The strange thing about the Act of Union between England and Scotland is not that it is under threat after 305 years, but that it ever lasted so long.
Unions of nations do not, as a rule, endure. The political union between Spain and Portugal lasted 60 years; the united kingdoms of Belgium and the Netherlands, just 25; even the mighty Soviet Union mustered only 69.
The nationalist First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, is to have talks with the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to discuss terms for a Scottish independence referendum. Salmond should not rest on his laurels – history alone will not make his dream of breaking up the UK a reality. The union remains reasonably strong. Only with superb political management will Salmond get a “Yes” vote in 2014. Yet if there is one politician in Britain who can achieve it, it’s the SNP leader – an awe-inspiring political strategist who routinely runs rings around the opposition unionist parties north of the border. So how will Wee Eck go about it?
Be clear about what change will look like
The immediate barrier the First Minister must overcome is information. One of the great laws of change management is that if interested parties cannot visualise what change looks like; or understand its consequences; they are almost certain to oppose it. Only this week, MPs in Westminster urged the government to clarify what the financial position of Scotland would be after independence. Of key concern are the proportion of the debt arising from the public bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. There is also an ongoing debate as to whether Scotland will be able to annex any oilfields that are located in her territorial waters. If she is able to administer those currently under the jurisdiction of Scots law, around 90% of existing UK North Sea oilfields would fall under the control of Edinburgh.
Show that change doesn’t mean detachment
In the news for other reasons this week are Rangers FC, the Glasgow football club that represents Scotland’s protestant and loyalist community. This staunchly monarchist segment of Scotland’s society could prove to be one of the hardest constituencies to convince that independence is wise. Although the club are more strongly associated with unionism in Northern Ireland than in Scotland, the two issues have become blurred. Union Flag waving at Ibrox is rife and a recent straw poll on a fans forum showed that only 15% of Rangers supporters favoured Yes in the referendum (compared to 65% of fans of the mainly catholic, Irish nationalist, Celtic FC).
Yet Salmond has, so far, played a blinder here – he has pledged to keep the Queen as head of state and remain in the Commonwealth, which would give Scotland a similar constituency status to New Zealand or Australia. He needs to keep hammering the “politically independent under the crown” line to bring protestant monarchists on board.
Explain why the status quo is suboptimal
A key reason many proposed changes fail to occur is people cannot grasp why their effects would be markedly better than how things were before. This is potentially the biggest obstacle for Salmond and his fellow nationalists. Scotland already has many of the hallmarks of nationhood – its legal and education systems were never unified with those of England. It has its own football, rugby and cricket teams – and, since the SNP took control at Holyrood, its borders are much more strongly demarcated than those on continental Europe. Other than the major exception of the GB Olympic team, Scotland is, to many people, already a nation – without being a state. Salmond must make clear what extra stripes Scotland will gain from full statehood. His explanation that it currently has no voice on major diplomatic councils are a start – but they are unlikely to resonate with much of the public. He needs more.
Although Salmond’s task is monumental – the break up of the UK; ending three centuries of union – the three aspects of change-management that he needs to get right will be familiar to many readers who have spearheaded change-management programmes. Salmond is just trying to do what many readers do every few years in the office on a grander, national scale. Like many major change programmes, the First Minister’s will be a career-defining test.
Westminster MPs are currently away