What can we learn from Scotland's failed referendum? What does the future hold for the United Kingdom?
What Does Scotland’s “No!” Mean for the United Kingdom and Bible Prophecy?
What an incredible rumpus the Scottish Referendum caused last September! The simple question had been “Should Scotland be an Independent Country?” Yet not for a moment did the diverse peoples of the UK ever imagine that a majority of the Scots would vote YES… until ten days or so before the referendum when one single opinion poll of around 50 percent indicated that they just might!
The result was simply electrifying, and pandemonium ensued! Voices from every corner of the UK and around the world joined together in an appeal for the Scots not to separate. Every reason was brought forth as to why such a move would be counterproductive and fraught with peril. Politicians of every party mobilized. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered an impassioned plea to keep the “family of nations” intact. “Millions of people,” he said, “would be utterly heartbroken by the breakup of the UK.”
But it is no exaggeration to say that many among the NO vote sensed that theirs was now a lost cause. Momentum seemed to swing decisively towards a YES campaign that was increasingly gripped by an emotional frenzy at the imminent prospect of independence. How wrong they and the polls turned out to be!
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), confidently sensed victory and proclaimed that loyal and patriotic Scots would, of course, only vote YES. Every awkward and difficult question he was asked was simply brushed aside as so much scaremongering; for him the future of an independent Scotland could only be rosy, no matter how much evidence piled up to the contrary. The NO campaign, latterly in the form of previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown (himself a Scot), emotionally insisted that remaining part of the Union was wiser, safer, more secure, and therefore the more patriotic decision to make for this and future generations.
In the privacy of polling booths up and down the country, Scottish voters, free from the ugly and sometimes violent scenes of hatred and public intimidation, voted in droves to say NO. When the final result became known, Scotland by a wide margin of 10 percent, had decisively rejected the idea of separating from the Union. The United Kingdom of Great Britain would remain intact, after all. To many it seemed like some kind of miracle had taken place. But the Yes campaign was quite naturally heartbroken; Alex Salmond’s lifelong dream to break up the Union now lay in tatters and he promptly resigned his position as SNP leader.
Within the United Kingdom, the broad majority breathed a collective sigh of relief, and comments from leaders around the world expressed pleasure at the Scots’ decision. Even Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged her approval, saying: “Now, as we move forward, we should remember that despite the range of views that have been expressed, we have in common an enduring love of Scotland, which is one of the things that helps to unite us all.”
But why was there such strong opposition to the Union among so many Scots? What lies at the root of their rather surprising antipathy? What is next for the United Kingdom? Is the constitutional crisis now over? Can everyone relax and get back to business as usual? What lessons can be learned, particularly from a biblical perspective, in the light of this spectacular near-miss that almost put an end to one of the most successful union of nations in all of history?
The answers to all these questions revolve around one bigger question: What is the Union for? What is its purpose and reason for being? The answer is surprising and largely forgotten in the mists of time. But it is important and relevant to the challenges we face today.
Back in the late 1600s, the Scots felt left behind in the colonial race and were eager to catch up. Previous attempts at establishing colonies had failed so, in 1696, the Scottish entrepreneur and financier, William Paterson, who was also a co-founder of the Bank of England in 1694, helped form the Company of Scotland with the express purpose of establishing a colony called Caledonia on the Darien Isthmus (modern Panama) in Central America. Subscriptions of £400,000 were pledged, a vast sum for the day (£40 million in today’s currency), and more than four times the annual revenue of the Scottish government. The project was destined to provide an early example of financial mania.
Things went badly wrong due to misallocation of assets, poor planning and execution, disease, bad weather, inadequate supplies, poor communications, and opposition from established and more powerful nations like Spain, Holland and England. In retrospect the project was ill-advised, ill-timed and ill-fated. Morale collapsed, the colony was abandoned and investors lost everything. Scotland was all but bankrupt and seemed fated never to be a great colonial power.
But help was on hand from a surprising source. There had been talk of Union between Scotland and England for some years. After all, the nations had much in common: they shared the same language, were subject to the same monarch, held essentially the same religious beliefs, their laws had the same ends, and they were contained on the same island with the same “liquid walls.” United with the far larger and richer England, it would be possible for the small and relatively poor Scotland to yet realize her burning ambitions.
What England now offered Scotland was a Protestant Union as a bulwark against Catholic France; the new United Kingdom would be called Great Britain and in return for ending the Scottish Parliament, Scotland would share in its governance by sending representatives to the Westminster Parliament in far-off London. The Company of Scotland would be ended, the weaker Scottish pound would be dropped in favour of Sterling, and in return Scotland would gain access to England’s vast free trade area, including her colonies and plantations. Taxes would be equalised, and duties on certain Scottish commodities would be waived.
