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Whether Unionists Like It or Not, Scottish Independence - However Defined - Is Now a Serious Proposition

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Writing shortly before another Scottish referendum in 1979, William McIlvanney looked back on four years of debate about devolution, "where every quibble was a Russian doll of other quibbles". "Passion", he judged, "was neutered by boredom". The novelist also highlighted the contradictions in both Scotland ("a country" he judged, "nominally Socialist and blatantly conservative") and the SNP (which had "recognisable features but no coherent identity").

He could have been describing the remarkably similar debate that has gripped Scottish (and to a lesser extent UK) politics since May 2011, indeed the journalist Neal Ascherson has described the forthcoming independence referendum as 'little more than the third putting of the same question'. Only in 2014 Nationalists and Unionists increasingly fight over the middle constitutional ground, more autonomy rather than the status quo or full independence.

Both sides now accept the UK best functions with some powers shared and others devolved; the only disagreement is over the extent of each. Indeed at points the SNP leader Alex Salmond appears to be arguing against independence; when it comes to currency, monarchy, energy and university research funding he claims Scotland and the UK are, ironically, 'Better Together', only he does not use that language. Rather both sides speak of Scotland having 'the best of both worlds'.

Thus in the best of both worlds, Unionists have to accommodate Nationalism and vice versa. The SNP long ago reconciled itself to the fact that the practice of 'sovereignty' was more limited than the theory. Initially it acknowledged this by lobbying for dominion status within the British Empire, while by the 1970s, electorally successful for the first time, it began fashioning a 'Council of the Isles' to manage this co-operative relationship. Its then Westminster leader Donald Stewart went so far as to say Nationalists had no intention of seeking the 'Break-up of the United Kingdom'.

In the late 1980s the SNP - admittedly later than most - embraced the European Union, though preferring to emphasise its confederal elements rather than its commitment to 'ever closer union'. Thus Alex Salmond's concept of Scotland's 'six unions', five of which he wishes to retain, is but the natural extension of eighty years of SNP thinking, although one that presents supporters of independence with a strategic challenge: having framed the debate on its opponents' terms, it seems unlikely Nationalists will ever out-unionist Unionists, just as no one under the Better Together umbrella could ever hope to out-nationalist seasoned pros like Salmond, no matter how much they emphasised their 'Scottishness' and 'patriotism'.

But if Unionists are often guilty of caricaturing Nationalists as inflexible fundamentalists, then the reverse is also true, with supporters of independence frequently depicting their opponents as closet abolitionists, intent on clawing back power at every opportunity. Yet any reading of twentieth-century Scottish politics shows the reverse to be true: not only had the Conservatives been instrumental in gradually devolving administrative power to Scotland after 1885, but Labour had tried (and failed) to deliver devolution in 1979 and tried again (successfully) in 1997. And far from clinging fiercely to its sovereignty, Parliament had ceded it repeatedly, most notably to Ireland in 1922, Brussels in 1973 and even Canada as late as 1982.

Similarly, Westminster had always - albeit reluctantly - acknowledged the right of different parts of the (much misunderstood) United Kingdom to secede. In 1973 the then novel use of a referendum in the six counties of Ulster allowed the province to join the Irish Republic if a majority of its inhabitants so desired, a concession reiterated in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In that context the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012 was not a novelty, but very much in the British constitutional tradition.

So both sides have ended up attempting to escape from this political straitjacket. Unionists, conscious emphasise that voting 'no' will not mean 'no change', while Nationalists present 'independence' as a Blairite Middle Way between full sovereignty and the 1997 devolution settlement. In that context, the question to be asked this September - 'should Scotland be an independent country?' - requires, at the very least, qualification.

What then of the future? Although formal federalism is often dismissed as a Liberal pipedream (as if full 'independence' is tidier and more achievable), it increasingly strikes many protagonists and commentators as a sensible compromise, the logical conclusion of both nationalist Unionism and unionist Nationalism. 'Does the UK become a federal state, or does it break up?' the former Labour MP David Marquand asked in New Statesman last year. 'It would be nice to think we shall do better than our great-grandparents did.'

England is of course the elephant in the room, although not an immovable one. After all, English 'regions' already exist when it comes to the Barnett Formula, regional development and so on, just not as strongly in the public consciousness. England, meanwhile, is no longer as dominant as it was in the unreformed, pre-1999 United Kingdom.

Whatever the problems, a more holistic approach to constitutional reform in the UK is long overdue. Whether the UK political classes possess the imagination, and indeed willingness, to invest the necessary political capital in such a scheme is another matter, although it could be presented as in keeping with the British constitutional tradition. The creation of northern and southern Irish parliaments in 1920, for example, was federal in nature, while the British-Irish Council, however much of a talking shop at the moment, demonstrates that co-operation between the British Isles' eight governments is feasible.

It remains the case that independence - however defined - is now a serious proposition, a political fact whether Unionists like it or not. In one sense it could even be said the theoretical argument for independence has already been won, for few with a stake in this debate seriously dispute its legality or practicality, while the economic case, readily dismissed even at the height of the North Sea oil boom, also enjoys general acceptance (something that cannot be said in the context of Northern Ireland or Wales). The contemporary debate turns instead upon its desirability, which is much narrower - and potentially more winnable - territory.

David Torrance is the author of 'The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum' (Biteback, 2013)

This is an edited version of a lecture he delivered at Dundee University earlier this month as part of its 'Five Million Questions' project

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