In the long term, this is a strong possibility regardless of whether an English parliament is instituted. Devolution has predictably increased the sense of nation amongst the various Celts and given fuller reign to the widespread resentment of England. These traits will grow, sustained by a number of fantasies. The Scots dream of an Eldorado of oil revenues enjoyed by Scotland alone. The Scots and the Welsh dwell in a fantasy world in which they are funded by the EU with the same largesse as the Irish Republic. The Ulster republicans dream of the same in a unified Ireland.
For England it is difficult to envisage any insuperable disadvantage in the break up of the UK, but easy to see definite and substantial advantages. She would be shorn of the burden of Celtic subsidies, both direct and indirect, while her very considerable population, wealth and general sophistication would ensure that she could maintain without any real difficulty the present levels of government provision from the welfare state to the military. Moreover, England would be able to act wholeheartedly in her own interests rather than constantly tailoring national decisions to take into account the demands of the Celts, who in all honesty, increasingly resemble a squadron of albatrosses around Albion’s neck.
The only important disadvantages for England could be balance of payments difficulties (primarily from the loss of oil, gas and whiskey production) and ructions in the international institutional sphere. Happily, adverse balances of trade are(eventually) self-correcting even if the correction, as is the case with America, can seem an age coming. Moreover, with the free global currency market and a floating pound, an adverse balance of trade does not hold the horrors it once did, for international borrowing is infinitely easier than it was even ten years past and devaluation of the currency is not viewed as a national humiliation. England might be temporarily embarrassed by a substantially increased trade deficit, but there is no reason to believe that it would be prolonged or seriously affect the English economy.
As for international upheaval, it is conceivable that England would be unable to sustain a claim to Britain’s privileged position on international bodies such as the UN Security Council and the board of IMF. However, this is unlikely for a number of reasons. To begin with there is the precedent of Russia which assumed all of the Soviet Union’s international entitlements. Britain is also the United States’ only halfway reliable ally on most of these international boards. To this may be added Britain’s position as one of the larger international paymasters and providers of reliable military muscle. None of these facts need essentially change with the substitution of England for Britain. Perhaps most importantly, the denial to England of any of Britain’s institutional places would pose the awkward question of who was to take any vacant position. This could(and almost certainly would) in turn raise the whole question of whether the constitutions of most world bodies are equitable or suited to the modern world. (The constitutions were after all created approximately fifty years ago and are in no sense equitable). To deny England could mean the opening of a can of worms. Conversely, it could be plausibly argued that membership of such international bodies represents a liability rather than an advantage and England would be well shot of them.
None of the would be Celtic states, unlike England, would be large enough or rich enough to maintain government spending and services at anywhere near the current level. Moreover, the cost of their separate state administrations would almost certainly be proportionately substantially greater than that of England because of the loss of the advantages of scale. Nor for reasons already stated would they be likely to obtain the largesse currently handed out to the Republic of Ireland by the EU. Indeed, it is quite probable that all or some of them could be refused membership of the EU because of Germany’s fear of incurring liabilities for more beggar nations.
It is also reasonable to ask what would happen if an external military threat appeared. (Unlikely in the immediate future but not improbable over the next fifty years). Even if independent Celtic states were members of the EU, it is carrying optimism to the limit to imagine that they would receive active military help from that quarter. In the end they would have to turn to England for help.
The Celts should also realise that an independent England might well leave the EU. Then she could act, without infringing any of its general international obligations, in ways which would gravely disadvantage the Celts. She could impose passport regulations. She could refuse reciprocal social security and health provisions. She could insist upon work permits. Because the need for emigration is much greater in the Celtic parts of Britain than in England and the number of Celts on benefit in England vastly exceeds that of the English in Scotland, Wales and Ulster, such measures could be utterly calamitous for independent Celtic states.
There is also the ticklish problem of the national debt. In the event of the independence of Scotland, Wales or Ulster,or the amalgamation of Ulster with the Irish Republic, a proportionate share (based on population) of the UK national debt would have to be borne by a seceding part of the UK. Scotland’s share, for example, would be currently in excess of 30 billion pounds; that of Wales approximately 15 billion. Even at current rates, the financing of the interest alone would cost between two and three billion a year.
Ulster has a particular problem whether it remains independent or becomes submerged in a united Ireland. The removal of English subsidies alone would be a massive blow because they are of a different magnitude (when the expenditure of the armed forces in Ulster and special compensation payments for terrorist actions are taken into account) to those in Scotland and Wales. But if the EU refused to continue, either in whole or in part, subsidising the Republic of Ireland, Ulster would almost certainly have to bear a massive decline in Irish cross border trading.
When it comes to paying their own way, independent Celtic states would also have to consider the effect of confidence on their finances. If independent Celtic states were deemed to be poorer credit risks than Britain is now as a whole, which is probable, they would have to pay more for their future public and private borrowing in the form of higher interest rates. That would apply whether or not they were members of EMU, for a universal ECB bank rate does not mean that everyone can borrow at the same rate. A lender still has to believe that the borrower is worth the risk.
Even if the most favourable conditions envisaged by Celtic Nationalists could be secured – essentially the same conditions currently enjoyed by the Republic of Ireland, Portugal etc – the omens would not be good. To begin with beggar nations within the EU can never be sure that the money will keep hitting the bottom of the begging bowl. To have an economy as dependent upon handouts as the Republic of Ireland’s is simply courting disaster. Then there is the natural price to pay for such money, the supporting of the donor nations through thick and thin. This can, and often does mean, going against the direct interest of one’s own people. (England – because it is from England rather than Britain that the EU Danegeld is extracted in practice – has the sovereign distinction of uniformly voting against the interests of its people and being the paymaster to the beggar nations). Nor should beggar nations be under any illusion that the EU will generally protect their interests in international disputes. The equation is quite clear: votes for money and to hell with the long term interests of the populations of the poorer EU states if these clash with the interests of the powerful.
Looked at unsentimentally, the prospect for an independent Scotland, Wales or Ulster is one of poverty, a decayed welfare state, established companies moving across the border into England, foreign companies refusing to settle because of a lack of subsidies and the absence of the security of a large nation state, massive emigration of the middle classes and extreme levels of unemployment for those left behind.
But what about the oil and gas? I can hear the Scots Nationalists positively screaming. Well, the current tax take is relatively trivial in terms of the revenue an independent Scotland would require. (It would probably finance their share of the national debt at current rates). Moreover, not all oil is in Scottish waters. Further, even the revenues from oil within Scots waters might be claimed in part by both the various islanders, who fear rule from Edinburgh, and England (on the grounds that because the project was started when Britain was a unitary state, the rewards should continue to be split proportionately according to the new states’ various populations). There are also the unfortunate facts that British oil is very expensive to produce and may well become uncompetitive as countries such as China expand production or other forms of energy become cheaper, and, more definitely, oil extraction at its present level is unlikely to last for more than another generation. Oil and gas production revenues would be a poor pair of crutches to prop up an impoverished independent Scotland.