Saturday 20 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Pit Theatre

The future of the UK came into doubt last year when the Scottish National Party won a surprise majority in the Scottish parliamentary elections and pledged to hold a referendum on a fully independent Scotland. Polls suggest most Scots are not in favour of independence, and the SNP victory had more to do with disillusionment with the other parties. Nevertheless, the prospect of independence is now real, and it affects more than just the Scottish electorate. Those in favour of maintaining the Union often struggle to make a positive case for it beyond the appeal of history and tradition. So might we, as one commentator put it, be ‘sleepwalking into the break-up of the Union’? For some English observers, the loss of Scotland would be no bad thing, providing an opportunity to reaffirm a distinctive English identity. But for others this raises uncomfortable questions about ethnicity and culture. Britishness is sometimes championed as a modern, post-ethnic identity in which multiculturalism can flourish, but is this either historically credible or a sufficient basis for national cohesion in the future? Is the UK a tenable political entity?

The rationale behind the campaign for devolution in the 1990s was that, for years, Scottish voters had consistently voted Labour, while English votes meant it was the Conservatives who consistently formed governments at Westminster. Paradoxically, it took a Labour victory in 1997 to bring about devolution, arguably just at the point it had become redundant. Much of the contemporary debate about Scottish independence focuses on practical issues over the economy, oil and military matters, but there are also questions of principle at stake. If Scotland did go it alone, what would that means for England and Wales? And what would it mean to be an Ulster Unionist? As for Scotland itself, SNP leader Alex Salmond talks of establishing an independent nation within the European Union. But even leaving aside recent economic problems within the EU, is it meaningful to talk of ‘independence’ within a technocratic supranational entity? What does the debate about Scottish independence tell us about the meaning of British nationhood and its prospects for the future?

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Joyce McMillan
chair, Hansard Society Working Group in Scotland; judge, 2010 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award; theatre critic, Scotsman

Max Wind-Cowie
deputy director, ResPublica

Justine Brian
director, Debating Matters Competition

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
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