Salmond and the SNP, a story that suggests that Scotland and England no longer share common values (despite social surveys that say otherwise). That believes that the greatest threat to Scotland’s potential is a Westminster elite, their cuts, and the dastardly Tories behind them.
But to my mind, it’s a narrative that is both divisive and deceptive. Divisive in that it makes the English the selfish, tyrannical bogeymen of the tale – and there’s no worse negotiating partner than a partner scorned. And deceptive in the same way that the Darien Scheme made unrealistic promises of national wealth and splendour.
Whichever way Scotland votes this Thursday, the peoples of Great Britain will have to rewrite their island story. If it’s a ‘no’, we’ll have to take up the loose threads of our story and weave a new, more colourful national tapestry. If it’s a ‘yes’, a rump United Kingdom will be bitter at having to forsake an identity that so many were comfortable with, and forge a new one.
Meanwhile, Scotland will busily write itself an exciting new story, one that could end (like any swashbuckling adventure) in either glory or disaster on a Darien scale. Because now, just as much as three centuries ago, there’s a fine line between Scotland the brave and Scotland the foolhardy.