But by far and away the greatest English incentive for Union was provided by “the Equivalent.” All the money lost by investors in the Darien Scheme would be repaid along with five percent annual interest. This would benefit 3,000 Company of Scotland shareholders plus 1,500 others from military and civil lists. The lump sum was a little under £400,000. These arrangements were all agreed to. Thus the Union began as a short-term financial bargain between two political elites. Cash in hand came before sovereignty and nationalism. It was pragmatic rather than idealistic politics.
Crucially, history shows that most of Scotland was not in favour of Union on these terms. Small wonder then, that when all the cash arrived at Edinburgh destined for the Scottish elite, a mob had assembled to hurl abuse and stones at the convoy. It was perhaps symbolic of the ambivalent way Scots have viewed the Union ever since, “repelled by the surrender of their national sovereignty, but at the same time willing to take the cash and opportunities it offers” (The Price of Scotland, Douglas Watt, 2007).
The great enduring lesson is that desires for national self-determination will always be a formidable force and have to be handled with great care.
And so, the Treaty of Union became law on May 1, 1707. Thus began one of the most fruitful unions in history. Allied to a powerful and ever more dominant England, Scotland could now give full vent to its restless, entrepreneurial spirit of empire building. As the British Empire developed, it took on a distinctly Scottish flavor with the Scottish gifts of invention, leadership, management, entrepreneurship and finance in great evidence. All this created great wealth and prosperity across the UK.
The idea and success of British-ness gave rise to the Scottish Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and one of the greatest benign empires the world has ever seen—now a thriving Commonwealth of Nations reflecting British values of democracy, freedom and liberty. Above all we should not forget the vital spiritual dimension commonly attached to being British. Christian ideals, values and principles were also extensively spread around the world.
Great Britain helped maintain the balance of power across Europe, containing the ambitions of Spanish, French, German and Soviet plans for expansion. Back home it pioneered social welfare, greater social equality and a national health service. To a large extent it was Great Britain that made the modern world.
But following two world wars and the collapse of the British Empire, the idea of British-ness has changed beyond all recognition. The center of economic and military power has migrated to the United States. Immigration and multiculturalism have dramatically changed the face of Britain. The rise of the European Union (EU) has fundamentally changed the way Britain is governed, and has removed many of her own powers of self-determination—so much so that just as a sizeable chunk of Scotland would like to secede from the United Kingdom, so a sizeable chunk of England would like to secede from the EU.
Perhaps most significantly, Great Britain has progressively turned away from God and the biblical values Britain once stood for and exported around the world. Britain has, in many ways, lost its way and increasingly lost its sense of national purpose in the world. It badly needs to rediscover that purpose.
Rejection of the idea of Scottish separation does not mean business as usual. The task now is how to keep the Union together and content, even as times have changed so profoundly and the constituent nations are clamoring for more and more equal treatment.
The astonishing levels of energy and political engagement unleashed on both sides during the referendum campaign have only served to confirm the Scots’ strong appetite for constitutional change and greater national self-determination. Yet, if change comes to Scotland it must come, in the name of fairness, to other countries within the Union as well. There is widespread feeling that the current Westminster political system is not working effectively in favor of all. Divisions and frustrations apparent within the Union need healing, and Westminster now has a unique opportunity to create a dramatically different kind of Union fit for the aspirations of all its parts. Constitutional reform is now a major topic of discussion. And the General Election just around the corner in May 2015 only highlights the urgency of making far-reaching fundamental changes.
As longtime readers of this magazine will know, we understand from Scripture that a majority of today’s British peoples are the modern descendants of ancient Ephraim—whom God promised would become a great company of nations (Genesis 48:14–19). The four nations of the Union, and the other nations of British background (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa) fulfil this prophecy as none other.
Inherent within God’s blessing to Ephraim (and the rest of ancient Israel) was the commission to represent God’s way wherever it went (see Exodus 19:5–6). Herein lies the greatest source of national purpose it is possible to imagine; to set an example of a people dedicated to living according to God’s standards and laws. “Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:6–8).
Much of Britain’s body of law, built up over centuries, was based on the laws of God found in the Bible. But the nation is progressively moving away from this solid foundation. Most have forgotten God’s warning that comes right after that great statement of purpose, “Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren” (v. 9).
The consequences of disregarding God’s laws are clear: God withdraws the blessings associated with keeping those laws. Ultimately, we should never forget that it is God who builds up and tears down nations and alliances according to His sovereign will (Job 12:23; Exodus 19:5).
Clearly it was God’s will for Great Britain to survive intact at this time. But it was a tantalizing, close-run event—a dramatic wake-up call. Many serious challenges remain for those who hope to create more cohesion and unity among the nations of the United Kingdom. From Bible prophecy, we know that before Jesus Christ returns the United Kingdom will endure further decline from its former glories. But its citizens can individually—as can we all—heed God’s warning and draw close to Him. Will you?