Arthur Greenwood is not much remembered these days, but in September 1939 he performed a great service to his country.
As Nazi troops poured into Poland, blowing apart Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler, Arthur – the deputy leader of the Labour Party – stood up to speak in the House of Commons.
From the Opposition benches, the Conservative MP Leo Amery yelled: ‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ And he did, demanding Hitler be stopped.
But Arthur Greenwood didn’t just speak for England. The Yorkshireman spoke for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the entire United Kingdom.
Inevitably, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been forced to confront a blizzard of questions about the road to independence. But that’s only half the unfolding story
Today, more than 80 years later, is there anyone in British politics who truly speaks not just for England but for the entire United Kingdom?
This has become of prime importance at a time when Scottish independence supporters are demanding a second referendum, in the belief that they would win it.
The Scottish National Party fell one seat short of an overall majority in the Holyrood parliament elections this month, but with the Green Party being strongly pro-independence, too, we face months, perhaps years, of wrangling between Holyrood and Westminster over the future of the UK.
Inevitably, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has been forced to confront a blizzard of questions about the road to independence. But that’s only half the unfolding story.
The issue of Scottish independence raises very difficult questions for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too. The first is: Who speaks for the United Kingdom?
Opinion polls show that Boris Johnson is not highly regarded by a majority of Scots. Scotland has not voted for a Conservative government since the 1950s.
Wales has a Labour government and Mr Johnson’s relations with Ulster Unionists are – to put it politely – somewhat fraught.
Moreover, the PM’s strategy for dealing with Scottish independence is to say ‘No’ to a second referendum, and hope the prospect goes away.
If Mr Johnson cannot credibly – and honestly – be a latter-day Arthur Greenwood, without doubt the rest of us need to think hard about the huge issues that the entire United Kingdom – from Shetland to the Scilly Isles – might have to face
However, it won’t. A London government saying ‘No’ will simply stiffen the resolve of those who want independence and could convert waverers to their cause. Expect to hear the SNP repeating loudly that refusing a ‘democratic vote’ would mean Scotland being governed without its consent.
Mr Johnson also said ‘No’ to a post-Brexit border in the Irish Sea. That ‘No’ didn’t last long. Nevertheless, while Ms Sturgeon considers how to force the referendum issue, she faces difficult issues about how an independent Scotland would work, including what were called four ‘fundamental’ questions posed by the former Tory leader Lord (William) Hague.
First – currency. Would an independent Scotland keep the pound – and be subject to decisions from the Bank of England – or would Scotland invent its own currency and prepare to join the euro?
Second, as Lord Hague put it, ‘since tax revenues per head are about £300 lower in Scotland than UK-wide and government expenditure about £1,600 higher’, would the Scots have to pay higher taxes and an independent Edinburgh government have to borrow more?
Third, what kind of border would there be between an independent Scotland and England, especially if Scotland were allowed to join the EU? And fourth, what would happen with regard Scotland’s security, since Nato sets a target of two per cent of GDP spent on defence and the SNP has serious reservations about spending huge sums during current times of hardship?
These vital questions need clear answers. Also, there’s the very tricky question about whether Scots living in England should get a vote on independence.
Not many realise, too, that an independent Scotland would profoundly change things for England. This is something rarely mentioned at Westminster.
For example, it would mean the UK losing 32 per cent of its total landmass. To put that in perspective, when Germany was defeated in the First World War, under the crippling terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, it was stripped of 13 per cent of its total landmass. This resulted in years of bitterness, leading to the Second World War.
Scottish independence would rewrite the map of the UK in an even more brutal fashion. In the seas around the UK, Scotland has 900 islands of which 118 are inhabited, stretching from Shetland to the Western Isles.
She faces difficult issues about how an independent Scotland would work, including what were called four ‘fundamental’ questions posed by the former Tory leader Lord (William) Hague
It has a coastline of 11,646 miles and the area of Scotland’s seas is roughly 177,607 square miles, or two-thirds of the UK’s total and twice as vast as the seas around England.
Has the Westminster Government considered the significance of this? Who would have fishing rights?
Geographically, Scottish independence implies a downsizing from Great Britain to what some disparagingly call Little England.
Crucially, too, what would happen to the defence of the realm?
SNP policy is to get rid of all nuclear weapons based at Faslane, on the Clyde just north of Glasgow. Where would England then relocate Trident submarines, or their successors?
Alternative sites, such Milford Haven in Wales, Falmouth in Cornwall, and Devonport, near Plymouth, would require many years of engineering work to accommodate them. In any case, would Wales – with its Labour government – accept the nuclear deterrent force? Would the people of Devon or Cornwall?
And what of Boris Johnson’s defence review in March, which announced that the Army would be cut to just 72,500 soldiers by 2025?
The National Army Museum says these cuts will take the British Army to the lowest level since the war of the Spanish Succession in 1714. The Johnson plan is to increase the number of nuclear warheads to 260. But if Scottish independence goes ahead, is any of this credible?
Crucially, too, what would happen to the defence of the realm? SNP policy is to get rid of all nuclear weapons based at Faslane, on the Clyde just north of Glasgow. Where would England then relocate Trident submarines, or their successors?
Meanwhile, there is the 96-mile land border between England and Scotland. Would what could become an EU border right across this island that we share be as chaotic, cumbersome and irritating as the post-Brexit customs border in the Irish Sea? Would people travelling to either side need passports?
The Queen might be exempt when she goes between Windsor and Balmoral, but what about everyone else?
Equally important would be the effect on Britain’s role in the world. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia applied to the United Nations to retain Permanent Five status on the Security Council. There were no objections.
After Scottish independence, would England (or England and Wales) automatically inherit the UK position on the Permanent Five, or would Brazil, India and Nigeria object? Would Russia? China? France?
Ever since Tudor times, English foreign policy has been designed around one big idea, or rather, one big fear. England’s leaders have always tried to prevent any power or alliance uniting Europe and leaving England isolated. The United Kingdom, formed in 1603, worked with others against France until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and against Germany in 1914 and at the time of Arthur Greenwood’s ‘Who speaks for England?’ moment in 1939.
Back then, the UK went on to help create the alliance of Nato against Soviet domination in Europe. An independent Scotland joining the EU would leave England surrounded by a union of European powers from Ireland to Poland.
In the 16th Century, the Elizabethans feared encirclement. Would Boris Johnson fear it, too?
I believe that just saying ‘No’ to an independence referendum isn’t a strategy. It’s defeatism. If Mr Johnson cannot credibly – and honestly – be a latter-day Arthur Greenwood, without doubt the rest of us need to think hard about the huge issues that the entire United Kingdom – from Shetland to the Scilly Isles – might have to face.
Make no mistake, unless the English start to engage in this debate and stop thinking it is purely a matter for the Scots, the future of life south of the border could irreparably change.
Gavin Esler is the author of How Britain Ends (Head of Zeus).