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Leader comment: The problem with independence

14 May 2021

THE Church talks persuasively about unity, despite being poor at practising it. Christ’s message, reinforced by St Paul and the other writers of epistles, is that unity is his will, however hard that may be. In contrast, disunity can be deceptively easy to accomplish, but carries with it the perennial question: then what? In political terms, Northern Ireland is just at the start of working out what might follow the disunity of Brexit. And last week’s confrontation in Jersey over who might harvest the migratory fish mostly destined, in ordinary times, for Continental tables exposed both the seriousness and the absurdity of disagreement.

After last week’s elections, the issue of Scottish independence returns to the fore. The challenge is to get beneath the surface of the argument — avoiding the word “independence” might help — and look at how political and fiscal authority could be more equitably arranged. Although history remains an influential factor, it would be of greater value to get to grips with the vagaries of geography. The equitable benefits of unity tend to diminish with distance: the larger the territory and the further away the seat of power, the less say people have in their own affairs — although this varies wildly according to the nature of the government and its administrative efficiency. Scotland was happy to cede a degree of authority to Brussels, but not to Westminster. To justify a permanent constitutional change, it must still prove that the issue is the nature of the authority reserved by Westminster and not simply the character of the present people who reserve it. In the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, mechanisms for authority to be exercised closer to hand already exist. At this stage, there are still many negotiations that can be had about how power is balanced, without the need for border patrols.

The “Then what?” question ought to be asked of the Scottish National Party. Once a separation satisfactory to the Scots has been achieved, their unifying cause disappears, and suppressed political tensions — so apparent in English political life — are bound to surface. It is perhaps more disturbing, however, to apply the question to England. Whereas the Scots and Welsh may eventually choose some form of independence — the situation in Northern Ireland is too complex to bring up here — the English may wake up one day to find independence thrust upon them unbidden, the consequence of having been left by the other parts of these isles. For a nation flattered by exaggerated rhetoric about “Global Britain”, discovering that it is merely Little England could prove to be very unwelcome.

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